I recently got together with a group of friends that I haven’t seen in a long time, and the only way to kill two birds with one stone is to eat and talk. It was decided that I wouldn’t be trapped at the stove the whole night and we would go out to eat. The group wanted to try something different so we took ourselves off for a dinner at the Table Bay Hotel’s Atlantic Grill. They had a visiting Panamanian chef for a few days, which piqued my interest. I like to try new things and I must admit I have never give the food of Panama much thought before, so I did a bit of research to see what they eat there.
They say that the food of Panama is an exciting treat for your taste buds. It is influenced by a host of diverse ethnicities such as Native Indian, Spanish, European and Latin American, and so it offers a unique culinary experience for visitors.
One of the most popular Panamanian breakfast dishes is tortillas piled high with eggs, cheese and fried meat. Oh my word! That’s more like a lunch for me. Sounds yummy, though. Their tortillas are unlike the Mexican version, which is thick. These are thinner.
The man who cooked our meal at the Table Bay Hotel was talented Chef Mario Castrellón, who at age 28 had successfully opened two thriving restaurants in Panama and is now the owner of his own restaurant, Maito. Castrellón has reinvented the traditions of the past and has been instrumental in popularizing modern Panamanian cuisine.
Castrellón was born and raised in Panama City and discovered his passion for food at a young age. He received a culinary degree from the EHUT of Sant Pol De Mar Institute in Barcelona and went on to open La Posta Restaurant in Panama. After three years at La Posta, Mario was appointed as Executive Chef of Viso 52, where he modernized the menu with innovative dishes such as Ceviche Stuffed Wantons and Black Risotto with Carpaccio Shrimp and Polenta Tamales.
The next logical step was to open his own restaurant and Maito has given Castrellón the freedom to explore, to develop new dishes and to broaden has culinary knowledge. Maito’s menu reflects his passion for food and presentation, and his ability to combine unusual flavours enhanced by spices picked from his garden. He is regarded as a true culinary genius and his signature dishes of Corvina al Mojo, Pulpo Three Ways, and Risotto de Mariscos have earned high praise from diners and critics alike in Panama.
Maito was listed among the top 10 restaurants in Latin America by Rafael Anson, President of the Real Academy of Gastronomy in Spain. He was also invited by SICA to lead the Central American and Caribbean Gastronomy week at the Intercontinental Hotel in London where he did a Maito “mock up” restaurant for a day. The festival took diners on a journey through the culinary history of Central America, demonstrating how the geography inspired a fusion of Creole, Mayan, Garifuna, Afro-Caribbean, Spanish, British, and Chinese and North American culinary influences.
Mario prepared authentic dishes with many of the ingredients from Panama. The first dish was Fish Ceviche done two-ways, Carpaccio and fried. This traditional dish lets you get wonderfully lost in mysterious flavours of cilantro, habanero chilli, ginger and garlic. This is followed by Chicken Tamale with sautéed shrimp creole sauce and then Green “Recao” Hake with fried cashew rice. Then came “Ropa Vieja” with goat cheese sauce stuffed piquillo peppers with pulled beef over sweet potato puree. This was yummy, perhaps not the best looking dish, but really very tasty.
This was finished off with Tres Leches , liberally soaked in three kinds of milk, Baileys and vanilla beans. It looked like a pound cake, tasted homely and was real comfort food.
Let’s cook one of the dinner dishes!
Fish Ceviche Two ways – Carpaccio and fried ceviche
- 500g of the freshest yellow tail you can get, sliced paper thin
- Cornflour for dusting
- Oil for deep frying
- 300g firm fleshed white fish cut into bite sized pieces
- 1 red onion peeled and very thinly sliced
- 2 ribs of celery thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 2 tbls chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 habanero chillie finely
- 3 tbls Kikkoman soy sauce
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 1 tbls ginger finely chopped
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 2 tbls olive oil
Toss the 300g white fish into corn flour and deep fry till golden. Toss the celery and red onion together and place it onto the base of a platter. Arrange the sliced yellowtail onto that and pile the fried fish into the center.
Mix together the garlic, cilantro, chillie, soy sauce, lemon juice, sesame oil and olive oil, shake together, and spoon over the fish.