When I first arrived in Panama, most of my supermarket shopping was done at Riba Smith, the most Americanized grocery store here. That's where you'll find the widest aisles with the most imported goods. It was (and I think still is) the only supermarket to stock Mountain Dew. The problem with shopping at Riba Smith is that you tend to pick up everything you're familiar with, and that can become quite costly. I still zip over to RS whenever I want to find a variety of diet sodas or a can of Libby's sausage gravy (for biscuits and gravy), but other than for the special items, I try to buy the local things when I can.
So here's a list of items I've learned to buy at the Rey supermarket or Super 99 here in Panama. Try some of them out. You may not fall in love with them the way I have, but you'll definitely save money.
I'll start with the cleaning supplies and then move on to condiments. All of these prices were found at the Rey supermarket in Chanis.
Holiday Eco - I started picking up these paper towels while searching out a brand that wouldn't cost as much as Bounty, but would do the job. When I first moved here, I'd either buy everything at Riba Smith or for bulk items go to Pricesmart. I think, in the end, you save money buying in bulk at Pricesmart (which is the Costco or Sam's Club here), but buying a $20 pack of Bounty paper towels can hit your wallet pretty hard. These Holiday Eco (I think of them as the bright blue and orange pack) serve the purpose. I usually pick up a 2-pack for $1.86. Try them out. If you don't like them, you wasted $1.86 and you can go back to Bounty.
Familia Acolchado - I stumbled upon this toilet paper while staying at hotel in Portobelo, on the Caribbean side of Panama. Before this, I'd been buying the huge mega-pack of Charmin at Pricesmart, for I think around $12, probably more. I wasn't a big fan of the plain Charmin on sale and Scott, to me feels like I'm wiping my butt with notebook paper most of the time. My wife was the first to mention the toilet paper at the Portobelo hotel. I probably would have never noticed. I guess she takes her tush paper a little more seriously than I do. Ever since she mentioned it, I haven't stopped buying this stuff. So the extra large size, 4-roll pack costs $3.19. You can find the 4-pack of regular sized rolls (which I had to buy for awhile as the extra grande size wouldn't fit in my tp dispenser) for about $2.69.
Vikingo - After getting frustrated with the BS on the side of the Hefty box I'd pick up from Pricesmart, that claimed to be super-strong trash bags and cost about $12 for about $100 bags (which is a great deal if you look at it long term), I looked for an alternative. I got tired of my Hefty bags falling apart every time I took out the garbage. So I just started picking up my trash bags a week at a time. This Vikingo brand you see in the photo above costs $1.35 for the 33 gallon size I usually buy. The pack comes with only 6 bags, but for most people, not having 4 kids like me, that will easily last over a week. The package you see in the picture is the 13 gallon "grande" size and only costs 73 cents.
Fabuloso - If you don't want to spend all your money on Pine-Sol or one of the other more expensive brands, get used to cleaning with items Panamanians use. Fabuloso works wonders and smells great. You can pick up a gallon size jug for only $5.15. If you don't need a gallon, stores sell several smaller sizes.
Liquid Dish Soap
Sip - Vel is good for washing dishes, but seems to disappear too quickly, and it doesn't seem strong enough for pots & pans. I've started using Sip, which is like a dish-soap paste. You'll see one of the other brands, Axon, all over Panama, and especially at Pricesmart. I tried Axon first, and it was hard as a rock, plus, it was crazy strong. I don't usually wear gloves when I wash dishes, so Axon tore my hands up. They were all dry, cracked, and even bleeding in some spots. It was like I was using battery acid to wash the dishes. Sip is much softer when you first open it, which makes it easy to smear onto a sponge (add a little water to the top if it's not soft enough) and it's much easier on the hands. For a 1,000g tub, which is the largest size, you can expect to pay about $2.59.
D'elidas - Moving on to condiments, let me just start by saying, I love spicy food. I was having a hard time settling on one hot sauce that I really liked until I visited a restaurant in La Boca, Panama, called...well...La Boca restaurant. My wife picked up this bottle that was sitting on the table and said, "This is the stuff everyone always talks about." She started telling me how people at work bring a bottle with them to sprinkle onto their food at lunchtime. So I tried it on my pork chops that day and loved it. Now, I see the stuff everywhere. It can be found on the table at most local restaurants. It's not super cheap though. This small bottle costs $2.59.
Sansae sauces - My mother-in-law used to smuggle this stuff into the U.S. whenever she visited. Salsa Inglesia is the same thing as Worcestershire sauce. Salsa China is soy sauce. Salsa Condimentada...I don't know what the hell that stuff is, but it smells great when you cook with it. My wife's family uses all three for just about everything they cook. They'll sprinkle a little from each bottle onto meat, chicken, fish...everything. I've gotten used to doing the same thing. These small bottles (10.5 oz or 310ml) cost only $1.89 each. You can find them sold together, wrapped in bundles too. At Pricesmart they sell a pack that comes with the three of these, plus Salsa Criollo (hope I spelled that right) and it costs about $7.
Caldo de Pollo - These packets are very popular here in Panama. Several companies make them, but the one my family sticks with is the Rika brand. We only use Caldo de Pollo, but you'll see in the grocery store all kinds of others. I think there's a chicken and garlic one, one with pepper in it, one with onion...I buy the packets you see above for 59 cents and it comes with 5 packets. My family sprinkles at least a half a packet into almost everything they cook. I use a whole packet for my ground beef for spaghetti. It just kind of adds a little bit of flavor to everything. Panamanians also use it to turn their rice yellow. So when you see arroz con pollo (or chicken with rice) and it's yellow with chicken and vegetables mixed in, chances are, whoever cooked it sprinkled some caldo de pollo into the mix. I've even started putting it in my tuna casserole, just to kick it up a notch and give it a more creamy yellowish look.
Maggi Gallinita - Maggi makes a lot of stuff here. The Maggi ketchup is popular in Panama, and very cheap compared to the American brands. I like my Heinz though and stick with that. My family uses these packets of chicken bouillon. I've never cooked with the stuff, so I suppose you'd use it for whatever you used it for back home. Panamanians put it in their soup, sometimes in beans, and sometimes they even squish it into other things they're cooking, like chicken dishes. If you're looking for chicken bouillon, pick up the Maggi brand. It comes 8 tablets for $1.65.
I'll stop here, for now. I don't want to bombard you guys with too much at one time. Part 2, my next post will be on other food items. Then I'll follow up with drinks in part 3, and move on to what all the Panamanian names for cuts of meats at the butcher mean in part 4. Keep checking back for more supermarket tips for shopping in Panama.
Thanks for reading,