Day 449 - Volunteer Service - Article 7

This article appeared in the Ames Tribune Newspaper on August 8, 2008.

Learning to prepare Panamanian food the long way

A vine, ñame has a big yam looking tuber that will cause a rash if touched before it is cooked.

I've wanted to learn to make typical Panamanian food. Vicky, a Peace Corps Spanish teacher, stayed with us a week helping us improve our Spanish. She decided our final lesson should be how to make carimañola (ñame dough wrapped around grilled meat, then fried) and sancocho (chicken soup). This involved a scavenger hunt to find a live chicken, culantro, ñame, peppers and a grinder.

Carimañola is a carnival (days prior to Ash Wednesday) food. It looks like a twinkie but it is savory and delicious. We cooked the ñame until soft then let it cool before grinding it. Here everyone has the old-fashioned grinder you clamp on a table and use a big crank to run. We ground the ñame and it turned into this gluey-elastic dough. The only thing we added was salt. We wrapped pancake-shaped ñame dough around the shredded chicken breast that had been sautéed with tomatoes, onions, garlic and hot peppers. The ñame ball was then powdered with flour and fried. Oh so good!

I have to back track to killing the chicken. This is something Jeff and I had never done or even witnessed. But Vicky came back with a live pollo de patio (yard chicken). Jeff took it into the back yard and cut off its head. Then it was hung upside down to bleed out. Next it was dipped in scalding water and all the feathers came off easily.

We gutted the chicken. The viscera of chicken is amazingly bright and colorful. The fat is bright yellow, the gall bladder green and the liver brown. We got an anatomy lesson.

We had an eight 1/2-pound bird. Everyone agrees pollo de patio is better than grocery store chicken. I have to agree the meat was firmer and somehow sweeter. I thought I might have qualms about eating an animal I saw killed, but I guess there is more Iowa farm girl in me than I thought. It was more interesting than revolting.

While we were waiting for the boiling ñame, we made the sancocho. This is a soup commonly eaten boiling hot during the hottest part of the day because it will help cool your body. I question this logic, but all Panamanians seem to agree about the cooling properties of the soup.

There are many variations of sancocho. Our soup had chicken, ñame, culantro, onions, garlic, oregano, sweet and hot peppers, carrots and potatoes. The chicken was butchered into big parts with the bones and skin. The liver, egg laying tube, heart, gizzard and feet were also included. The neck would have been included but it disappeared.

I later found the cat, with a very worried-guilty look, gnawing on the neck. We let him keep it. Vicky was disappointed. The neck is one of her favorite parts. We later gave the cat one of the chicken feet. He didn't want to hold still for a picture. It took us all afternoon to collect and cook our food. We ate around 8 p.m. The feast lasted until 9:30. Then we all took cold dark showers, but it was better than going to bed smelling of dead chicken. Then, Vicky made us chamomile tea to aid digestion.

Vicky's gone home. She left on the 11 a.m. chiva, the only chiva. She was our first true overnight guest. I am ready for a break from speaking Spanish 24/7.

Food terms in this article: Sancocho is a popular national soup of Panama. It has become the most common dish to serve to foreigners as part of the country's traditional culture. Carimañola is a roll, typically stuffed.

An opinion on helping Panamanians
Today we spent almost five hours at an Internet café. I spent the time sending e-mails to various contacts and organizations we've worked with or met in Panama. This is by far the most networking I've done in my life. It's really time intensive.

It is odd how every gringo in Panama is part of some small aid organization and wants to be connected to other small aid groups. Not connected to communities or people who need help, but organizations. Peace Corps gives its volunteers the freedom to act as a small group or individual, to decide which project and in which form, how to format and whether or not to work with other groups.

All very nice, but sometimes I feel like there are too many groups, too many outsiders, too many handouts and too many groups who want photos of themselves 'helping' dark-skinned, traditionally-dressed Panamanians. Too much of the attention is given to flashy quick hand-out type aid or to preserving uncut rain forests, completely ignoring the people all together.

Sometimes I feel like a facilitator tying other gringo groups together instead of tying my community together. The people are right here, they are the ones who need my time, not the gringos. I guess I will just have to do both at once, and hopefully not one at the expense of the other.

Foy Spicer and Jeff Diesburg are Peace Corps volunteers in central Panama, some 40 miles northeast of Panama City. They live in a town of about 50 people that has no electricity.

Foy and Jeff are Peace Corps volunteers in central Panama, some 40 miles northeast of Panama City. They live in a town of about 50 people that has no electricity. Their Peace Corps assignment is from May 2007 to Aug. 2009.

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