**Update at bottom of article**
Walking around Panama City or Colon early in the morning, you will notice that Panamanians rise early, car horns honk even more loudly, and that there is a delicious smell wafting through the air.
This smell is the scent of Panamanian breakfast, the staple of the working people of the isthmus. Whether served with huevos fritos, steak, black beans, or salchichas in tomato sauce, the one immutable constant of Panama’s most important meal of the day is a fried bread – the hojaldra.
This staple item has been described as a donut, although it’s crispy rather than chewy. It has been described as similar to the India puri, but is misshapen and thin compared to the puri’s round fluffiness. None of the descriptions really fit very well. An hojaldra then is very much an hojaldra, with no mistaking it for an offshoot of another cuisine (as much Panamanian cooking is derided).
Why does it have such a grip on the local tastebuds? It’s cheap, true, but rice is cheaper. It’s simple to cook but rice and beans probably edge it on that one too. What could it be?
Well, I’ll say this for the hojaldra. It is DELICIOUS.
The best hojaldras are chewy in the softest way, with the fried exterior giving a pleasing crunch and texture supported by a fluffy interior. The use of cheap oil doesn’t matter generally, as the hojaldra can survive a tremendous culinary ignorance and emerge resplendent, glorious and delicious. Easy to pick up and chew through, the hojaldra also has enough backbone to survive being used to ladle and carry sauces, making it perfect for the heavier sauces that accompany Panamanian breakfast.
Alongside this it is almost impossible to mess up. I struggle to think of a bad hojaldra I’ve eaten.
If you’re going to really try one simple, locally-popular dish for breakfast tomorrow, make sure it has an hojaldra next to it. As a sop for egg yolk it is marvellous and the bread makes an excellent carby addition to any tomato salsa.
The restaurant at the resort I work at is trying something new with hojaldras too, making a fusion of the Mexican taco and the Panamanian hojaldra. Hojaldra tacos served with ropa vieja (beef strips marinated in reduced tomato salsa) or mariscos mixtos (assorted seafood) are truly one of the best dishes to make your morning and I can attest that the difference between a saucy dish I like and a saucy dish I love in PTY often comes down to whether or not they have hojaldras served with it.
Good recipes are easily available online, as this is a pretty prominent dish that inevitably gets talked about by those who visit Panama. There are a number of regional variations on how and what you serve the hojaldra with, so make sure to ask if you’re at a fonda in Panama!
I was actually tweeted at by El Trapiche Panama who reminded me about their almost absurdly delicious hojaldra sandwiches. Guys, I can’t believe I forgot these. They were my staple breakfast item when I was living on Via Argentina, as I was visiting El Trapiche about 3 or 4 times a week to get a hold of them. Stuffed with loma, pierna, chicken and bacon (or one of your choice), these were some of the best hojaldra variations I’ve had in the city. Go check them out.