Gardeners have been doing it for centuries. Trying to capture the flavors of the places they love by growing the produce from that region. We’ve all heard stories about the Italian grandmother who brought over a branch from her favorite fig tree and propagated it here in the new world. We have the same kind of thing going on in our family. My wife is Panamanian, and there are certain things that are just hard to find in grocery stores, or at least in Pittsburgh they are (larger cities might have more options). For some of these hard to find products, gardening can save the day.
Now, even with gardening, there are certain Panamanian foods that we cannot grow due to climate. Luckily, some of these things like yuca and ñame you can find in supermarkets. Other Panamanian produce, such as some of the more rare root vegetables and unique fruits from the tropics are a bit harder to come across. Lucky enough though, I’ve been able to grow some of the flavors of Panama fresh from seed at home.
One distinctive flavor in Panamanian cuisine is culantro. People often confuse culantro with cilantro, and their tastes are similar, but culantro is stronger than cilantro, and it holds up to heat better. It is actually one of the flavors in Panama’s national dish, sancocho. Our first time growing culantro was with seeds we brought back from Panama, and it was a success! Culantro seems to be gaining popularity. Well known seed catalog Burpee Seeds offers it now, so no trip abroad is needed to grow this Latin American flavoring.
Another flavor that seems to capture the spirit of Panamanian cuisine are the peppers. In Panama, they commonly use two kinds of peppers: ají dulce and ají chombo. Ají dulce is a small sweet pepper (sometimes also referred to as ají criollo). Ají chombo is a hot pepper. I have not come across Panamanian pepper seeds in any catalogs. In 2019 we brought back some seeds of Ají dulce. During that trip I never came across any seeds for ají chombo or I would have brought those as well. As of now, in April of 2020, I have 8 Ají dulce seedlings growing under lights. I also have a tray of culantro. We are a long way from any harvest, but I am super excited to be growing some of the ingredients we need to make the dishes of my wife’s home, especially since we aren’t travelling to Panama this year (pandemic be damned). With these ingredients we’ll be able to capture a little bit of the flavors that my wife grew up with, and that we all enjoy so much when we travel.
We also like to make a blend of herbs, peppers, and onions that people in Panama either call recado or recaito, and some Latin American countries call this blend sofrito. We blend up peppers, lots of cilantro, culantro, onions, garlic, green onions, salt, pepper, olive oil, and lime juice. When we cook something like beans, we’ll just drop a couple of spoon-fulls in at the end and stir it in. This condiment mix freezes well, and we always freeze plenty for winter, and can enjoy those fresh tastes throughout the year.
I’d love to hear any stories you have to share about gardening to recreate flavors that you’ve had in the past! What are the flavors you were chasing? What were the results? Was it the same? Was it a Greek salad garden? Hot peppers for Nepali dishes? Please let us know about your culinary gardening adventure!