Merecumbé is my trademark, I chose it back at culinary arts school when I was working on my final project, creating a restarurant. It means a musical rythm, a fusion between Colombian Cumbia and the Merengue of the Caribbean. In Panama, my country, it has different connotations, usually referring to things that are a mess, but work well together... like jazz. A Merecumbé is likely to start before a bigger problem. In my culinary world everything is possible as long as it remains ordained by tecnique and discipline. It is by those two pilars that I support having the craziness around.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Panama Roots... The Embera Drua, What they Eat?

     Last summer my friend Arianne was here in Panama on vacations, she is Panamanian but lives in Italy right now. She is my most adventurous friend and I love traveling with her, we are like two Monica Gellers from the show Friends. We love having the perfect schedule, the route, the munchies, and the most important: the company. We decided to go to the northeast side of the rio Chagres where there is a reservation of indigenous people called the Embera Drua. The trip began at the Alajuela lake where we took a canoe.

Arianne and I

    The voyage was incredible, it was something like a little glance at our fauna and flora. We saw eagles, hummingbirds, herons... dragon flies flirting with the water, and butterflies fluttering all around. Not to mention the trees! If you looked closely you would see several Panama Trees, and a very tepid rainforest, part of the National Chagres Park. The Chagres River provides almost 50% of the water that is necessary for the Panama Canal to function, and it also supplies two of the biggest cities in the country, Panama and Colon.

When we arrived the Embera Drua received us cheerfully at the shore, they all gathered to welcome us. They took us to a ranch with wooden floor for visitors and gave us a brief explanation on how they arrived to the river. We were told that back in the 70's they migrated from Darien to the city, but never could adapt.  It is then when they established in this zone. They now conform about 20 families in this community.

Me with the Embera girls

They later explained to us their garments and the way they dress. Men wear a loincloths and women a top made with beads (originally was made with seeds), coins, and a skirt made with very colorful prints. Before they used cloth for their skirts, they used the bark of a tree. Now a days they go to the city and shop for fabrics. As part of their culture they paint their bodies with some sort of tattoos that last for weeks. The Embera Drua  make crafts with palm tree leafs that they dye, and with these fibers they make baskets, plates, vessels. They use a root called yuquilla to make yellow and green tones, achiote for orange, and teak leafs for read. For brown they use the bark of the cocobolo tree, mud for black, wild fruits for blue and different blends for shades of purple and pink. To make jewelry and sculptures they  work with the seeds of the Tagua palm tree, and dry it and paint it  They work very well with the cocobolo wood, and make a strong point not to varnish it, but to polish it to make it glossy. There is a small market in the community for visitors.
Indigenous women working her crafts

I was very interested to know what they ate in this community. I have to confess I had imagined a more diverse, seasoned repertoire. Their eating habits are based essentially in carbohydrates such as yucca, plantain, and rice. As a main source of protein they have fish such as Tilapia and Sargento which are from the river Chagres. Vitamins and minerals are supplied by fruits. The culinary techniques that are applied are deep frying, baking, and boiling. When I asked if they had any traditional dish they said no, that their diet was based on what natured supplied. Then a women made clear they had a ''rice bollo''. This dish was nothing more than unsalted boiled rice wrapped in a Bijao leaf that keeps it warm, so you can take it with you while you are working, like a lunchbox. Before and after each meal they wash their hands in a container that has water with basil.

  Water with basil vessel
The menu was fried tilapia with patacones (fried green plantain) and for dessert, fruits. The tilapia is a small river fish that looks more less like a trout, but with a more delicate flavor; it has white flesh and its very tender. The bones are very well structured and easy to find. My culinary discovery was finding out the tagua seeds are edible when they are fresh, and that their flavor resembles that of coconut water with a coconut texture. These are found during the rainy season, I am thinking... Ice cream!!!

I hope you enjoyed this culinary adventure, specially this month of November when we celebrate Panama's month, I think it is very important to remember who our people is and what are nature is.

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