Life & Leisure

From diet of the downtrodden to haute cuisine: African cooking in Panama

By Ana de Leon

Panama City, Sep 22 (EFE).- The children and grandchildren of the Afro-Panamanian cooks who fed the elite in the mid-20th century are now setting the standard of haute cuisine in the Central American nation.

“Historically we have taken it on ourselves to transform all this into that festival of color and taste, and now people come from different parts of the world to Panama to try the dishes,” Armando Bramwell, the chef at Panama City’s La Tapa del Coco restaurant, tells Efe.

He reflects on the development of Afro-Panamanian cuisine while preparing one of its signature dishes, One Pot: rice with pork ribs, shrimp and beans bathed in the restaurant’s special BocaTown sauce.

“History says that One Pot was everything that was in the fridge and we put it in one pan and out comes this magic and splendorous thing that we know today,” Bramwell says as he sprinkles spice over the rice, his variation on the traditional recipe.

On the other side of the capital, in the Rio Abajo neighborhood founded by the Afro-Caribbean migrants who helped build the Panama Canal, Kristopher Kasim is hard at work in the small kitchen of his eatery, Chef Kasim.

Born in the United States and raised in Panama, Kasim grew up with the culinary traditions of both the Spanish and the English Caribbean, as his father’s people hailed from the Colombian island of San Andres and his mother’s roots were in Jamaica.

After watching his grandmother cook Jamaican dishes, Kasim ventured to add new ingredients, such as cod fritters and different sauces.

“Afro-Caribbean or Afro-colonial cuisine emerged around oppression, it’s not a cuisine made with freedom,” Bramwell says. “Our culture revolves around eating those things that nobody wanted.”

“Nobody wanted to eat or make dried salted cod,” he says. “My grandmother told me that she closed the doors to make it. It cost 5 cents. And how much now? $10.”

Cod, dried shrimp, the Panamanian pepper known as aji chombo and coconut are among the trademark ingredients of contemporary Afro-Caribbean cuisine.

“History has stolen much from us, but we continue to be present in everything,” Bramwell says. EFE adl/dr

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