Dim Sum in PANAMA? Some of the Best in the World…….How So?

Food

https://www.cntraveler.com/story/tracing-the-roots-of-dim-sum-in-panama-city

A friend and I bustle through the red-lacquered wooden doorway at Wah Kee right at 10:24 a.m., excited we made it in time for dim sum—that variety of Cantonese delicacies and dumplings traditionally served with tea—as the best dishes tend to run out by noon. A server immediately approaches our table with a three-foot-tall push cart, stacked high with juicy shrimp har gow, succulent meatballs flecked with watercress, and rice paper rolls stuffed with char siu pork.

Frankly, I’m surprised to discover such quintessential Chinese food in Panama City. Here at Wah Kee, the dim sum tastes as good as in Hong Kong. Also, similarly, the dim sum service is typically only available during brunch hours, after which a seafood-forward menu leads with Cantonese banquet-style dishes such as chow mein with deep-fried crispy egg noodles.

This is no surprise to locals, though. Panama is home to one of the largest and oldest Chinese communities in South America, and the most vibrant Chinese enclaves shine in the country’s capital of Panama City. “The first Chinese who immigrated brought their culture, customs, and gastronomy,” says David Izquierdo, executive chef at The Santa Maria, A Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort in Panama City, and former restauranteur in Hong Kong.

Mestizo in the Santa Maria neighborhood offers a Sunday brunch buffet.

Mestizo in the Santa Maria neighborhood offers a Sunday brunch buffet.

 Osmy Martinez

Those early immigrants were a group of Chinese workers—705 total—who landed in Panama on March 30, 1854 to work for the Panama Railroad Company. “Since then, the Chinese never stopped immigrating,” says Esteban Cheung, a Panamanian-Chinese communication consultant based in Panama City. Today, one in five Panamanians can claim some form of Chinese ancestry.

Cheung believes that about half of Panama’s Chinese population lives in the capital, which has dozens of festivals and events that allow Panamanian-Chinese to celebrate and share their heritage.

“Here in Panama, families of all ethnicities celebrate Chinese holidays like Lunar New Year—locals are knowledgeable about the customs, dates, and foods served at each Chinese celebration,” says Felipe Chong, a Panamanian-Chinese chef in Panama City. Other easy-to-find Chinese traditions in the capital include dragon boat racing, weekly karaoke gatherings, and dozens of ethnic community organizations—possibly numbering over 60, according to Cheung. Soy sauce—known as salsa china—has been incorporated as a staple in many Panamanian households, and Chinese-owned retail stores are so common that corner stores are known simply as “el chino.”

The most significant contribution from the Chinese population is probably dim sum, though—known colloquially in Panama as desayuno Chino (Chinese breakfast). “Dim sum restaurants fill with non-Chinese [people] on the weekends, as it has become the typical Sunday breakfast,” says Chong. “You can even find dim sum at most grocery stores, sold right next to the cashier. At home, we cook typical Cantonese dishes such as fried rice, chow mein, and sweet and sour pork.” As in China, dim sum restaurants are a local go-to for occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.

The oldest remaining dim sum restaurant in Panama is Kwang Chow, which was established in the 1940s. Located in Panama City’s Barrio Chino (Chinatown) the Loo family bought the restaurant in 1978 and serves Chinese food that has been attuned to local tastes—ketchup is available on request, which some guests add to their chow mein. Sweet and sour pork is offered with a side of fries, and lo mein noodles boast the unexpected addition of canned ham.

But the range of offerings can be best demonstrated by the gulf between Kwang Chow and another of the best-known Cantonese restaurants in the city, run by the same family. In 1996, the Loo’s opened the more traditional Restaurante Sunly in the affluent suburb of El Dorado—the unofficial second Chinatown. This two-story, gold embossed restaurant features circular wooden tables topped with glass Lazy Susans, and its main room chatters with the sound of chopsticks. The menu includes dim sum and Cantonese dishes like savory beef chow fun, steamed garlic prawns with transparent vermicelli, and Peking duck.

Chinese culture and cuisine in Panama have long leaned Cantonese, as the original Chinese settlers were primarily from the Canton Province, says Izquierdo. This has been shifting, however, as an increasing number of Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE have opened headquarters in Panama, bringing new staff from all across China. As a result, the landscape of Chinese food in Panama City is quickly diversifying.

The Dim Sum Sampler at Wah Kee in Panama City

The Dim Sum Sampler at Wah Kee in Panama City

 Wah Kee

One example is China Bistro, which opened in July 2022, serving Sichuan favorites: fiery sliced pork belly in garlic sauce, chicken in chili oil, and a mouth-numbing Sichuan boiled beef. There’s also Da Long Yi Hot Pot—a restaurant offering Yuanyang-style hotpot from Chengdu, which features boiling vats of broth that customers dunk wood ear mushrooms and thinly sliced beef into.

“Fifteen to twenty years ago, you could only find Cantonese food in Panama City; finally, we can sample other kinds of Chinese cuisine,” says Cheung. “Although other Latin American countries like Peru have fusion cuisines like chifa—a distinct cuisine that blends Peruvian and Chinese food—Panama is unique in that much of its Chinese food preserves original flavors. Our Chinese food represents our dynamic community while also acting as a bridge between older and newer generations of [immigrants].”

Where to try Chinese food in Panama City

The most popular style of Chinese food in Panama City is arguably dim sum. Enjoy it at Kwang Chow in Chinatown, Restaurante SunlyWah Kee, and ​​Restaurante Tallarines in El Dorado—or head to the Sunday brunch buffet at Mestizo in the Santa Maria neighborhood. Elsewhere in the city, find the newly opened Sichuanese restaurant China Bistro in El Obarrio. There are also multiple options for hot pot, including So Hot Hot Pot near the Plaza Centennial Mall, and Da Long Yi Hot Pot and Grill Fish in the Condado del Rey neighborhood. If you’re craving Northern Chinese food, Panama City has you covered at Norexpress in El Dorado or Restaurante Laodifang in Condado del Rey. Visitors can also reach out to La Guía del Foodie for a guided El Dorado Chinese Food Tour.

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