15 Traditional Desserts You Will Absolutely Love in Panama

This is the ultimate must-try Panamanian desserts list. When it comes to desserts in Panama, we are going to forgo artificial flavorings, and opt for the all-natural flavors! Whether you are a child or a full-grown adult, these desserts have a special place in the hearts of the Panamanian culture. No matter the circumstances, there is always room for dessert! 

Our list features dessert pieces, exclusive to Panamanian culture, as ingredients and recipes are specific to Panama, and recipes have been handed down from generation to generation.

As you will see, recipes call for local tropical fruits, and recipes originating in Spain or Africa and adopted by the Panamanian culture to create their own. These ingredients all come together beautifully to create exotic tastes and visually appealing creations! 

Stay tuned, as we are about to embark into a sweet land, where the desserts will help you say cool in the tropical climate of Panama. We will no longer be holding out on the rest of the world by keeping these delicious Panamanian treats a secret!

1. Arroz con Leche

Cup of arroz con leche cake and s spoon
Arroz con leche” by manuel m. v. used under CC BY / Desaturated from original

Arroz con leche, or rice pudding, is quite possibly the most famous of the Panamanian desserts on our countdown! Arroz con leche is not only a staple dessert in Latin America, but it is also a pillar dessert! Arroz con leche was brought to Latin America by Spanish colonists during the colonization and New World era. In turn, it is thought that arroz con leche was originally brought over to Spain by the Muslim conquests of the Middle Ages.

Arroz con leche, in its simplest form, involves bringing milk to a medium-boil, along with rice and sugar. According to taste preferences, vanilla may also be added. Cinnamon serves as a flavoring, and a topping, the sweeter, the better! Grated coconut may also be added for garnishing to adorn the dish.

2. El Bocado de la Reina

With a name like El Bocado de la Reina, or Bite of the Queen, this dessert is a must-try. This dessert has one of the most interesting origins, dating back to 18th century France. During the time frame of 1786 and 1788, France was experiencing an agricultural crisis and amid a financial struggle. The Queen of France, in an attempt to maintain her high profile status, ordered her chefs to devise a dessert implementing leftovers and add flavorings. The chefs, improvising under such direction, grabbed leftover bread pieces, raisins, bananas, eggs, and milk. Intrigued by the taste, those who ate it inquired as to the unique taste and ingredients. Since that day, chefs have called it El Bocado de la Reina, or the bite of the queen.

Bocado de la Reina in its final form is a cake-like bread pudding made with leftover bread pieces and typically flavored with cinnamon. The raisins are optional, but if you are needing an extra dose of sweetness, by all means! This dessert comes together quickly, 30 minutes average time, to easily serve a crowd. Now, this dessert is fit for a queen.

3. Bolitas de Tamarindo

Bolitas de tamarindo cakes in a box
Tamarind Candy” by Sanjay Acharya, used under CC BY / Desaturated from original

Sugar balls with tamarind fruit, this may single-handedly be the most simplistic of all Panamanian desserts to make! Tamarindo, or Tamarind, is a tree indigenous to Africa, but can also be found in South America. The fruit of the tree can be found inside hard brown pods, which produce a tart pulp. It is this ingredient that is essential for this dessert. Bolitas de Tamarindo combines sour and sweet tastes, and with just two ingredients, this dessert has been a long favorite amongst the Panamanian culture. If you love the taste of tamarind, then you will love this dessert.

4. Cabanga

Cabanga is a Panamanian word that translates into feelings of nostalgia, homesick, or lovesick. Interestingly enough, the word has a dessert with the same name. The dessert is made using three main ingredients: coconut, green papaya, and sugarcane honey. These three ingredients are meant to be finely ground and eventually the mixture is boiled. After hardening, the mix is shaped into triangular or cylindrical pieces and wrapped in sugarcane leaves.

Though not as popular as other Panamanian desserts, cabanga can be found on roadside stands in Central Panama or the marketplace. The dessert is so rich in sweet tastes, that you may forget your melancholy feelings!

5. Cocadas

cocadas cookies cake just baked
Cocadas” by Tamorlan, used under CC BY / Desaturated from original

When it comes to cocadas, the number one rule is, sharing is caring! The source of origin of these treats is still up for debate, as some believe it originated from Spain while others point to Colima, Mexico, and others to 19th century Peruvian culture. Nevertheless, cocadas are among the most famous and favorite of the Panamanian desserts! Cocadas are delicious bite-sized coconut cookies made with sweetened or condensed milk and are usually served at room temperature. The dessert is oven-toasted and receives a golden brown color, and its consistency is soft and chewy. It is no wonder this dessert is next-level delicious and the perfect coffee companion, a perfect way to end Panamanian cuisine!

Occasionally, food coloring is sometimes used for extra drama and flair, oftentimes that of the Panamanian flag so that the dessert is patriotic, as much as it is delicious!

6. Flan

Flan has become a universal dessert, its origins from the middle ages of Spain. Flan is cooked in a water bath, its final consistency that of gelatinous and creamy texture and can be served either hot or cold. This dessert is the Spanish counterpart of crème caramel, and can be best described as a small slice of Panamanian heaven! Flavoring can vary depending on personal tastes and region, the most essential ingredients, however, are milk (often cooked with vanilla) cinnamon and lemon peel.

Throughout Latin America, flan is referred to as dulce de leche in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, quesillo in Venezuela, and pudin de leite condensado in Brazil. In the Dominican Republic, coconut is added and is also called quesillo. In Cuba, it is called flan de Cuba, with enhanced flavor from a cinnamon stick. Flan, in all its forms, and names, has been adopted throughout all of Latin America but is especially regarded and hailed a classic family dessert. Packed with so much flavor and personalization from each country that has embraced it, it is no wonder why flan has become a staple, and the mother of all desserts, throughout the Americas!

7. Gollería de Platano

Gollería o Bollería is a lesser-known dessert, however, Panamanians are all too familiar with this delicious and savory dish! Plantains are the main ingredient for this dish, packing a highly tropical flavor. The plantains are cut into strips, like those resembling fries. The plantains are then fried along with a mixture of cinnamon, vanilla extract, molasses, and the least expected ingredient, rum! After the plantains are simmered into the mixture for about 10 minutes, the dish is ready to be served! The result? Thin slices of plantains soaked in rum and sweetness. A dessert dish that is quick and effortless, however, one of the best-kept secrets of Panama, is now being shared with the rest of the world!

8. Huevitos de Leche

Huevitos de leche, or ‘milk eggs’, are one of Panama’s most adored candy treats. Essentially, in the simplest of explanations, huevitos de leche are Panamanian milk candy! All ingredients are locally grown and include I fine blend of sugar, milk, vanilla extract, and freshly shredded coconut. The mixture is boiled, caramelized, and formed into the shape of an egg, hence the name of the candy! The candy is hand-made then hand-wrapped with decorative pieces of paper, and forever sealed and caramelized in tradition.

The huevitos de leche began as a family tradition in Chiriquí Province, in Panama. Originally, the candy was called huevitos de faltriquera and eventually took the name huevitos de leche. Faltriquera meaning, a piece of cloth made by hand, very fitting for these highly personalized candies that are deeply rooted in Panamanian culture!

9. Mamallena

Panamanian mamallena cake slice on a plate
Bread Pudding” by Roly Williams, used under CC BY / Desaturated from original

Panamanian Mamallena, or raisin bread pudding, has for generations graced Panamanian breakfast tables across the country! Mamallena is a dessert made with leftover bread pieces, sugar, eggs, butter, vanilla extract, and the mandatory raisins! Mamallena is served at room temperature, a glass of milk the perfect companion for this delicious dessert.

10. Manjar Blanco

Manjar Blanco, also known as manjar de leche, is the Spanish term for blancmange, a European delicacy. In Panama and the rest of the Americas, manjar blanco refers to a pasty filling or a sweet white spread made with milk as a base. In other parts of Latin America, this dessert is referred to as dulce de leche, or candy of milk.

Manjar blanco can be used to accent other desserts, eaten with cookies, or even better, simply on its own! When used in conjunction with other desserts, manjar blanco is used as fillings for cakes, waffles, cookies, and ice-cream. This is one Panamanian dessert that is highly coveted! The dessert can be found in any marketplace, however, it is relatively easy to make at home, with a few easy to follow steps!

11. Merengue

Small pink merengues cake

Merengue cookies are a staple treat in Panamanian families. They are bite-sized baked cookies, crisp, sweet, and light as a cloud! The stiffer and the fluffier the meringue cookie, the better they crunch! Although the ingredients are relatively straight forward (whipped egg whites and sugar), the key is to create a fluffy and sturdy mixture. Upon tastes, one can add different flavors such as vanilla extract, almond extract, cream of tartar, drops of lemon juice, or white vinegar. 

Adding dried fruit pieces are a common addition for the Panamanian country! Merengue has become a staple dessert among the Christmas table in Panamanian culture. Scrumptious, rich, sweet and decadent, what more can you ask for in a dessert? Luckily, merengue cookies are relatively easy to prepare and a batch of 20 can be easily made, these are sure to go quickly!

12. Orejitas

Orejitas, or little ears, received their names due to the shape of the dessert resembling little elephant ears. Orejitas, also known as palmiers, are best described as puffy pastry cookies and are commonly found in bakeries all across Panama. Orejitas consistency is crips and delicate and is best enjoyed during breakfast with a warm cup of coffee, or as an afternoon snack accompanied by a warm cup of tea! Since indulging is the goal, upon taste preference, one can choose to add cinnamon to the mixture for added sweetness.

13. Sopa Borracha

Sopa Borracha, or drunken soup, is a sponge cake with a layer of sweet syrup. It is an unthinkable crime of cataclysmic proportions to throw a party in Panama without sopa borracha. As the name of the snack implies, sopa borracha is an adult dessert! The sopa borracha is a staple at weddings or fifteen celebrations, anniversaries, or special banquets. The dessert is also a staple for NYE parties and family reunions. The preparation of the sopa borracha is quite simple but requires patience so that its raisins and prunes absorb the flavor of the rum and brandy well. The sponge cake base layer bathes in this alcoholic mixture and the syrup is added as a topping. The syrup is made of cinnamon, cloves, sugar, and lemon.

The sopa borracha, during formal events or venues, is served in exquisite goblets and accompanied by an adorning fancy spoon. All in all, sopa borracha is a very simple, but effective dessert sure to enhance the celebrations!

14. Tres Leches

Tres leches, or three milks cake, is a staple dessert loved and cherished all over Panama and the rest of Latin America. What is special about this cake is after baked, it is saturated and soaked into a mixture of three various types of milk: evaporated, sweetened condensed, and either whole milk or heavy cream. This is where the name of the cake is derived from, tres leches! The breading is very moist, but not soppy, giving it just the right blend of rich and creamy. The cake is then topped with a rich cloud of whipped cream, and fruits as toppings. Fruits usually include strawberries, slices of peaches, or slices of mango! The tres leches cake is a staple cake in Panama, especially for birthday celebrations.

Of course, tres leches cake would not be complete without a hint of drama, as the dispute continues over where it was first created. Historians believe it was in Nicaragua. It is reported, that the first print of the tres leches cake recipe was in the early 1900s, on the back of a condensed milk can product circulating in Latin America. Whichever the case, tres leches cake has become embedded in the Panamanian culture, along with the rest of Latin America.

15. Raspado

Three glasses of raspado with juice of maracuja and condensed milk

The raspado, pronounce raspa’o, is not something Panamanians prepare at home, it’s a treat usually enjoyed on a busy street corner. Panamanian raspados, or snow cones, are not your typical snow cones! In Panama, the snow cones are taken up a level by adding condensed milk. One can then choose their favorite flavor, or a combination of several flavors and the toppings can be as over the top (literally), as you’d like!

Raspados are typical street food, and so if you are looking for a vendor, strolling down to the touristy or high traffic areas is a sure bet! Finding a vendor is also highly probable at a national holiday parade or during festivals as well. Be rest assured, there are no shortages of raspados in Panama. What can be more satisfying than a cold raspado of your favorite flavor on a hot tropical Panamanian afternoon?

Buen Provecho!

Panamanian desserts are a whole world beyond just cake and cookies, they have a special touch of Panamanian culture and history embedded into every savory flavor. From the drama-filled backstory of the el bocado de la reina, to the hand-made and hand-wrapped huevitos de leche, Panamanian desserts come with a personal touch. From our sopa borracha to gollería de platano, we saw how Panamanians love to incorporate the use of rum into their celebratory dishes, and their not so celebratory dishes! 

We learned that everything Panamanian comes with a twist, as we saw with our raspados (or raspa’o ) and the unexpected condensed milk addition. We also saw bite-sized quick desserts like bolitas de tamarindococadas, and merengue, to the more complicated of creations like the flan and the tres leches cake. All of this dessert talk has got us good with a sweet tooth and we must indulge ourselves with some delicious desserts. 

When traveling, it is virtually impossible to deny yourself the pleasures the land has to offer. If you have a serious sweet tooth, it is impossible to imagine you will ever get tired of these desserts. If you are in Panama, be on the lookout for some of these offerings at local restaurants. Or, for your next dessert project, consider making one of the above desserts the next time you need a sugar fix! In either case, remember, desserts are better enjoyed at night when nobody is watching! As the Panamanians say, Buen provecho!

Matt Romero

I’m Matthew Romero, one of the guys behind PanamaLifeInsider.com I am incredibly passionate about Panama, its beautiful territory, and all the incredible opportunities which offer to people coming here from all over the world both either visiting and settling. In this blog, I decided to share my passion with you!

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