Christmas in Panama is about the food, the families getting together, and opening gifts. It’s a time to celebrate with family and friends since we don't celebrate thanksgiving.
Most tables are filled with special meals made for that day specifically. This is the time of the year when the families make tamales, fruit cake, and rum cake.
A traditional Christmas table in Panama has different things. Normally 2 main dishes and a bot load of side dishes, plus a few desserts and drinks.
Some families organize the dinner as a fiesta de traje, which translates to “party of carrying,” where the people are invited to bring a dish to the party or gathering.
Others contact a catering service to assist with the dinner. That is for the people that do not want or enjoy cooking and only want to enjoy it with their loved ones. There are places where you can also carry your main dishes to roast, and they charge by weight.
The majority of these dishes are also made during New Years' Eve, so you can pick and choose which ones you'll like to add to your holiday menu this year.
Here are some of the popular holiday foods you can find on every Panamanian Christmas Table:
December is the time when the oven is most used in every Panamanian kitchen.
Ham- This one is the traditional main made with pineapple juice. It’s smoked, so it has a flavor profile that pairs well with pineapple. But you can find flavor profiles made with other fruits like guava, apple, peaches, etc. The leftovers are used in different ways on Christmas day, in breakfast with eggs or as a sandwich. Also famous for using bone and leftovers for cooking red kidney beans.
Pernil or Pierna de Cerdo (Pork Leg) - This is the fresh version of ham, not smoked and roasted. It's the pork leg cut. It tends to be cooked for a longer period. It's seasoned mostly with herbs and spices, and mustard.
Turkey - It can be a whole bird or a turkey breast if you are hosting for fewer people (2 or 3). Sometimes it's stuffed with meat and salted crackers. The leftovers are used as sandwich meat, and the turkey carcass is used to make soup. My mom makes a flavorful split pea turkey soup which is amazing. Even the people that do not enjoy split pea loves it!
Chicken - If you are on a lower budget, you can roast a whole chicken, which can be as fancy as the previous ones. Seasoned with herbs and covered with a little butter for browning. You can also stuff it if you prefer.
Seafood - These are mainly served on New Year's Eve, but you can find them on some Christmas tables. They can be some grilled prawns or roasted fish. These symbolize prosperity for the new year.
All the side dishes normally are served together on one plate. So you can imagine that banket served. It’s so filling and the ultimate comfort Christmas food of all time.
Arroz con guandú (Rice with pigeon peas) is the star of the Christmas Dinner. It can be a version with or without coconut milk. It pairs perfectly with any of the previously listed main dishes. The fresh pigeon peas you can get in Panama are green or black. These last ones tend to give the rice a purple color. You can also use canned ones if you can access fresh ones.
Arroz con pasitas (Rice with raisins) - This one is for you if you enjoy raisins. A sweeter complement with rice and a cheaper alternative.
Arroz con Almendras (Rice with Almonds) - Another fancy rice with almonds.
Arroz con Pollo (Rice with chicken) - If you are on a budget, you could also make this recipe. It’s part of traditional parties all around Panama so it can be served during the holiday season too! Made with cooked chicken, sofrito, and annatto or achiote for color.
Platanos en tentación (caramelized plantains) - another staple sweet side dish to any holiday meal in Panama. You can make it traditionally with red soda or coke or simply with butter, sugar, and cinnamon.
Tamales - These are different from Mexican tamales. They are made of corn, stuffed with pork or chicken, wrapped in a bijao or banana tree leaf, and cooked in boiling water. This time of year is when the families gather and make a bunch of them sell.
You can also make the easier version called Tamal de olla, which has a corn-cream consistency with pieces of pork or chicken. They tend to come in sizes small, medium, or large. In Chiriquí, they make a version with fresh corn called Tamales de maíz nuevo, with a sweeter flavor profile and no difference in color.
Ensalada de Feria (Potato and beets salad) is made for special occasions and in ferias around the country. If you prefer leaving out the beets, you can make the traditional potato salad, which can be served during this time. Other versions have shredded chicken or corn.
Ensalada Verde (Green Salad) - If you prefer a green salad instead, you can make it simple with lettuce, tomatoes, onion, and a simple olive oil vinaigrette. Or you can make a broccoli salad with lettuce and yogurt dressing, which I generally make for the holidays at home.
Rosca - This is a braided egg bread. The special ones have almonds on top as decoration. It is traditionally served with the rest of the meal and or used as Sandwich bread for breakfast with leftovers of the main dish.
Stuffing - This has been slowly removed from the table. Before, I remember stuffing the turkey and then serving it alongside it. It was mostly made with ground beef, spices, herbs, and cookies or bread. Since that makes the bird take more time in the oven, that could be why it's seen less in Panama's Christmas eve dinner.
Fruit Cake (Dulce de Frutas) - Some people are not fans of fruit cake, but we have this one too on most tables. This was one of the things I enjoyed doing with my grandma. My mom sometimes makes it to sell since Grandma's recipe is the hit. You can find them in most local supermarkets, and some people sell them.
Rum Cake (Dulce de Ron) - You can sometimes find this one, but I feel it's more of a New Year’s eve dessert.
Sorrel Drink (Chicha de Saril) - This will surely be part of this Christmas dinner if you have an afro descent family. Since I remember, this is always part of it. And at home, it was not Christmas if we didn't have a sorrel drink.
Eggnog (Ponche de Huevo) - This is another one that is always part of the Christmas Menu. It can have rum, so it’s called Ron Ponche. Plus, it's perfect for leftover french toast with Rosca. You can have it homemade or storebought. Few national brands make them.
Wine, Champaign, and Sodas - These other are regular drinks for any special occasion. Wine or Champaign for toasts and celebrate Christmas and New Years’ Eve. Sodas or soft drinks are mostly for people who do not enjoy the previously mentioned drinks.
Gravy or sauce - This applies to any of the main dishes made. There is the traditional gravy done with the turkey drippings that are served with the turkey, either whole or the breast only. This will also work for the chicken. Cranberry sauce for the turkey or even wine sauce. As for the ham or pernil you could have a pineapple sauce or a simple gravy made with its drippings.
Fruits & Nuts - These are always part of the main table decoration. I don't recall eating this during dinner. But mostly on Christmas day. There is normally a fruit bowl with apples (green and red), pears, and grapes. And there is a small bowl filled with different nuts, walnut, almonds, etc.
Danish Butter Cookies - We are not into Christmas cookies as in the US, but these are also part of the holiday table. Most enjoy a few cookies after the main meal. Once the cookies are over, the tin is used as a sewing kit most of the time.
Check out these Panamanian Christmas recipes you can make at home: