Christmas should be a time of giving and good feeling even if we don’t always observe the traditional exchanging of gifts and decoration of our surroundings. These days, however- in Panama as well as elsewhere- folks are obsessed. They eat and drink (alcoholic beverages) to the point of unconsciousness usually making themselves sick from their incessant feasting and general Rumba. Making merry is taken to excessive levels in our world and the statistics for emergency room admissions on account of intoxications will testify to this.
Growing up in Panama my Westindian ancestors had a collection of remedies for keeping the body toned and revitalized whenever we would put it to the test by overindulging in all of this seasonal surfeiting. One of them was a tonic called Isinglass (some write it Icinglass). My grandmother Fanny Reid first introduced me to Isinglass as she prepared and drank it often herself. After a while she would offer it to me and, being receptive to her motherly attentions, I would gladly drink it. Apart from the tell tale taste of sea weed, its taste was pretty acceptable and I would observe how she prepared it.
Isinglass comes from the old British preparation of gelatin from the swim bladders of fish and later on from its commercial preparation from cow and pork bones and hooves. Today, with all the concerns for mad cow disease and the dietary requirements of vegetarians and vegans in the world, several vegetable substitutes for gelatin are now widely used.
My grandmother would send me to the Botica on the side street adjacent to Magnolia Building to purchase her principal ingredients for this concoction. She would say, “Juni, you go to the pharmacy and buy me some Isinglass, sea moss, and Gomorra. Take the money out me purse.” At first I would hesitate and ask her, “But, Mamí, Gomorra?” “You just tell him ‘Gomorra’ and he will know what you mean.”
The rather sullen owner of the tiny little drug store knew exactly what I was there for as soon as I’d step up to the counter and ask for these things. Without a word he would go and whip out a strange looking stringy mass of Isinglass (hard and brittle to the touch), a generous portion of sea moss and a goodly amount of “Gomorra,” wrap it up and off I’d go. It wouldn’t be until much later when I’d return to my beloved Panama as a grown man that I would discover what “Gomorra” really was.
In trying to collect the ingredients to make my own batch of Isinglass, people told me that I could only get those ingredients at Botica Javillo up in Santana and when I asked the pharmacist for Gomorra he knew exactly what I meant. He placed a small bag of Gum Arabic on the counter and it was only then that the mystery of “Gomorra” was cleared up. So much for my Westindian people’s sometimes inscrutable vernacular!
These days I buy the sea moss from a Westindian man who collects it himself up on the beach in Colon, cleans it, dries it, packages it and comes down to the 25 Street area to sell it. An industrious man, he told me he derives a living from selling this product.
For Christmas I’ve decided to share an Isinglass Recipe with my readers and bid you all a Merry and Blessed Christmas!
Isinglass – Icinglass- Westindian Style in Panama
1 to 1½ cups of dried sea moss (sea weed) preferably the stringy kind½ cup unflavored gelatin powder or 2 or 3 sheets of leaves of gelatin (pictured above)*Note: there are various non-animal gelatin products just Google around.2 tablespoons ground up Gum Arabic (Gomorra) soaked until dissolved. Soak the sea moss until it becomes reconstituted. Dissolve the gelatin in hot water. Run the sea moss through the food processor if you wish and mix with the other two ingredients. Cook the mixture for maybe 10 to 15 minutes and remove from the stove. Allow it to cool and then flavor it with cinnamon, nutmeg and add evaporated or whole milk to taste, or soy milk- whatever you prefer. Refrigerate until it is a bit thick and serve. Great taste and quite nutritious as a reconstituting tonic!