Tortillas bring comfort to the table, just like a basket of freshly made bread, says Lisa Kear, who grew up in Panama and now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with her family.
Tortillas are essential in Panamanian cuisine, served alongside a variety of dishes and flavors. Lisa loves to make homemade corn tortillas and pair them with a variety of foods, including fresh cheese, ham, tocino or bacon, salchichas or sausage, and eggs.
Tortillas are foundational to many types of Latin American cuisine, and produced in a range of preparations. The Panamanian method of making tortillas is to fry them, although they can be pan-grilled or crisped in the oven, as well. Panamanian tortillas are made with corn, a daily staple in the nation’s diet. These tortillas are thick enough to be sliced part way down the middle and stuffed like pita pockets or arepas.
Maria, a great cook and housekeeper who worked for Lisa’s family in Panama, taught her how to make these tortillas among many other traditional dishes. Lisa vividly remembers how the tortillas of her childhood used fresh-milled corn. So good! Lisa also enjoys recalling the mix of street vendors in Panama who busked tortillas, empanadas and other traditional treats. The Panamanian street-style of tortilla is unique, she explains, since it is fried in a large pot of lard. Lisa is quick to explain the lard was always fresh, since the vendors rendered the pork belly to make chicharrón or fried pork belly right there.
Since street-style tortillas and the fresh corn are not always easy to access in the States, Lisa loves making her own and appreciates the convenience of using precooked cornmeal. She especially enjoys how easy tortillas are to store and save for another day’s reheating.
When she misses the flavors of her childhood, Lisa reaches for one of these corn tortillas, always at the ready in her home. She especially loves them with fresh cheese from the Mexican market near her home in Knoxville, which reminds her of the Panamanian cheese she grew up eating, she says. One bite takes her right back home to Panama.
For more Panamanian recipes from Lisa’s childhood, check out her family-famous beef empanadas, her Familia Kitchen Recipe Contest-winning Panamanian flan, her sweet guava-and-cheese empanadas, her Panamanian pollo guisado (stewed chicken) with spaghetti, and and her delicious ron ponche, just the thing for celebrations and parties.
Ready to try your hand at Panamanian corn tortillas?
Photo of tortillas by Michelle Ezratty Murphy