Oris is one robust woman, not very tall, loves to eat, but above all, loves to cook. Oris is the cook of a popular fonda in Casco Viejo, but she also cooks for her family members, the closest and the most extended. In short, Oris is a woman always surrounded by the aromas of condiments and dressings, bathed in the smoke that fills her kitchen, strong flavors that captivate both children and adults.
While writing this post, it occurred to me to ask her about her most precious possession. Without hesitation or a second thought she responded with her classic forcefulness: “what I value the most are my pailas“. Long ago, after her grandmother had passed away, Oris inherited the rich recipes of the family, and along with them a vast collection of pailas her grandmother had collected over the years. They came in all shapes and sizes: from the giant paila big enough to cook 20 pounds of rice, to the mini paila, suitable for boiling a single egg.
But wait, maybe I’m going to fast. I am assuming you know what a paila is. Just in case, let me make myself clear: A paila is a cast metal pot that can be used for frying, roasting and even baking over a wood fire. They are resistant to the highest temperatures and distribute the heat very well. In addition, they can be easily washed in many ways without being damaged.
There are iron and aluminium pailas, although most experts recommend the iron ones, because they highlight flavors and are naturally non-stick without the need of a coating. Ah yes! They are also super cheap!
You can cook anything on them, although in Panama they have a primordial task, the culinary gift, the supreme cook destiny to prepare rice. No Panamanian meal is worthy of the name unless it has rice, everything else is complimentary. It may be the classic white rice that goes along with everything (and that some Panamanians have for breakfast, on its own, straight from the paila), or rice with guandú, another Panama staple. In English they are known as pigeon peas (Cajanus Cajan), a tasty grain legume, great source of carbohydrates and vitamins, and which has been cultivated for at least three thousand years in regions of Africa and India and today is not only very present in Panamanian cuisine, it also appears in the cuisine of Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Nicaragua, among others.
You may be wondering why would we choose to write about this in our Clementina’s blog. Well, for starters, the paila is an important staple of Panamanian cuisine, and we get a lot of guests that love to deep dive into our culture. Because of that, many of them gladly take advantage of fully furnished kitchens to experiment in their own apartments, and maybe take their new knowledge back home. But most important of all is that the best pailas in Panama are in Avenida B, a short distance from Las Clementinas.
Just imagine: you get a decent size paila in our China town (just big enough to fit in a suitcase and take back home). Then you buy rice, vegetables, fresh free-range meat or fish at our local market, all at walking distance) and cook them in the absolute comfort of your apartment in Las Clementinas. I’m sure the kids downstairs will all have cooking tips they can share. And that’s it, in under an hour you can become part of one of the most diverse culinary experiences in the world.
I should finish by warning you, do not think that a good paila is only good for savory stews and rice. In the Darien jungle they bake sweet coconut bread in banana leaf covered pailas over a wood fire. And in Casco, in la fonda LO QUE HAY, of famed Panamanian chef José Carless, you get desert served in a paila.
Fancy a recipe? As a matter of fact, we have one for a tasty Christmas ham cooked in paila. We’d love to share it with you on your next visit to Panama. And if ham is not your thing, we have one for guacho de marisco (a kind of Panamanian seafood risotto), that will knock your socks off.
Where do these recipes come from? Yes, you guessed it. From Oris, the great expert in family and fonda cooking. And the greatest champion of the Panamanian paila.