Comfort food is universal. While cuisines may vary from country to country, or even between different regions within the same country, there are always dishes that remind people of family, security, home.
Sure, we can talk about greasy pizza, mac and cheese, or fudge brownies, but if you grew up in an international household or spent a significant period of time abroad, I’m sure you have some pretty eclectic comfort food cravings from time to time. Some of my favorite comfort foods are Panamanian in origin, since they remind me of family dinners growing up – arroz con coco y gandules, patacones, and carimañolas are among my favorites. Pretty standard Panamanian fare, but also incredibly delicious and comforting (especially when mom makes them)!
Central and South American dishes overall are known for being simple, rustic and fresh, utilizing local ingredients – lots of fruits and veggies as well as local meat and seafood. Panamanian food in particular has a variety of influences, including traditions of native indigenous groups mixed with African, Spanish and Chinese cultures (yes, Chinese! There was a significant labor migration at the end of the 19th century to build the railroad system.)
Of course, some dishes are easier to prepare than others. I’d rather not spend 2 hours peeling, cooking and mashing yucca, thankyouverymuch, but I’m more than happy to swap out water for coconut milk in my rice and double-fry some plantains.
(Carimañolas – too labor intensive for me to attempt, but definitely one of my favorites. Check out a recipe here.)
There are also a lot of variations of the same dish throughout Central and South America. Tamales, for example, can be made using corn husks or banana leaves, and contain savory fillings like meat or olives, or sweet fillings, like raisins. And each Hispanic culture has their own version of rice and beans.
Cooking is a great way to transport yourself to another place and time. Just thinking about my favorite comfort foods inspired me to get into the kitchen.
Arroz con coco y gandules (coconut rice with gandules, or pigeon peas)
This recipe calls for very few ingredients – just rice, coconut milk, and gandules.
- On medium-high heat, melt 1 Tbs butter and toast 2 cups rice for about 1 minute.
- Add 1 can coconut milk (about 14.5 oz). Add 2 oz. of water. Stir.
- Rise and drain gandules. Add about ½ – ¾ can to the rice and coconut milk (however many beans you’d like).
- Let liquid boil down to about ½ inch above rice and beans, then turn heat down to low and cover.
- Cook for 15-20 mins.
I really wanted patacones, but they require super green plantains, and my store only had brown ones. So sweet plantains it is.
Alas, no patacones for me, but sweet plantains are even more simple to to make!
- Slice up your brown plantain on an angle. Make sure the slices are about ½ – ¾ inch thick. (When I say brown I mean BROWN, almost to the point that you think you should probably throw the plantain out.)
2. On medium-low heat, add vegetable or canola oil into a pan (cast iron works best, in my opinion). Oil should cover about half of the height of the plantain slices.
3. Add plantain slices to heated oil. Cook for about 3-4 minutes, then flip and cook for an additional 2 minutes.
4. Drain excess oil on paper towel.
Add a green salad or some marinated protein, and you have yourself a comforting Panamanian meal!
What’s your favorite international comfort foods?