It's 7 p.m. and the kitchen is preparing the first orders of the evening. Chef Mario Castrellón puts the finishing touches on a dumpling stuffed with a sea bass escabeche.
"Sometimes, customers get confused. They think, 'This guy [Castrellón] is nuts! I am eating a Chinese dumpling and he says it's Panamanian,' " laughs the chef and restaurateur. "But Panama's cuisine is fusion by obligation."
Since opening Maito in the trendy Coco del Mar neighborhood of Panama City in 2010, the 33-year-old has championed Panama's gastronomic self-discovery. Abandoning risotto for its Panamanian cousin, wacho (or guacho), and spaghetti for the long and stringy flowers of the local palm tree, the chef is determined to put the Central American country on the culinary map with every dish served.
"We've somehow always believed that French, Italian or Spanish cuisine is better than ours," he explains. "Panamanians need to be proud of our food and showcase it to the world."
While attending culinary school and working in Spain, Castrellón watched as Spain emerged from under France's shadow to become an international culinary hotspot. He thought Panama could do even better.
"You've got this mixture of cultures, identities and flavors," he says. "Our dishes are strong and consistent on flavor."
Many of Panama's culinary traditions are rooted in indigenous foodways, from the popular use of local ingredients such as berrugate fish and cassava, to seasoning dishes with achiote, a bright-colored spice made of annatto seeds used throughout Panamanian cuisine, and aji chombo, a local hot pepper.
The country's different indigenous groups also harvest an abundance of native rice varieties to be prepared à la concolón, a rice dish that is cooked until it sticks to the pan, similar to an Italian risotto. Since visiting remote communities across the country, Castrellón has prioritized native products. Through a nonprofit organization, he buys produce from 450 indigenous families.
"I am always surprised by how many native ingredients we have," he says. "Not only do I want to bring unique dishes to the table, but I also want to highlight indigenous culture, which is normally ignored in Panama."
Flor de palma, or palm tree flower, is one specialty. Eaten like spaghetti, the flower is popular among expectant mothers and athletes because it is rich in calcium. At Maito, Castréllon pickles the leaves to sweeten them before serving them with a corn sauce.
Panama's history is a blend of cultural influences. Spanish colonizers ruled the territory for nearly three centuries. African slaves were forcibly brought to work on plantations. From the mid-19th century on, waves of laborers from the Caribbean, China and India arrived to work on the Panama Canal. Eighty years as a province of Colombia and 85 years of American administration of the artificial waterway have also impacted Panama's culture and its food. The chef draws from all of these traditions in his cooking.
"As a Panamanian, I am surprised that there are ingredients I have never tasted," says Tania Salas, a diner from Colón. "Maybe I even learned a little more about my country tonight."
Castrellón is widely credited with sowing the seeds of a new movement that is reinvigorating Panamanian cuisine, and Maito is the country's only entry on the list of Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants.
He has also helped inspire a new generation of young chefs — like José Carles, who guides his guests through a 10-course meal at Donde José, his intimate, 16-seat restaurant in Panama City's Casco Viejo neighborhood. Like Castrellón, Carles is considered a culinary rock star.
"Castrellón kicked open the door for our generation of Panamanian chefs," Carles says. "But we each try to do our own thing."
Trained at the Cordon Bleu in Sydney, Australia, the 31-year-old Carles was building a career abroad. But that all changed after mentor Ben Shewry, head chef at the award-winning restaurant Attica in Melbourne, Australia, asked him about Panamanian cuisine. Carles felt he couldn't answer the question confidently.
"I felt ashamed. I didn't know my own culture and it was definitely a trigger that I had to come back," he says.
Carles says his country's food culture is as diverse as its regions. For example, the abundance of freshwater or saltwater fish differs from place to place, since Panama's coasts touch the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
"Every Panamanian grandma has her own secret recipes," he says. "You could easily fill a book with 1,000 recipes."
Instead of focusing on a staple ingredient, Carles plays with wood and fire in his dishes. From his smoked chicken sancocho – his grandmother's recipe of a soup traditionally made in several Latin American countries — to his homage to apple crumble, made with chayote, plantains, and topped with smoked whipped cream and achiote, smoky flavors play the starring role in his meals.
Carles says 15 percent of his clients are Panamanian, most of whom dine here for special occasions. The rest come from around the Americas, and as far away as Europe and Japan.
"I think it's beautiful when I introduced a Panamanian to a new taste," he says.
Determined to challenge Mexico and Peru's reputations as the most innovative cuisines in the region, chef Carles is constantly developing new recipes and techniques using local food.
"Sadly, Panamanian food identity is still very poor. However, I think we are seeing the awakening of Panamanian cuisine," says Carles.
"We are showing the world what we have," he adds. "It's not better, not worse, it's just as good."
Kait Bolongaro is an award-winning freelance journalist.