To Quench a Thirst
By Fannie P. Hernandez
Culinary Capers: The Panama Canal Review, Spring 1973
Discovering a new beverage is always a special pleasure, particularly if it is readily available and reasonable. Let us consider first the versatile coconut. Who can pass up the cool, pure freshness of green coconut beverage, known in Panama as pipa water, once having tasted the sweet, clear liquid of the unripe coconut! Always pure and cool in the container that nature provided, the liquid could well be that nectar of the gods so often alluded to by one who has just satisfied a raging thirst.
Fruit of the Palm
The refreshing and palatable drink is from the fruit of the palm tree, the constant supplier of food, shelter, clothing, timber, wax and wine. Furnishing tannin, dyeing agents, resin and a host of minor products make it the most valuable tree to the native population in the tropics and one of the worlds most important crop trees.
The ripe fruit gives us the familiar shredded coconut, and oil from it is used in making soaps, shampoos, detergents, oils, margarine, vegetable shortening, synthetic rubber, glycerine, hydraulic brake fluid and plasticizing for safety glass!
Mounds of green pipas and ripe coconuts can be found throughout the year at markets, at fruit stalls along the highway, and in every town and village in the Republic.
To enjoy the cool beverage, simply cut off the top of the pipa and drink it directly from the fruit or use a straw. Or pour it into a pitcher, spoon out the tender jelly-like pipa meat and add it to the water. A little sugar to taste may be added. For a more spirited beverage, add rum, gin or vodka.
Less known is the refreshing drink made from the fruit of the tamarind tree. Misnamed by Europeans who thought the brown pods were fruit of the palm because the Arabians called it tamar hindi or Indian date, the tree is not a palm at all. It is a tall stately tree with lacy foliage that curls up at sundown. A tamarind is often planted near the house as a windbreaker.
The fruit is really a pod, from about 1 1/2 inches to 8 inches long, often growing in clusters of three or four. The pods are filled with seeds and an acid, juicy pulp, dark brown in color. The beverage is made by shelling the fragile, tree-dried pods, removing the sticky pulp from the seeds and mixing it with water. The pulp is considered to have laxative properties while the seeds are astringent.
Chicha de Tamarindo
The popular native beverage is called Chica de Tamarindo and here is one way to make it:
2 cups tamarind seeds, removed from the pods
1 quart of water
1 cup of sugar, more or less
Place the shelled tamarinds in a large bowl and add 2 cups of water. Using your hands, rub the seeds to remove the pulp. Strain through a sieve and repeat the process using the remainder of the water until all the pulp is removed from the seeds. Add sugar to taste. Mix well and serve very cold. This makes a strong beverage. Dilute to your taste.
To make Tamarind Balls which can be stored and used for making beverage, candy or sauce when tamarinds are out of season, simply add about 3/4 cup of sugar to 1 cup of tamarind pulp and knead until you have a smooth dough. Add no water. Make balls about the size of a walnut. Roll in coarse sugar and store in a tightly covered jar.
A beverage fruit relatively new on the local scene is the naranjilla, introduced to the Isthmus from Ecuador by Fritz Collins, a well known fruit grower in the highlands of Boquete in Chiriqui Province. Naranjilla is also a popular fruit in Colombia where it is known as lulu. Colombians mix the strained fruit juice with condensed milk and call it sorbete de lulu. The fruit is about the size of a small orange, the color of an orange and grows on a bush similar to a tomato plant. Its thin, smooth skin peels easily, much like removing the skin from a ripe tomato that has been dipped in hot water.
To make naranjilla beverage, peel three ripe naranjillas, cut them up and place in a blender with two cups of water and half a cup of sugar. Whirl for about 2 minutes. Strain to remove the tiny seeds. Serve over ice. Tastes a little like fresh sweet apple cider.
One of the lesser known beverage fruits is nance, a small tart, yellow cherry-like fruit with a strong flavor and penetrating scent. It is sold at markets and along the highway in the Interior, packed in water, usually in bottles. The flavor of nance varies slightly from tree to tree and generally requires an acquired taste for most foreigners. Used fresh with water and sugar as chicha fresca, it is a refreshing beverage. Fermented, it becomes a potent chicha fuerte.
Chicha de Nance
Two species of nance are common in Panama, nance colorado and nance blanco. Both grow profusely in acid soil. The bark of the nance colorado is used by campesinos to treat fish nets against mildew and fungus. It also is used for medicinal purposes such as the treatment of athletes foot and other skin fungus diseases. Wood of the nance trees is highly in demand for firewood as it burns leaving a fine white ash. Nance is harvested by shaking the tree. Come October you can buy a bottle of those yellow things on your way to the Interior and make Chicha de Nance this way:
Mash the contents of 1 bottle of nance. Add about a quart of water. Add sugar to taste and serve very cold or over ice. It is a great thirst quencher.
Fruit beverages are good the year around, but sorrel, the light, spicy concoction made from the bright, red blossoms of a shrubby plant of the ornamental hibiscus family, combined with other flavorings, seems to be more appropriate during the Christmas season, when it is available. Sorrel is also related to the okra family. It is not really a fruit but the petals of a flower. The deep, red petals have a tangy flavor similar to the cranberry. Make sorrel beverage like this:
2 cups sorrel petals
1/4 ounce crushed ginger root
1 small piece orange peel
3/4 cup sugar
4 cups boiling water
Cut off the hard portion at the base of the flower, discard the seed pod. Wash the sorrel petals. Place in a large bowl with the ginger, cloves and orange peel. Add the boiling water and let it steep overnight. The following day, strain the liquid and add the sugar. Stir well and serve cold or with ice. By adding a dash of rum, you have a delicious, heady beverage.
Chicha de Maranon
Plentiful on the local market, especially in the early part of the rainy season, is the cashew apple, that is not a true fruit. The real fruit of the cashew are the roasted nuts we buy in cans. The exceedingly juicy maranon, as the cashew apple is called in Spanish, when fully ripe makes an excellent drink. The maranon tree is beautiful with its bright red or orange colored apples.
To make Chicha de Maranon, cut up the fleshy, fully ripe fruit and press it in a food mill and then strain. Add water and sugar to taste. Or better still, whirl in a blender with water. Strain and then add sugar. Serve cold or over ice.
Chicha de Guanabana
Delicious beverages are made with a combination of fruit pulp or juice, milk, crushed ice and sugar, the amount of sugar varying with the sweetness of the fruit and ones taste. Topping the list of these milk sherbert-like beverages is Chicha de Guanabana or soursop beverage. The fruit is large and dark green and filled with soft, snowy white pulp and deliciously flavored juice. It grows on a small, slender tree, often growing directly from the trunk. It should be picked from the tree while it is still firm and kept at room temperature until ripe. Make it like this:
1 large ripe guanabana, 2 or 3 pounds
2 cups evaporated milk
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
Chicha de Arroz con Pina
Since it was first discovered by Columbus on the West Indies Island of Guadeloupe in 1493, the pineapple has been one of the worlds favorite fruits. In addition to using it as food and beverage, the Caribs placed a pineapple on their doors as a sign of hospitality. It was so highly esteemed by the earliest settlers in the new world that the pineapple motif soon became a favorite European decoration.
Commercially, in addition to the fruit and juice, the pineapple shells, ends, and trimmings are processed to make citrus acid used in making drugs, soft drinks and foods. Even the enzymes from the stumps of the mature plant are used in the brewing of beer and as a tenderizer. Many thousands of tons of pineapples from Hawaii are carried through the Canal each year en route to world markets. Several varieties are available in Panama during dry season and the beginning of rainy season. Panamanians will tell you that the worlds best pineapples come from the Island of Taboga. One of the favorite beverages in Panama is made from the peel of the pineapple. Here is the recipe for making Chicha de Arroz con Pina:
1/2 cup of rice
1 cup of evaporated milk
sugar to taste
Select a good sized pineapple. Wash it thoroughly and peel it. Boil the peel with the rice in water to cover. When the rice is tender, discard the peel and strain. Add milk and sugar to the liquid and serve very cold.
Here is another Panamanian favorite:
Cut off a pineapple about 1 1/2 inches down from the top. Remove the core being careful not to cut through the bottom. Pour rum into the pineapple. Put the top back on it and place in the refrigerator overnight. The pineapple absorbs the rum and the rum takes on the pineapple flavor. You will have a delicious rum drink. Slice the pineapple and serve as a fruit course or use as a garnish. (Especially good with ham).
One of the most common of wild fruit trees in Panama is the jobo, which reaches a height of from 40 to 60 feet and bears an abundance of fruit. The ripe fruit, about 1 1/2 inches long and 3/4 inches across, makes an excellent beverage. It has a thin, bright yellow skin and a soft juicy pulp around a large seed. The flavor varies considerably from tree to tree, ranging from sweet to sweet-tart. Harvesting the jobo is easy as the fruit falls when it is ripe. Pick it up from the ground before the insects and birds get to it.
Chicha de Jobo
To make Chicha de Jobo : Wash the ripe fruit and, using your hands, remove the pulp from the large seed. Press it through a strainer. Dilute the pulp with water to suit your taste. Add sugar and serve over ice.
The flesh of the pulpy fruits is also commonly used in making sauces, candies and ice cream in Panama and all tropical America.