The splatter of blood stained my white tank top, as I stood in awe of the dark skinned man butchered a gigantic Tuna with a technique that mixed delicacy with hacking. The stench of salt water and sweat filled the air on the brutally hot day in Panama City. Despite the never ending supply of fish, every shape, size and variety in the Caribbean, the meat remained fresh, with the dirty drippings of ice water and fish skin pooling on the dark pavement.
This is the side of Panama City rarely seen by tourists. Take a long walk down the Cinta Costera, a beautiful boardwalk park that lines the waterfront. The pathway connects the towering, modern skyline to the world of Panama’s past, replacing yachts with wooden fishing boats. This is the real Panama; and the Panama that’s threatened by the gentrification of the city.
Plan to visit Mercado de Mariscos, the Panama City fish market, earlier in the morning. Thousands of small fishing boats from villages along Panama’s Pacific coast arrive at the market to unload their latest catch.
The first floor of the cement building is filled with countless stalls of every seafood you could imagine, and many you didn’t know existed. Shrimp in every shape, size and coloring; fish the size of a small child; live spiny lobsters; octopus; crabs; mussels, you name it.
The open, square room fills with local chefs and everyday patrons, selecting the freshest catch of the day. English is a foreign language here, where communication by us foreigners broken down to pointing and facial expressions.
Walking through the aisles of the market feels like channeling your inner Anthony Bourdain; seeing the side of a country through its food culture. Watching the Panamanian fisherman in their natural element, doing what they do best. Fish mongers artfully break down the fish for customers with such ease. Guts and bonesfill buckets, and carcasses are piled high, with the heads and eyes staring at you.
Mountains of shrimp are sorted, peeled, devained and sold by the bucket full.
Outside, young children join in the family business, assisting their parents and grandparents in the tradition of breaking down the day’s catch. One boy, rocking an FCBarcelona shirt caught my eye, with his small table filled and small knife. He lifted the fish with such ease, and each simple stroke of his blade tore through the meat. He broke down the fish, quickly and efficiently, and could give any award winning chef a run for their money.
Both inside the market, and outside, stands transform the fresh fish into ceviche. Dozens of large plastic containers with twist on tops are surrounded by ice. Gigantic ladles sit in a bucket of cloudy water, used to transfer the variety of ceviche into a Styrofoam cup.
I selected a variety of ceviches from various stands, ordering the smallest size called a Vaso (or glass), which typically costs $2 USD*. The ceviche adventure began with the Combination, which mixed mussels, octopus and shrimp with citrus and a lot of white onion.
Back inside, I snagged a Vaso of Shrimp Ceviche, using the smallest variety of the protein. One again, tons of onions and citrus help to slightly cook the fish.
Finally, I discovered the best ceviche of the day. After two cups of ceviche filled with onion, resulting in stickier breath then the market itself, I noticed the plastic containers darkened by a yellow liquid. In extremely broken Spanish, I asked for the ceviche with the “sauce.” The woman responded back giving me three options of protein, I settled on Langosta, which I was pretty sure translated to Lobster. I was right.
The sauce turned out to be slightly spicy, the perfect contrast to the buttery spiny lobster tails. Nearly five tails fit into the tiny cup, with a red spoon inside used to devour the ceviche. It’s easily one of the best, freshest and unique preparations of lobster. And at the low price of $4.50, it’s also the cheapest. It’s perfect.
My sisters chose to enjoy the Langosta in a slightly different, and more expensive preparation at one of the restaurants on the outside part of the market.
Steamed and split open, the spiny lobster has slightly less meat and a little less sweetness then the traditional Maine version we enjoy in the states. Picking out the meat from all the various crevices also poses different challenges with spikes found across the shell of the crustacean. The guts, my favorite part of a whole lobster, disappeared in the cooking preparation.
Langosta Ceviche – hell yes, give me more! Langosta steamed – thanks, but no thanks.
If you happen to find yourself Panama City, Panama, do yourself a favor and take walk to the incredible Mercado de Mariscos. This is the real Panama. And the real Panama is damn delicious.
Mercado de Mariscos – Avenida Balboa y Calle 15 Este – Panama City, Panama
*Panama uses U.S. dollars, along side their own Panamanian Balboa (the conversion is 1-1)