In this post I'll concentrate on food. Here's a list of edible items I've slowly caught onto over the past 3+ years of living in Panama City. I'll start with some of the essentials, then move on to snacks and breakfast foods.
Rimith Moña de Huevo - Moña de Huevo, or egg bread, costs about $1.79 for the loaf you see in the above photo. I got turned on to this the first time I visited Panama. This is the type of bread commonly used to make derretidos (basically paninis) or sandwiches squished and grilled. This bread is so good you can eat it right out of the pack. Try it out.
Kiggins Corn Flakes - I love cereal. Finding out recently that I'm beginning stages diabetic has forced me to cut back on all the sugary sweets I love. It's hard to find cereal that's not covered in sugar. Now, I'm not saying that corn flakes is the healthiest cereal out there, but with a little bit of artificial sweetener, it's not nearly as bad as a bowl of Captain Crunch.
Panamanian supermarkets tend to have several brands of corn flakes. You'd think that the original Corn Flakes, the one with the rooster on the box, would be the best out there. I've tried it and didn't like it at all. Like many other (non imported) brands you're familiar with, it tastes different, and it was paper thin. So I tried some of the generic brands. Some had flakes as hard as rocks and some tasted like cardboard. Then I found the corn flakes shown in the photo above. These are the only ones I like, and they're always on sale for just over two dollars. These ones are made by Kiggins, which is displayed in a little red rectangle at the top center of the box.
Dulce - So what should you put on top of your corn flakes? I was a big fan of Splenda back in the States (yes, I know, I'm sure plenty of you reading this are just dying to give me a hard time about how Splenda is part rat poisoning and all that, but sugar will kill me now...and Splenda will at least take awhile). It didn't take long for me to look for an alternative to Splenda. A box of 50 packets here costs $6.95. That's crazy. So I tried out this brand called Dulce by Rikas (which I believe is the same Rika that makes the caldo de pollo seasoning I mentioned in my last post). I think Dulce tastes the same, if not better, than Splenda, and a box of 50 packets costs only $2.39. Some times Dulce is hard to find. The box is yellow and is usually squeezed in somewhere next to Splenda, so look carefully.
Del Oro Rice - I don't eat rice much anymore. At least I try not to. And to be honest with you, I'm not sure that I can tell the difference between one brand of rice and another. My family can though. God forbid I pick up a cheap, strange brand of rice. At some point, I was told that I was only allowed to buy the rice with the parrot on the front. So...apparently, Del Oro rice, with the bird on the front, is the way to go. You can pick up a 5 pound bag for about $3.39.
Melo Eggs - Like rice, I can't tell you the difference between eggs. I've started picking up this 18 pack of eggs though (remember I have 4 kids so eggs disappear quickly) for $3.39. One thing about eggs here that I found interesting, and a bit strange, is that Panamanians don't usually refrigerate eggs. They're sold on a regular shelf, like any other item in the store. Something else different, is that the expiration date is printed on each individual egg, not on the package like back in the States.
Nestle Americano Cheese - I was a fan of Kraft American cheese back in the States. I usually picked up a large package at Costco. You can find Kraft at Pricesmart here (which is the Panama version of membership shopping) and even at Riba Smith (but you'll pay a fortune for it). I started buying Nestle Americano cheese. It's great. A 12-pack of individually wrapped slices like you see in the photo above goes for $2.79.
If you like deli cheese, you have to try the popular brand here in Panama, called Cremoso. Don't stand at the deli and try to figure out which one you want to buy, because I swear, there are like 10 different cheeses that say Cremoso. I watched and studied how Panamanians order cheese, and probably 90% of them just walk up to the counter and ask for Cremoso. The person behind the counter knows which Cremoso to get. I guess Cremoso is American cheese...but it's kind of softer, almost like Velveeta. It's delicious though. I eat it plain, right out of the fridge.
Port Side Chunk Light Tuna (in water) - I grew up eating a lot of canned tuna. One of my favorite dishes growing up, and one that I've started making for my kids, is my mama's tuna casserole. Tuna doesn't really qualify as cheap anymore though. I think Starkist and Chicken of the Sea go for a little over $1.30 per can, which adds up when you need at least 5 cans for a casserole.
I tried a few Panamanian brands, but most of them aren't very affordable. They seem to rival the American brands. Something else you might find strange, is the large variety of canned tuna here. Panamanian supermarkets sell tuna with vegetables mixed in, tuna with garlic, tuna with all kinds of stuff. Finally, I found the tuna in the photo above. Only $.90 per can.
Pro brand Platanos - If you don't already love plantains, you'll find that they'll grow on you the longer you stay in Panama. Plantain chips are almost as popular as potato chips here. The problem is, most of the ones you find in the supermarket, or sold at street side vendor carts, are just smothered in grease. You can look at the package and just see the grease in the chips. My wife's friend, Jennifer, goes to the gym all the time and watches what she eats. She turned us on to these chips. They're delicious, 0g trans fat, gluten free, and no cholesterol. Pro brand sells them in three flavors (sweet plantain chips, regular salted, and our favorite, the lime and salt ones). You'll only find them in personal sized bags. The one in the photo above costs only 79 cents, but you'll be surprised how many chips are squeezed into this small bag.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Chokis or Mini-Chokis - These things are awesome. I have to steal a cookie or two every once in awhile from my kids. If you like the original Chips Ahoy (not the soft ones as these are quite hard), you'll like Chokis. Chips Ahoy go for about $4 per pack, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the store. The package shown in the photo above comes with 5 packs of I think 6 cookies, about the same size as Chips Ahoy cookies, for only $1.59. They're really good, kind of like Famous Amos cookies. At Pricesmart they sell boxes of school-size packs of mini chokis for I think around $3.
Crisp crackers - Panamanians don't waste money on Ritz. You will find Ritz here in the supermarkets, but they go for between $3.50 and $4 a pack. These Crisp crackers are just as good and cost much less. The packages shown in the photo above cost only $1.85.
El Antojo tortillas de maiz - I've written about tortillas before. I was addicted to these things when I first moved here. I love all kinds of tortillas, especially Mexican ones, and these are much different. They're thick, corn tortillas. Cooking them is easy. You simply heat oil in a skillet, maybe a half an inch deep. When the oil is really hot, use tongs (makes it easier) and place the tortilla into the oil. Keep touching the center of the tortilla with the tongs until the center is no longer soft. That's when you turn it over. Fry the other side just until it's slightly golden. Take it out and let it sit on a paper towel to soak up the excess grease.
The most popular tortillas you see in all the stores is the Rimith brand (same brand as the egg bread I mentioned earlier). I started off with these ones, but I found the ones in the photo above, which are sold at Rey supermarkets. They're cheaper (only $1 for 12) and cook better. Rimith ones seem to get hard and burn faster. These El Antojo ones turn out great.
Delicias Mi Casita - Panamanians love fried food, especially for breakfast. Empanadas are a staple here and can be found in every restaurant and at tons of street vendors. If you want to try them out at home, you'll find both maiz (corn) and flour empanadas. I like the flour ones. You cook them much the same as the tortillas, but they cook quicker...and burn just as fast, so be careful. You put them in oil just until the under side turns lightly golden, then turn and do the same on the other side. Be careful though, lightly golden turns to dark brown and black super fast.
I can't really tell you my favorite brand of flour empanadas, because I haven't tried enough of them to say. The brand in the photo above is ok. You can get a 6-pack for $1.69. Queso (cheese), carne (meat), and pollo (chicken) are the three options from this brand. They're kinda stingy on the stuffing though.
Filete de Cerdo Ahumado by American Star - Bacon isn't very affordable in Panama. Pricesmart is probably the only place to buy reasonably priced bacon. For that reason, I started looking for alternative meat products to add to breakfast. These sliced, smoked (which is what ahumado means) pork slices are awesome. You just toss them in a frying pan with a little bit of oil. Sounds horrible, I know, lots of greasy breakfast items here, but I'm just showing you some of the things you can try out. The package you see in the photo goes for $2.95.
Kiener Chorizos - I don't remember ever having the options for hot dogs, chorizos, and sausages that I have here in Panama. It's crazy. I think there may be more options for hot dogs than there are for feminine hygiene products. Seriously. I stand there looking dumbfounded every time I approach this section of the supermarket. Where do you begin? I'm still trying to figure out the best hot dogs to buy. I kind of like the Hormel Smokies.
One more meat used for breakfast here is the chorizo. Yes, it's grilled and put in buns, just like everywhere else in the world, but if you want to fry some up to go with breakfast, the best I've found is the Kiener Chorizons shown above for $2.99.
Berard Honey and Apple Chorizos - For non-breakfast chorizos (they're good with breakfast too, actually) you just have to try these honey and apple chorizos. I was at a party the first time I tried them. It's common here, at parties, to put chorizos on wooden sticks, and then slice the chorizos with a knife in a sort of spiral motion, so that when you eat it, you can easily just pull pieces off of the stick.
At this family party, I tried one of these chorizos on a stick, and was blown away. I kept asking, "What kind of chorizos are these?" until I finally found out they were Berard brand's honey and apple chorizos. You have to try these grilled, either on a stick, or in a bun. Trust me. You'll thank me later.
Thanks for reading supermarket tips part 2. In the next installment I'll cover brands of beer, other alcoholic beverages, juices, milk and other things you can drink.