Friday, December 21, 2012

Feliz Navidad de La Republica de Panama

Felicidades de Panama! I wish. I'm in Upstate New York, watching snow fall.

One of my lesser known personal facts is that I was born in the Canal Zone, making me a Zonian, in the country which is now appropriately the Republic of Panama. To honor and enjoy traditions with my children, we celebrate an additional Holiday that is commonly celebrated in Panama on January 6. Three Kings Day, or  Dia  de los Reyes Magos, is celebrated as part of the Epiphany tradition. It's given weight as the day where the Three Magi came and gave Christ the child his presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Lucky Panamanian and Zonian children could put out their shoes on the balcony, or a box of hay underneath their beds for the camels of the Magi, and in the morning of the 6th awaken to find presents left for them by the Three Magi. Usually there were a corresponding three presents, and that's the tradition we have continued in my family now.

That doesn't mean they don't celebrate Christmas. Panamanians put up Christmas trees and leave a few small toys for the children to open at Midnight on Christmas eve.

So let's talk Christmas. Christmas is celebrated with a parade, complete with marching bands, women in traditional layered ruffled dresses, and floats, and did I mention more marching bands? Bomberos are such a fun tradition, with every police or fire department offering up a band, and all the children learning to play musical instruments so that they can grow up and play in the fire department band.
The parade is typically earlier in December and is followed by every family setting up their nascimiento, or Nativity Scene, which grows each year and is proudly displayed. Some families do live Nativities but the majority have weather proof scenes set up outside. The church service is incomplete without a live nativity, and if you're lucky, even some animals are brought in, carefully,.

The real celebration is held Christmas Eve at midnight, fireworks blast off announcing the birth of the King of Kings. You'll never sleep through Christmas in Panama. Feasting begins at midnight, and the night time feast is followed by dancing and celebrating with your neighbors in the street. Because Panama is so international, their dinner menu is too. Chicken tamales, Arroz con Pollo: chicken and rice, Perhaps, pavo turkey and relleno, stuffing. Beautiful bowls of fruit, Flan and fruitcake are the traditional desserts.  I'm a fan of creamy flan with the syrupy caramel dripping down the sides of the custard as it jiggles on the plate.

Here's a photo of a successful flan, and a foolproof recipe, if you make no substitutions.

Easy Flan for Christmas Dessert

This Flan recipe is prized for it's simplicity. If you've never made flan before, now is the time to try this recipe.

Prep Time: 20 minutes Cook Time: 1 hour 


  • 1 cup and 1/2 cup sugar
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 14oz can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 13 oz cans evaporated milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla


Preheat oven to 325 degrees. You will need 6 ramekins or other specialty flan cook ware (a flan pan) and a large baking pan to put them in.
Pour 1 cup sugar in warm pan over medium heat. Constantly stir sugar until is browns and becomes caramel. Quickly pour approximately 2-3 tablespoons of caramel in each ramekin, tilting it to swirl the caramel around the sides. Reheat caramel if it starts to harden.
In a mixer or with a whisk, blend the eggs together. Mix in the milks then slowly mix in the 1/2 cup of sugar, then the vanilla. Blend smooth after each ingredient is added.
Pour custard into caramel lined ramekins. Place ramekins in a large glass or ceramic baking dish and fill with about 1-2 inches of hot water. Bake for 45 minutes in the water bath and check with a knife just to the side of the center. If knife comes out clean, it's ready.
Remove and let cool. Let each ramekin cool in refrigerator for 1 hour. Invert each ramekin onto a small plate, the caramel sauce will flow over the custard. It tastes really delicious!!
Note: you may substitute evaporated goat milk for the evaporated milk, but there is no substitute for sweetened condensed milk or you will have a flop. I learned from experience. Do not attempt to substitute, no matter how many encouraging words you find on the internet. 
As Christmas ends with dessert, and the children head off to sleep in the next morning,  they awaken to see a statue of Los Reyes on their dinner table. That's to remind them that the Three Kings are still coming.  January 6th is the big holiday -- and the children know that the Three Kings bring presents to the boy and girl who behaved all year long!
In fact one of the fun post-Christmas traditions in Panama is to take your Christmas tree down to the beach on Three Kings Day and burn it for your family bonfire, and party with the family in the tropical night air. Unfortunately, upstate New York weather discourages me from adding that tradition in, with subzero windchills not uncommon in January.
The night of January 5th, girls and boys cut grass or hay and put it in a shoebox or other small box or basket for the Three Kings' camels, and put the box underneath their bed with a brief wishlist on top. Hopeful aunts and uncles and grandparents insist the children put one under their bed too, just in case they're remembered for their good deeds too. The magic is that the Three Kings cannot stop at your house if you're awake, or if you're naughty. Children lay in bed feigning sleep, listening for the snorts of camels, or hoofbeats, or the jingle jangle of their caravan.
In the morning relatives come over with the boxes full of gifts that came under their beds, and children dart out of bed to see what the Three Kings left for them. They know the camels were there, because they snacked on the grass which has disappeared.

Another family feast is enjoyed, and children play outside with the bicycle or skateboard or hula hoop or rollerblades that Los Reyes brought them. This is a good night to have a whole roasted pig, Arroz con Pollo, tamales which are cooked in banana leaves instead of the corn husks like Mexican tamales are, or gallo pinto -- the Panamanian version of beans and rice with pork mixed in. Yucca fries, and fried plantains and fried empanadas are ever present. All the children, hot from rollerblading and bicycling will be looking for Raspados, a specialty in Panama. It's a snowcone with fruity syrup and the ever present sweetened condensed milk drizzled over the top. 
So if you're in need of a winter pick-me-up -- try telling your children the story of Los Reyes who came and brought baby Jesus a treasure of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Today in Caribean counties they remember the wisdom, preparation, and gift giving of Los Reyes by commemorating Epiphany on January 6th with a family dinner celebration and presents underneath the bed.
Legend tells us that those very costly gifts were used by Joseph, Jesus stepfather, to help pay for their timely escape to Egypt for safety when King Herod was killing all the baby boys in the Bethlehem area. The Three Kings saved the day!
If sweets are not your thing, try this family favorite from my childhood.

Arroz con Pollo

1 fat chicken, cut up into 8 serving pieces
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup diced onion
3/4 cup diced sweet pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
1.5 cups long grain rice
3 cups boiling water and 2 broth cubes or 3 cups hot chicken broth
2 T pickled capers, drained
2 T green pickled olives, sliced
Goya brand Sazon seasoning with saffron, one packet (or 2 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp,. black pepper (or to taste), and saffron threads soaked in water, then drained and added to the rice 
Dry chicken pieces, then season with salt and pepper and garlic powder and powdered oregano. Then fry in olive until brown on all sides, 10 minutes. Remove from pot, and set aside. To the same caldera, add the onion, pepper, garlic, and cook for 5 minutes, then add the rice. Stir and cook one minute, stirring constantly so that the seasoned oil coats all the rice kernels. Now add the boiling broth, the capers and olives and seasoning packet, and push the chicken pieces, skin side up, into the broth and rice mixture, and cover and cook for 25 minutes or until the chicken is done through to the bone. The rice is tender, the water is absorbed, and the bottom of the pan has a gentle brown crust of rice, the best part of the dish, claim the Abuelos. Top with thawed frozen peas, put the lid back on top, and let sit for a couple of minutes while you arrange the other dishes. This heats the peas, and leaves them fresh tasting. Now fluff the rice and scoop onto a platter, with the chicken on top, and stand back for compliments. Some abuelas decorate the top with slivers or flowers made of red pimento, but the children don't like to eat them. 
If you follow this recipe -- your dish may look like this:

Feliz Navidad y Feliz Dia de Los Reyes!
KelliSue Kolz