Robert Thornett looks at Fonda Mama Gallina, a Panama City restaurant and market with deep links to Panama’s rural heartland. This is the second second and final part of our series on iconic Panamanian brands. This article contains some affiliate links, where we make a small commission if you buy anything after clicking, at no extra cost to you.
“The fish you eat today came from the ocean at 4 o’clock this morning,” says Vidal Velasquez, who co-manages the restaurant Fonda Mama Gallina in Panama City, Panama, with his wife, Izenith Galvez.
“If we cut a guanábana fruit at 12 noon in Chiriquí, it’ll leave at 4:00PM on truck that arrives here by 5:00AM the next morning,” he says.
Fonda Mama Gallina – Farm-fresh produce in the heart of Panama City
On a street corner in the district of Obarrio, Panama City’s “downtown”, amid modern skyscrapers of glass and steel, is Mama Gallina’s open-air fonda, a farm-to-table diner serving cafeteria-style breakfast and lunch to hundreds each day.
Stretching behind the fonda is its very own farmer’s market. Here, overnight trucks pull in before dawn each morning. Each truck is laden with meat, fish, or other produce from faraway provinces in El Interior, Panama’s countryside.
All the produce is typically used in the fonda – or sold in the market – on the same day it arrives.
Fonda Mama Gallina is owned by the Galvez family. They hail from the small town of La Espigadilla in Los Santos Province, four hours from Panama City. About 15 percent of Fonda Mama Gallina’s produce comes from the family’s own farms in Los Santos, with the rest from other local growers around Panama.
Modern agribusinesses often spray chemicals like ethylene to speed up the ripening of crops like apples, bananas, avocados, and mangos. Not so the suppliers of Fonda Mama Gallina. They all let their produce ripen naturally on the plant.
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Promoting a healthier lifestyle with traditional Panamanian recipes
When Fonda Mama Gallina opened in 2001, Izeneth’s grandmother, Nazaria, came to Panama City three times a year to train the cooks and spend time with her grandchildren.
“She did it with all her love, for free,” says Izenith. “It’s not only the cooking but the love, and the place, Los Santos, that we are trying to recreate here in the city.”
In fact, except for a few who retired, all the cooks who first trained with Nazaria in 2001 are still working at Fonda Mama Gallina today. And at 84 years old, Nazaria still trains cooks five weekends each year at her house in Los Santos.
Fonda Mama Gallina carries many fruits and vegetables native to Central and South America. These include nance, soursop (guanábana), naranjilla or lulo, chayote, tree tomato (tamarillo), and passion fruit (maracuyá).
They use many of these fruits at the fonda’s juice bar, where Izenith hopes to curb Panamanians’ habit of drinking soda and get them “hooked on a healthier style of life.”
At Fonda Mama Gallina you’ll find tables piled with plantains and large tropical root vegetables as big as footballs and fire logs, including cassava (yuca), otoe (malanga), ñame, and purple yams (ube).
Fresh cilantro and anatto (achote in Panama) are always available in the market, as they’re central to Panamanian cooking, providing goodness and flavor to typical dishes like sancocho.
What’s your favorite hangover food? I guess it depends where you are. What works in Panama is a hearty, steaming bowl of sancocho…https://t.co/tBuvLHiTGa#panama #sancocho pic.twitter.com/gDQutrqnDX
— Central America Living (@VidaAmerica) August 9, 2018
Roots in Panama’s cultural heartland
The Galvez family’s home town of La Espigadilla lies on the warm, green Pacific coastal plains of the Azuero Peninsula. It’s a small place, with a population of 1,600. Sparsely populated and pastoral, Panamanians recognize the Azuero region as the cultural heart of their country.
A televised festival displaying its traditional crafts, music, and dancing goes out nationwide each year during carnival week. This is when Los Santos’ provincial capital of Las Tablas transforms into Panama’s party capital. And yes, even more so than the capital’s own carnival.
Los Santos was one of the first areas in Central America to be colonized by the Spanish. Today, roughly 70 percent of Santeños have some Spanish roots, far more than the rest of Panama.
And cooking is one of many hands-on trades and crafts deeply embedded in Santeño culture.
“In Los Santos, when you reach high school, you can take classes in cooking, sewing, farming—not after school, in school,” says Izenith.
Most Santeños are good cooks, she says, because they pass their knowledge from generation to generation.
“You don’t keep the knowledge just for you. You have to pass it.”
Robert C. Thornett is an educator and writer who has taught in seven countries and currently lives in Panama City, Panama.