Food Column: Comfort Food, Panamanian Style

Comfort food in Panama translates to sweet plantains and slow cooked black beans.


I recently traded in the kale and broccoli in my garden in Dunwoody for the plantains and coconuts in Panama. We arrived in Panama, my husband’s home country, just before Christmas, at the tail end of the rainy season, for a one-month visit.

My mother-in-law welcomed our family to her home with warm hugs, exclamations of niños lindos, and comfort food from my husband’s childhood: milanesa, arroz con frijoles negros, and platanos maduros

Milanesa, a thin slice of beef dredged in an egg batter, coated in bread crumbs, and fried until browned, reminds me a bit of the country fried steak from my Southern background, but with a squeeze of lime, plucked from the tree in my in-law’s backyard, rather than a slathering of gravy.

In my mother-in-law’s kitchen, a tall wire basket on wheels held onions, garlic, potatoes, and loads of plantains in shades of green to creamy yellow. For our welcome home dinner, she used the ripe plantains, peeled and cut and baked in a bit of oil until they caramelized into the sweet side dish, platanos maduros, that could easily masquerade as a dessert.

The arroz con frijoles negros — rice with black beans — is better known in our house as Abuela beans, a term coined by my daughter that means Grandma beans. We keep multiple Rubbermaid containers in our deep freezer filled with the beans my mother-in-law makes in bulk when she comes to visit us in Dunwoody.

Her beans turn out soft, but not mushy, in a thick broth seasoned with onions and peppers, and although she’s taught me several times how to soak the beans overnight and slow cook them, I haven’t quite mastered her technique. Which might be for the best. Every time my kids run through the aroma-rich kitchen as she ladles up a spoonful of Abuela beans to test their doneness, she gives them a memory, although the kids don’t yet understand the value of that gift.

As warm rain showered down outside, we wiped sweat from our brows and gathered around the same table where my husband ate his childhood meals. We passed bowls of steamy rice and plates of sweet plantains and conversed in a mixture of English and Español

My mother-in-law prepared our arrival meal with few seasonings beyond salt and garlic, yet it tasted better than many Latin dishes I’ve order in restaurants in the States. And in fact, I swear her Panamanian beans tasted even better in Panama.

Maybe location was the secret ingredient. Perhaps the open windows and tropical rain and parrots on the balcony elevated this meal from typical to muy rica.


Abuela Beans (AKA Black Beans):

1 pound of black beans, dried

7 cups of water

1 large green pepper, diced

1 large onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

2/3 cup olive oil

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1 bay leaf

2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

salt, to taste

2 tablespoon wine

2 tablespoon white vinegar



  • Soak the beans overnight. Do not throw away the water.
  • Simmer the beans in the water until they are soft.
  • In a pan, sauté the onion, pepper, and garlic in olive oil.
  • Ladle out 1 cup of the cooked beans. Smash the beans in the pan. Add this mixture to the pot with the rest of the beans.
  • Add oregano, bay leaf, sugar, salt, and black pepper. Simmer for an hour.
  • Add vinegar and wine and cooked on low heat for an hour more.


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