PANAMA CITY -- The "great tamale debate" has subsided, but it seems likely that it will live on in the annals of military snafus.

It all started when U.S. infantrymen searching for Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega during last month's invasion of Panama burst into a house in Fort Amador that he was known to frequent. The troops did not find Noriega, but they did stumble across an array of voodoolike paraphernalia in two upstairs bedrooms.

A refrigerator contained some items wrapped in banana leaves. Similar objects were found in a bowl of rotting fruit and food on the floor next to the refrigerator.

When a soldier opened one of the banana leaves in the dark room, he saw a white powdery substance that he thought was cocaine.

Soon, senior U.S. officers, including Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, the commander of American forces here, were reporting the discovery of 50 pounds -- later expanded to 50 kilos -- of cocaine at Noriega's "witch house."

Agents of the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID) removed the contents of the house, but were puzzled to find no cocaine. The only things they found wrapped in banana leaves were 10 rectangular tamales, a food usually made of cornmeal and meat that is popular in Mexico and Central America. But these tamales were not meant to be eaten, and some were made with a flour unusual here. They contained slips of paper with the names of Noriega's enemies written on them.

One rather smelly tamale, opened in front of reporters on Christmas Day at a display of witch-house items at CID headquarters here, contained the names of former New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh and Reagan administration national security adviser John M. Poindexter. This and other items displayed, an expert explained, represented "binding rituals" in which an enemy is symbolically neutralized by enclosing him in a gooey substance and, sometimes, tying the whole thing up in ribbon or string.

Asked if another unit had perhaps removed the alleged cocaine earlier from the witch house, the military could not come up with an answer. Last week, however, it displayed all of the drugs seized in Panama since the invasion: 415 kilos of cocaine, 25 kilos of heroin, 10 kilos of marijuana and 100 grams of crack. None, it turned out, came from the witch house or could be directly linked to Noriega.

Some military spokesmen angrily rejected the idea that soldiers could not tell tamales from cocaine and insisted that the stuff they found -- though not drugs -- was actually a "bonding substance." Nobody could explain what this meant, but one CID officer suggested it arose from a misunderstanding of "binding ritual."

NBC News took it a step further, reporting that what the troops had actually found was "glue."

Last Thursday, though, the Pentagon conceded that, yes, they were really tamales after all, containing a combination of farina, cornmeal and lard. Asked their street value, a spokesman referred reporters to the Agriculture Department.