A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou … so says the old adage. But for much of the world, bread is not the staff of life. It’s rice. Panama is no exception.
Rice finds its way onto your plate all day long, three meals a day. At a recent Peace Corps seminar there was sausage, rice and beans at breakfast. Chicken and rice was on the menu for lunch. Fried fish on rice was served at dinner (with more beans). When we first arrived to Panama for Peace Corps training, our host mom served us a mountain of rice and half a chicken wing for our first lunch at home. For dinner, we received another mountain of rice plus the other half of chicken wing. Nothing else.
Green vegetables are not the norm. The most common vegetable all over Panama is cabbage, shredded, as for cole slaw, with a garnish of shredded carrots for contrast. It is served plain or with dollops of mayonnaise blended in. If a restaurant tells you that an entree comes with salad, 90 percent of the time that means potato salad, not tossed greens with a lovely balsamic vinaigrette.
Rice comes in two basic forms: primera calidad, first quality, is a bag of whole white grains, unbroken. Segunda calidad, second class, has some whole grains but mostly broken pieces. You can see the powdery residue of broken rice in the bag. When cooked, this results in a dish that resembles gluten glop rather than plump, fluffy individual grains. It’s much cheaper and equal in nutritional value. The poorer people must resort to second-class rice in hard economic circumstances.
One day in Doris’ house, where we live, she made a large pot of elbow macaroni for the midday meal. She mixed this with some shredded beef and chopped tomatoes. A friend of hers had joined us for lunch. Where is the rice? the lady protested. Well, there’s macaroni today, Doris answered. But if there’s no rice, I feel as though I haven’t eaten, said the lady. Panamanians totally understand this. Doris heated up some leftover rice in the cooking pot and added it to the macaroni dish. Everyone was happy.
Dogs are popular in Panama. (As pets, not meat.) I bring this up because most families here feed their dogs leftover rice and meat scraps. There are no pet-oriented stores with dog treats, yummies, toys, etc. You can buy dog food in the supermarkets, just not the huge variety that we find in the U.S.
Our PC volunteer friend, Laura, was given a newborn puppy by her neighbor last year. She took him into the city for shots at the vet. She buys him Pedigree to eat. His coat is shiny and he is energetic, in sharp contrast to his scrawny litter mates (most of whom have died from parasites or malnutrition.) Wow, your dog looks really good, people tell her. Yeah, leftover rice just doesn’t cut it as dog food, she thinks.
I am experiencing starch overload. My diet contains too much rice, corn, yucca, and plantains. I thought with all the walking we do, coupled with the challenge of Peace Corps, I would get really skinny. Instead, I am gaining weight. How depressing.
I look forward to coming home in a year or so, cooking in my gleaming, modern kitchen. I will make enormous salads of spinach, leafy greens, bell peppers, broccoli, fennel, arugula, red onions and tomatoes. I will broil fish and chicken without breading. I will get fit again. I just may not be able to look at another plate of rice for a while.