Fish And Faith At Panama's Fish Market

"And He said to them: 'Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.' So they cast, and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish." — John 21:6

The Gospels' miraculous catch of fish seems to have occurred every morning in Panama City's seafood market. And in a Central American country where fish and seafood, most commonly in the form of ceviche, fried corvina and seafood stew, are daily bread for the fortunate, the fishmongers give thanks as effusively as the believers on the shores of Galilee.

Praises cover hand-painted wooden signs above each stall at the market, a compact contemporary building near the entrance to the city's historic neighborhood. The market was built with the help of the Japanese government.

"If God is with me who can be against me?" asks the sign at Stand 55; "Jesus is the Power" proclaims Stand 56. Stand 64 testamizes to Jehovah.

A shy fish seller I'll call Roberto couldn't pinpoint the origin of the tradition that turned the market stalls into altars. He remembered the signs as having always been there, but was quick to point out what he considered to be a heretic in their midst.

"That one is Santeria," he whispered, pointing to a sign paying homage to the Cuban patron saint La Caridad del Cobre.

The market was quiet at noon on a weekday during my recent trip to the Panama Jazz Festival, and for the time being the piles of fish served only as offerings to their lord. But the upstairs restaurant was packed, and the service even worse than the usual surreally slow pace of most Panama City establishments. I dreamed about trying the Levante Lazaro (Wake Up Lazarus), a seafood soup said to be the perfect antidote to too much rum. Waitresses carried trays of broiled sea bass, fried plantains – here called patacones – and my favorite, whole fried corvina, to groups of office workers, but my pleas to order were greeted only with a couple of absent, annoyed waves.

Starving, I admitted defeat and went back down to the floor of the market. Like a sign from above, a stall called "Ceviche La Solución" appeared before my eyes. A voice from above, belonging to the proprietor Boris, asked, "Do you want shrimp or fish?" I bought a cup of mixed ceviche for $2.00. It tasted rather bland. But I was thankful.

Two days later, I headed for the Casco Viejo, where the Jazz Festival was offering a free all-day concert in front of the cathedral. This UNESCO-designated World Heritage area is the site of small restaurants and bars that have lately been capturing the attention of culinary tourists. A few other visitors and I skipped the stands at the concert selling mojo spiced hot dogs and barbecued chicken and decided on Casa Blanca. The restaurant sits on Plaza Bolivar, a small colonial square that is one of the prettiest spots in Panama City. Casa Blanca describes their food as "a mix of Pacific ethnic cuisine" but, despite the lounge music and a fancier presentation, the food is basic, and good. I had my whole corvina. We walked a few streets over to Granclement (Ave. Central at Calle Tercera), for amazing homemade coconut ice cream. The Panama City food experience, was, for me, redeemed.