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Kosher Food Booms in Panama City

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In January, my family and I flew to Panama City for a little winter respite. I had heard that there was a Jewish community in Panama’s capital city, but wondered how much there could really be, beyond a few old timers and maybe a Chabad house. I was in for a surprise.

Driving up to our Airbnb—a towering apartment adjacent to the Pacific Ocean—we noticed a massive (think suburban supermarket-size) kosher grocery store about 800 feet from our front door. Travel weary and toting a hungry toddler, we crossed the street toward an unassuming strip mall to find a quick dinner. There, near the pharmacy and an organic produce market, was Solomon’s Deli, a Montreal-inspired delicatessen featuring smoked meat and pastrami, and Darna’s Bread Co., a kosher bakery and café with a Middle Eastern spin. “Wait,” my husband asked, “are we still in Brooklyn?”

As it turns out, Panama City has recently become something of a destination for Jewish residents and travelers. And where there are Jews, there is kosher food. In Panama City’s case that means nearly 20 restaurants—many of them opened in the last decade—ranging from fast food to La Spezia, a wood-fired Italian bistro, and a handful of requisite “pizza, falafel, and sushi” places. That first night, we opted for comfort: a very worthy pastrami on rye from Solomon’s Deli and an early bedtime. The next morning, before heading out to wander through the Old City and hike in the rain forest that sits within city limits, we stopped in to Darna’s Bread Co. The bakery case was lined with pan campesino (peasant bread) and pan blanco suave (white bread), but also with pumpernickel sourdough and smoked salmon and cream cheese-filled burekas. Tucking into a plate of shakshuka served with za’atar-topped whipped labneh was as surreal as it was tasty. But it is simply part of the city’s growing landscape of Jewish and kosher cuisine.

It is far too early to claim Panama City as a kosher and Jewish food mecca on par with, say, Tel Aviv or New York City. But it is on the fast track.

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Panama City’s Jewish history stretches back centuries to when conversos and crypto-Jews settled there following the Spanish Inquisition. After Panama declared its independence from Spain in 1821 and the Panama Railroad was built in 1855, a small wave of Jewish immigrants—many from other parts of the Caribbean and South America—arrived seeking economic opportunity. By 1911, when the Panama Canal was completed, only 505 Jews called the city home. But over the past century, the community continued to grow—primarily with Sephardi Jews (the Syrian-Sephardi congregation, Shevet Ahim, is by far the largest of the city’s four synagogues), but also with an Ashkenazi minority. In the 1990s, a sizable number of Israelis settled in Panama, attracted by a favorable business climate. And in recent years, Jews from politically volatile countries like Venezuela have also arrived.

Today, Panama City’s Jewish community is estimated at 10,000 in a metropolitan area of 1.5 million, but it punches well above its weight. “They make it so easy to be Jewish here,” said Patricia Abadi, who leads tours of Panama City’s Jewish sites through a company called Turismo Judaico. In addition to the synagogues, there are three day schools (“About 90 percent of the community sends their children to one,” Abadi told me), and two giant kosher supermarkets—the one near our Airbnb was apparently only half the story—that sell thousands of international kosher products. And then there are the restaurants.

The first kosher restaurants in Panama City were opened in the early 1980s by Israeli transplants, but they closed shortly thereafter. In 1986, a kosher butcher shop called Shalom Kosher opened, along with the dairy restaurant Pita Pan. Both continue to operate today.

Darna’s Bread Co. was founded by chef Ayelet Vahnish Gal and her sister and business partner, Esther Dahan, in 2003, when Panama City’s kosher restaurant scene was still fairly limited. The sisters were raised between Israel and Panama City and grew up in a food-loving family of Moroccan heritage. Vahnish Gal went to culinary school in Israel, worked in a café in Tel Aviv, sold homemade schug at street fairs, and staged with the highly regarded Israeli chef Erez Komarovsky at his bakeryLechem Erez. But when it came time to open her own place, she chose to return to Panama City.

Her original vision for Darna’s Bread Co. did not include a kosher certification, but she had a change of heart at the 11th hour. “One day before opening, I said, ‘Let’s do it kosher!’” she told me. “It was crazy. We were ready to go and had meat and shrimp in the fridge.” Vahnish Gal said she saw a window of opportunity to serve Panama City’s growing Jewish population, while still catering to the larger community. Three months, a tweaked menu, and a brand new set of cookware and dishes later, the store opened with certification from the local rabbinical board. In 2007 she and Dahan added a second bakery-café location. And in 2010 they founded Lula by Darna, a kosher meat restaurant serving aged rib eyes, beef carpaccio, and rich halva parfaits.

On the other end of the spectrum is Solomon’s Deli. Founded in late 2015 by Corey and Sara Solomon, a Toronto couple who relocated to Panama City eight years ago (“We came for the first time on vacation and fell in love with it,” said Sara), the menu offers Montreal-style delicatessen classics like smoked meat sandwiches, and Quebecois staples like poutine—French fries smothered in beef gravy and dotted with fresh cheese curds.

The Solomons’ decision not to get kosher certification was largely economical: Their signature, Montreal-style smoked meat, which they fly in direct from the source, was cost-prohibitive with a kosher stamp, so they went without one. As a compromise, they put kosher pastrami, turkey, and roast beef on the menu as well. They also developed a mushroom-based gravy, so they could offer a poutine option that did not violate the prohibition against mixing milk and meat. “We keep a separate place in our steamer for the kosher meat, and use a separate knife and cutting board,” Solomon said. “We try to cast the widest net possible.”

An estimated, and rather staggering, 85 percent of Panama City’s Jewish community keeps kosher. “I cannot think of another country in the world, except maybe Israel, that is like Panama when it comes to such a high percentage of religious observance,” Abadi said. But, as with anywhere, a subset of the kosher keepers are somewhat flexible outside of the house. “We see tables where half of the diners keep kosher and half do not,” said Solomon. A few other restaurants, like Los Años Locos, offer a handful of discrete kosher meat options on an otherwise non-kosher menu.

Panamanian specialties like plantains and beef empanadas are not well-represented on the city’s kosher menus. But that is not terribly surprising; residents tend to cook these traditional foods at home and eat more internationally at restaurants. “My tour clients are often just amazed by how Jews live and eat in Panama,” said Abadi. “We have everything.”

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Leah Koenig is the author of Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today's Kitchen .