Just the other day, I decided to bypass my daily sit-down lunch meal in an effort to more acquaint myself with the street food of Casco Antiguo. Unlike Manolo Caracol or Ego, the street food in this neighborhood is not served on a bright white napkin. But in reality, it was the shady fruits and shadowy snacks that I was after.
Only but half way down Avenida Central, a man walked by carrying a large tin bucket on his head, calling out some words that sounded like war cries.
“Ananananana boyo!” he shouted. I ducked for cover until he was far enough away that I could peak out from behind the trash can. “Boyo cayan-teeeeeeto!” This seriously sounded to me like some sort of warning, like a battle phrase yelled to introduce an attack, but I decided to take a chance.
“Dame uno pues!” I shouted back. “I’ll take one!”
He looked back and I stood there with my outstretched arm, weapon-less. He smiled and returned to the bunker into which I had retreated, lowering the large pail to reveal a yellow acetate wrapper and a collection of baseball-sized treats. “You just want one?” He asked.
These bollo or boyo as they’re pronounced were wonderful: a soft little cornmeal dough which steamed in its own leaves. I ate one, thanked the warrior prince for not attacking me, and moved on.
Next, somewhere around Plaza Independencia, I caught glimpse of this little old man who resembled a large kangaroo. He was standing in the corner feeding himself with two hands that were cropped and bent like those of a velociraptor. He was noshing on this small plum-like fruit and I wanted a taste. I asked him what it was: pixbae, a steamed peach palm fruit. How exotic.
The pixbae, pronounced by the decrepit old woman serving them as piba, were strange. A tough little shell of skin marred by black streaks and ugly dimples. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the thing, as in how to consume it, but when I asked, she shooed me away like I was an oversized bumble bee. Here goes nothing I figured, as I bit into the pixbae like a small apple, skin and all. Wow, what a…weird…flavor. If you’ve ever tasted boiled peanuts, this was like one big massive boiled peanut: dry, nutty flesh with a slight hint of sweet. After getting over the fact I was eating a big peanut, I embraced my newfound fruit with an open palate. I consumed three then continued on my search.
Next I passed a woman with a fruit cart, something I’ve become accustomed to here in Panama. She was serving a plethora of fruits, like papayas, pineapples, watermelons, mangoes, bananas, really any tropical fruit you can think of. Each piece was twenty five cents, so I snagged a baggie of ripe mango slices, macerated in traditional Panamanian style with vinegar, salt and pepper. So luscious; the it almost tasted like sushi.
I was getting pretty filled up, but decided one last treat was in store. I wandered by this small tent, just off Plaza Bolivar where a faceless man stood in front of a billowing grill. When I inquired about what was for lunch, his face appeared from the smoke—this smiling guy with big teeth and red eyes. “Pollo.”
The result: a perfectly browned leg of chicken dowsed in the guy’s homemade chimichuri sauce, which was sat chock full of parsley and onions and lime juice in an old water bottle. It was the perfect end to my several-course and as I licked my fingers on the steps of the old Hotel Columbia, I contemplated never eating with utensils again.