Panama Stew

Zapallo and Lentil Stew with Matura Twice Fried Plantains are very popular among the Embera and Waounan indigenous people of Panama. The Embera and Waounan people live in the Darien region of Panama. The Pan-American Highway transects Darien in half, sometimes also dividing and separating entire communities. Both Embera and Waounan cultures have been heavily influenced by contact with Latinos. Sadly, some of the indigenous culture has started to disappear. Recently there have been local efforts to preserve indigenous culture and traditions. Tourism has played an important role in this cultural conservation as local culinary specialties and traditional handicraft items are being produced for tourists. These efforts have not only helped to preserve some of these traditions, but they have also provided some increasingly important cash for families and communities. Locals have even created websites and tours for visiting and potential tourists.

Most Embera and Waounan food uses ingredients that are locally collected, farmed, fished or hunted. Traditional cuisine has been augmented by spices introduced by Latinos. Usually cooking is done on an open fire fogon stove that either sits on the ground or on top of wooden legs. Daily food is usually simple faire, but special celebrations call for more elaborate meals. Zapallo resembles a pumpkin or calabaza squash; for this recipe you may substitute banana, butternut or other squashes. Zapallo and Lentil Stew is a common daily dish, which is sometimes eaten along with fried fish or meat. This stew is often served over rice. In Panama rice is a staple crop and comprises nearly a quarter of the protein consumed by the average Panamanian. Plantains, a close relative of the banana, are eaten throughout South and Central America. They are usually fried in some manner and seasoned with salt.



  1. Fry onion in oil over low heat until translucent.
  2. Add garlic, curry powder, ground coriander and cayenne and fry for another 30 seconds.
  3. Add squash, lentils, coconut milk, stock (or water) to pot.
  4. Add water to bring liquid above all the ingredients. Bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce heat and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until the squash and lentils are tender.
  6. Serve over rice and garnish with culantro (or cilantro) and a healthy squirt of lime juice.

Maturana (Twice Fried Plantains)



  1. Slice Plantains into 3/8 inch thick rounds.
  2. Fill a fry pan ¼ deep with cooking oil (peanut oil works fine). Note: if you use a 9-inch frying pan you should be able to fry one plantain at a time.
  3. Heat oil to medium high heat (350 degrees F.).
  4. Fry plantain slices, turning once to lightly brown both side.
  5. Remove plantain slices and drain on rack or paper towels.
  6. When the slices are cool enough to handle, press them flat with a flat-bottomed glass or bottle. Press them until they are about a ¼ thick.
  7. Refry the plantain slices, browning them further on both sides.
  8. Remove fried plantain, drain on rack or with paper towels. If you can store the plantains on their side, they will remain crisper longer.
  9. Salt the plantain chips before serving.

Recipe by T. Johnston-O'Neill
Photo by Heidi Adams

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