Mastering a Latin classic

Learning a basic, but complex, Panamanian dish
By LINDSAY STERLING  |  June 1, 2011

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THE MAGIC TOUCH Getting the preparation perfect takes years to master, even for a simple meal.

As I was picking my daughter up from school, my ears perked up to a woman telling a child it was time to go. She had an accent. Her skin was brown, her eyes big and chocolate, her hair black and long. Since I've cooked with something like 40 immigrants from all over the world, my guessing of people's origins is getting better. Recently I asked a parking lot attendant in Boston if by any chance she was from Eritrea (a country next to Ethiopia) because she looked uncannily like the Eritrean woman who taught me how to make injera. The attendant was thrilled — I'd guessed correctly! In San Francisco, I asked my airport shuttle driver, "Are you by any chance from Nicaragua? Your accent is exactly like my cooking teacher's." "Close!" he said, laughing with amazement, "El Salvador!" As for the woman in front of me, however, I had to ask. "Where are you from?"

"Panama," she said, breaking into a smile. Her answer was particularly thrilling to me because a dish from Panama was a missing puzzle piece on my world culinary tour. The prospect of what might unfold from here gave me the butterflies. Learning my first dish from a country, even if I never step foot out of Maine, feels like a major geographic feat, a country traveled, a grand vista earned. So — would she teach me to cook her favorite dish from home?

"Yes," she said definitively, nodding with a smile. God love the nice people of the world, inviting a stranger to a personal cooking lesson! It really feels like such a miracle when this is happening that I have to fight hard to keep from jumping up and down and looking crazy. Reigning in my exuberance, I responded. "Really? That would be so great!" My new cooking teacher's name is Gina. Full name: Karol Gina Barria Somarriba. She is a 28-year-old nanny from Panama City, Panama, working and going to cooking school in greater Portland. She offered to give me the lesson when her semester was over in three weeks. It was a long wait.

Panamanian arroz con pollo is an insanely delicious mixture of chicken and rice, studded with green olives. It's typically served at parties (accompanied by potato-and-beet salad and fried yellow plantains) because the ingredients are affordable: bone-in chicken legs, onions, celery, garlic, green pepper, tomato paste, rice, chicken stock, cilantro, green olives, habanero pepper, peas, carrots, and roasted red pepper. The cooking method doesn't appear too complicated, but Gina says the dish took years to master. She first learned, as most women in her culture do, from her mother and grandmother when she was 12. As the onions, peppers, celery, and garlic sizzled with the chicken meat, and later, a few minutes after she laid a banana leaf over the pot and the kitchen filled with the aroma of sweet grass, the book Like Water For Chocolate came to mind. It expressed exactly what I was feeling right then: Cooking in the way that Gina was has the power to change the course of reality. As we were enjoying the meal together, she displayed the final quality of an arroz con pollo master. "My mother's is still better," she said with requisite humility. Gina, I will be saying for a lifetime the same of yours.

Contact the author, print the recipe, and sign up for Gina's and Lindsay's upcoming live arroz con pollo class at ImmigrantKitchens.com.

  Topics: Food Features , Maine, San Francisco, Panama,  More more >
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