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Latin America’s Best: Juan Deago’s Panamanian Cocada edit

2006_2 Thank you TasteEverything.org for organizing this event, and for giving us the opportunity to let the world know about one scrumptious creation and its maker. This is our contribution. We invite you to read further and learn about a Master Artisan from Panama, well known in this land for preparing the best cocadas.

When I asked Juan Deago how old he was, he said with a picturesque smile that he didn't remember. It was then when I knew he was my kind of person: after 28, my age counting special clock stopped. I do not have a clue of how old I am or when did his age counting clock died, but one thing I sure know: Mr. Deago is a living legend and the role model for generations that refuse to let go the pride for our roots and the magic of transforming a simple food into a delicacy. Food for the gods of the tropics, food for the soul and what it really means to love the land that gave us a home. One of the few who is willing to share the most treasured secrets in order to let this marvelous tradition go on.

It was a long drive from Panama City to Monagrillo, the town where Juan Deago and his legend live. Almost four hours of drive, good thing that we left Panama City at 6 AM. The cool morning breeze and the stories I have heard of him guided us to find his house. It was just luck, because we arrived too early and Mr. Villalobos, Kelly's father, was expecting us to arrive at 1 PM to take us to see his uncle.

Co_1_5 I normally can not find  my car in a empty parking lot, but that day I found Tio Juancho. He was there, sitting in a chair in his patio. I parked my car under a tree, so my mom and my little niece didn't roast under the fiery sun. It was 10:30 Am when I walked up to him. I asked if he knew Juan Deago, the one famous for making the most delicious cocadas. Puzzled still he replied that he was the one I was looking for. Then he smiled! "How did you find me?" he replied. "I do not know, but if you believe in miracles, this obviously was one of them."

He sang the songs and recited the poems his mother taught him when he was only eight years old. I got goose bumps all over my body,...truly amazing is that he is so sharp! Looking through his eyes I saw that young child, full of life and perennially in love with his land and its infinite wonders.

cocada panama cooking cookingdiva gourmet panamagourmet chef cook cocina cocinero melissa de leon cookingdiva.net receta recetas recipe recipes food blog award premio artes culinarias escuela

Juancho_3_1 He told me about his mother. He said that she lived to be nighty- three, and that she made cocada almost until the last day of her life. She raised her nine children, by herself, just with the small profits of making and selling her truly unique cocada and "cabanga" in town. Cocada is a traditional  Latin American dessert made with coconut and molasses in this case. Cabanga is a sweet made with green papaya and molasses. They are both delicious to the last bite.

Juancho_1 Juan Deago is the living legend of a dream, the original soul of the land. He is my "cocada hero!" He showed me the small kitchen, with ashes that could tell the most amazing stories from the long gone times. I even saw in the ground an engraved stone sign with his last name on it. Then I asked,..."Tio Juancho, what is that?" He looked at me, and said that it was a piece of his father's grave. It was somehow broken and they had to replace it. How this little piece ended there, I do not know. No special magic meaning I guess..., it was just there.

Ray_1_1 To make this already marvelous story even more interesting, I've got to tell you about Angelita Deago. She is Tio Juancho's sister and a very talented cook and poet too. It seems to me that these gifts run in the family. Angelita has been famous in Panama for preparing the best chorizos. Marianne, Kelly's mother, wrote an amazing piece on this amazing woman.

Thank you Kelly for letting us know about your uncle. Thank you Ruben for sharing the source of your inspiration, the same one that led you to the writing of the poem "Tio Juancho." Thank you Marianne for your support and for translating Ruben's poem into Spanish from English.

Mel_juan_2_1 I feel honored for having the opportunity to meet Tio Juancho in person. I feel honored for the warm welcome, for the authentic smile, for the poems, for the songs, and specially for the most marvelous cocada I have ever had in my humble life.

I have tried many, all over the world, but no other cocada matches the flavor, texture, consistency and the aroma of his. This is truly the best of its kind, and it is worth this award for 1.5 centuries of making the best cocada ever, and for pairing it with the most sublime poems and songs that celebrate life and love.

God bless you Juan Deago and Gracias!

With Love,


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  • by Chef Melissa
  • March 06, 2006
  • 9:30 pm


Picture of nebur nebur said on...
03.06.06 at 11:57 PM |


Thank you so very much for this moving tribute.  I know mi tio’s eyes sparkled as he sang his stories to you.  It has been a couple of years since I’ve seen him, but today, as I read this entry, I could taste his cocada, interrupted by the melodic crackling of his voice and the smell of the fire.

I also know that mi abuelita didn’t make cocada for at least a decade before she died.  But then again, I’m sure this wasn’t the first time mi tio stretched the truth to impress a senorita!

Thanks again!

Picture of kelly kelly said on...
03.07.06 at 12:13 AM |

My eyes are a bit teary as I write this commment.  What an honor for my Tio Juancho.  Melissa, thank you for finding Juancho and telling his story.  We have always thought that he was a special man, now everyone else will know about him.  I know that he will be tickled pink to know that he is on the internet!!!  ¡Gracias amiga!

Picture of kjerringa mot strommen kjerringa mot strommen said on...
03.07.06 at 01:23 AM |

Thank you, Melissa for such a tribute to our family and to a memorable man.  I think it is also a great idea to bring to life the authentic roots of a culture and a perhaps forgotten time when so much these days is pre-packaged, homogenized and plastic.

Picture of Elena Hernández Elena Hernández said on...
03.07.06 at 08:07 AM |

Wow! What a beautiful post Melissa, Congratulations!

Picture of elise elise said on...
03.07.06 at 11:13 AM |

Hi Melissa - what a wonderful tribute to this man and the joy he has brought to others over the years.  Thank you!

Picture of melissa_cookingdiva melissa_cookingdiva said on...
03.07.06 at 11:13 AM |

It was my pleasure!!! We had a great time, and we are planning to go back there to give Tio Juancho a hard copy of the award. I’ll keep you posted! Hugs,

Picture of Prim Prim said on...
03.07.06 at 02:52 PM |

Lovely post! What a pleasure to read. Thank you!

Picture of Michelle Michelle said on...
03.07.06 at 06:40 PM |

What a beautiful tribute and story, Melissa.  I loved the way you wrote it and the way you brought everyone and all of the sights, smells, sounds, and taste alive for us.  Thank You so much for sharing!

Picture of Don Ray Don Ray said on...
03.07.06 at 08:40 PM |


What a wonderful piece you have written. I couldn’t keep from posting a part of it on my site directing my readers to read it on your site. I was most taken by the poem.

Picture of dogj dogj said on...
03.07.06 at 09:29 PM |

When I think of the delicious desserts from Panama, I always remember the “cocada.” Thanks to people like Juan Deago we have kept our traditions, and thanks to people like Chef Mely we learn more about them.

Picture of Eliana Eliana said on...
03.07.06 at 10:46 PM |

Melissa, this post is wonderful, I would like to try Tío Juancho Cocadas. In Venezuela we called them “conservas de coco” and I love them.

Picture of Paz Paz said on...
03.07.06 at 11:59 PM |

Beautiful post.  Thank you.


Picture of Vickie Vickie said on...
03.08.06 at 09:37 AM |

Too often we meet people, think they are nice but never take the time to know their story.  I really loved your article.  It shows that young people should know their history and the history of the things we take for granite day-to-day.  Great stuff!

Picture of gemma gemma said on...
03.08.06 at 12:12 PM |

That is a beautiful post Melissa.  Thank you so much for sharing.

Picture of Antonio Touriño Antonio Touriño said on...
03.09.06 at 12:57 PM |

Bueno Melissa, gracias por la interesante historía del Tío Juancho. De verdad que tenemos que preservar nuestras costumbres y tradiciones y el tío es uno de los que hace su parte. Le habrá enseñado a alguien su receta para que no se pierda?

Picture of melissa_cookingdiva melissa_cookingdiva said on...
03.09.06 at 01:02 PM |

Hola Antonio! ...más que una receta, es la técnica en si la que cuenta en este caso——Super interesante. Pronto escribo sobre eso smile Abrazos,

Picture of mona mona said on...
03.12.06 at 01:49 PM |

what a great story melissa. you are very lucky indeed. now if only i knew what was in cocadas. is it a kind of meatball? thanks for sharing that wonderful story. you’ve inspired me to go out and find a legend myself smile

Picture of Carrie .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) said on...
03.12.06 at 04:25 PM |

I just found this site…it’s fantastic!

When I was a child living in Panama we used to stop at roadside stands around Christmas time to get a drink.  It was very dark red (almost garnet) with a sweet-tart taste.  I believe that ginger root and sugar were added to the juice.  Can someone tell me the name of the fruit that was used in the drink?


Picture of melissa .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) said on...
03.12.06 at 08:43 PM |

Dear Mona: the cocada is a Latin American dessert made with coconut, molasses and spices in this case. Will post a recipe in a few days when I go back to my office in Panama smile

Dear Carrie: I believe that you are referring to “saril,” also known in Mexico as “Flor de Jamaica”. It is a tea made with the flower of this plant, ginger root and other magic ingredients in Panama. It is delicious served clod. Will post a recipe soon smile

Hugs and thank you for your visit!

Picture of kalyn kalyn said on...
03.13.06 at 08:41 AM |

Really a wonderful post.  I hadn’t heard of this type of dessert before.

Picture of sokari sokari said on...
03.13.06 at 03:31 PM |

Congtratulations to the greatest chef in blogland - my only disppointment is when am I going to have the chance to taste just one dish!

un fuerte abrazo

Picture of Melissa .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) said on...
03.13.06 at 08:23 PM |

Thank you Sokari! You will see, this year you will at least one of my dishes. Abrazos,

Picture of Carrie .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) said on...
03.13.06 at 10:30 PM |

Thanks for the information, Melissa.  I’ll keep watch for the recipe…yummmm.

Picture of kalyn kalyn said on...
03.13.06 at 11:22 PM |

Melissa, just read Global Voices and saw that you had won for best Latin America Weblog.  Woo Hoo.  Well deserved.  Congrats.

Picture of Jacqueline Jacqueline said on...
03.13.06 at 11:46 PM |

Antes de dormir (zzz…) quise venir a tu blog a felicitarte por tu premio Best Latin American Weblog!!!
Te lo mereces porque trabajas duro. Espero que lo celebres como loca y que te lleguen muchos reconocimientos más.
Sigue adelante,


Picture of Nic Nic said on...
03.13.06 at 11:49 PM |

Congratulations, Melissa! Keep up the brilliant work.

Picture of tim keenan .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) said on...
03.27.06 at 10:04 PM |

how come im not in any of the pics panama timbo.

Picture of melissa_cookingdiva melissa_cookingdiva said on...
03.27.06 at 10:52 PM |

Panama Tim,...we will explain it to you when you come back here to visit smile  Sooo??? when is that going to be???

Picture of Deborah .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) said on...
01.07.07 at 08:42 PM |

Do you have a recipe for Cabanga?  Are these the ones that
were sold with a green leave surrounding it?

Would appreciate your recipe.  Thanks.

Picture of melissa_cookingdiva melissa_cookingdiva said on...
01.08.07 at 05:55 AM |

Yes, you are right. Cabanga is a “traditional sweet or candy” made with green papaya and molasses, and then wrapped in a banana or bijao leave. I’ll post the recipe soon! Happy new year!

Picture of Migdalia de Long .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) said on...
02.21.09 at 05:09 PM |

I love the story of tio Juancho cocadas.  An inspiring story, especially for a Panamanian native away from her country.  However, I would love his preferably, or another cocada recipe, as I can only eat cocada when I visit Panama.  I would love to learn to make them.

Another question.  When I was growing up in Panama, we use to buy birthday cakes with a “Manjar Blanco” filling.  I would love to have a recipe for a manjar blanco cake.  Is it possible for you to provide me with one?  Would greatly appreciate it.

Love your website -Thanks,

Migdalia (Miki) de Long

Picture of Lianna Lianna said on...
02.20.11 at 10:35 PM |

I will be selling base for cocadas and other coconut goodies at cocadas.us.

My mother was born in Colombia,raised in Panama.  As a child, I ate coconut everything and have a great immune system, hair and nails because of my addiction to coconut!

Look for us online March 2011!

We are excited to serve you in all things coco!


Tia Lianna

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