Unexpected Chinese Culinary Influence

Before a recent trip to my 52nd country, Panama, I did what I always do prior to travelling somewhere, research where to eat. What I expected to get in Panama, and what I actually got, were completely different. The Panamanian food scene was so good, and blew away all my expectations. In fact, I would consider Panama to be on my Top 10 best countries to eat (maybe Top 5) list. I would compare it to Peru, which is widely praised for its gastronomy, and is one of my more memorable trips both in terms of food and culture.

One of the places that was recommended to me was Kaandela, which was described to me as “fusion Panamanian cuisine”. This immediately turned me off. I imagined a chef wanting to be trendy and incorporate Asian flavors into his dishes, which usually turns out poorly. I wanted “pure” Panamanian cuisine. It was not until I arrived in the country and spoke to more people, and ate more, that I learned about the long history of Chinese people in Panama. They had arrived in the 1800’s to work on the railway, then the canal. They brought with them their food of course, and some publications have named Panama as the best place in Latin America for Chinese food like Dim Sum.

Anyway, I ended up having my first meal in the country at Kaandela, and I’m glad I did. Here’s how the meal went. We started with beef tartar on Hokkaido bread with yuca flakes:

Followed by pork belly with kimchee and kobu glaze:

…and duck siu mai with duck dashi:

Everything was delicious and the Asian components were well executed and incorporated without feeling gimmicky. They did an excellent job and I was very impressed with the flavors and level of cooking. For main, we had Robalo (fish) with cassava hash, ajillo and recao verde mayo.

Dessert was sweet corn creme brulee.

Overall, food was amazing. I would definitely go back to try other things. Service was a bit slow but not painfully. I think this was due to a combination of language barrier and just a slower paced service culture. It was an amazing first meal in Panama. The dining room was beautiful as was the bar where we sat in view of the open fire in the kitchen. I should also mention that the restaurant is located in Casco Viejo, or the historic district, and you will be surrounded by beautiful Spanish architecture.

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