Sancocho from Panama is a soup that can cure everything | Travel
Sancocho is the perfect comfort food. A national dish in Panama, with different versions popular throughout Latin America, rustic chicken stew can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and anytime in between.
“It’s one of the options you get as a kid at parties,” says Carlos Alba. “Before they offer you chicken strips, they offer you some sancocho and rice. It’s part and parcel of being Panamanian.
Known as “Chombolín” in the gastronomic world, Alba is the chef and owner of intimatea 20-seat restaurant in Panama City that “lives up to its name,” according to the New York Times, and showcases the multicultural nature of Panama with local ingredients. Although sancocho is not part of the daily menu at Íntimo, it is usually a signature dish on Alba’s occasional tasting menus. “It’s a big part of who we are,” Alba says, “but we try to explore different things in the restaurant.”
Nicknamed sancocho, the broth’s full name is sancocho de gallina Panameño. The dish originates from Azuero Peninsula from southwestern Panama, with New World and Old World ingredients, brought by the Spaniards to the Americas. Some Panamanians, including Alba, claim that sancocho is the best cure for a hangover. Others argue that eating the stew on a hot day can help cool you down.
Alba grew up eating sancocho, but it wasn’t until his first job that he understood what it meant to cook it. “It was my first time learning about the different styles that sancocho has to offer,” he says. “And the dining experience was my favorite part. Doing it with people while having a conversation is just beautiful.
When it comes to sancocho, Alba thinks the simpler the ingredients, the better. “Culantro, Last name [yam] and chicken. And then you can add garlic, onions and oregano to make it even tastier. It’s about the technique and the process rather than the complexity of the ingredients.
“Anything in Panama that consists of people coming together to cook is going to be a representation of who we are as a country,” he says. “And that’s what sancocho is, sharing and learning.”
The chef isn’t the only one who likes to talk about sancocho – there’s even a podcast named after the soup.
In the show”Sancocho talks», leader and owner of The Trapiche, Domingo de Obaldiajoined Isaac Villaverdeleader and owner of Tapa del Cocoand musician, publicist and amateur cook Roberto Varela as they talk about Panamanian culinary traditions. In the second episode of the podcast, titled “El Sancocho(Le Sancocho), the hosts discuss, in Spanish, the central place of soup in Panamanian cuisine.
According to Obaldía, who offers sancocho in his restaurant, the traditional Panamanian sancocho consists of five ingredients: galline (chicken), yam, culantro, water and salt. Many people add onions, oregano, celery, and other spices. And of course, a side of rice is important, he adds. (Alba agrees when it comes to the rice – he uses it as a thickener, putting it straight into the soup.)
Sancocho is traditionally prepared with chicken. Chicken meat, which is older than regular chicken meat, is much tougher, making it more difficult to disintegrate. Chefs can boil chicken for longer while maintaining its shape and consistency.
“You need to use organic chicken and season it with lots of salt, diced onions, diced garlic, and fresh oregano,” says Alba. “The way the hen was raised plays a very important role, because the quality is tougher than regular chicken. The flavor is also very different, as organic hens eat a lot of leaves and grass.
Although it now rules the flavor of the broth, the hen was not originally a member of this dish.
In the episode “Sancocho Talks”, Obaldía mentions that the sancocho that is well known today probably did not exist until the 1800s, or the advent of railroads, given the cost of chicken at the time. . Res (beef) was so cheap that there was a cattle crisis in 1590, he adds. “You couldn’t sell cows because there were too many cows and too few people,” he explains. So they had to kill most of the cows, keep a few, and start over. Even if the prices were still low, they stabilized, and it was then that beef occupied a prominent place in the local gastronomy. And so, sancocho was originally made with beef.
Today, besides chicken, the soup’s other dominant flavor is culantro, an herb that registers in every spoonful. “Culantro is like a wild species of coriander that comes from the depths of the Amazon rainforest,” Alba says. “People are growing it everywhere now.”
yam, or Last name in Spanish, is also a key ingredient, as it acts as a thickening agent and gives the soup its special stew-like consistency. “Although it’s a simple dish with basic ingredients, it’s all about small things done perfectly,” adds Alba.
For Alba, sancocho is representative of the culture of Panama, and how its food and the things Panamanians do is a combination of different cultures from around the world. “For example, the process in which we marinate the hen comes from the Caribbean and Africa, but the soup itself is part of every country in the world,” he says. “It’s a hearty dish that we make as a family. So the soup was actually influenced by the weather. People and time.
Sancocho has different variations, even in parts of Panama. For example, Alba says that near the Caribbean coast of the country, people usually add spices, like aji chombo, at the beginning of the preparation (and not at the end). In the jungle they often add plantains. And, near Costa Rica, additional tubers, such as cassava and taro roots, are added in addition to yam.
The hosts of “Sancocho Talks” mention that when someone says “sancocho,” all of Latin America perks up — everyone thinks it’s theirs, and it is. Many countries, such as Colombia and the Dominican Republic, have strong ties to the dish. In the Dominican Republic, sancocho is also considered one of the national dishes and usually includes red beans, white rice, beef, and chicken. There is a version called sancocho de siete carnes (seven meat sancocho) which contains beef, pork, chicken, smoked ham, longaniza (a type of pork sausage) and other meats. The Colombian type includes plantains, cassava and chocolate (corn), and is also called comfort food. Yet what makes the Panamanian sancocho so special is its minimalism.
Alba agrees. “It’s pure,” he said. “It’s not that our sancocho is better or worse, but it’s just incredibly simple, and that’s what makes it so special.”
For Alba, the best part of sancocho is not consuming it, but rather being in a circle with her family and cooking together. “It really brings people together,” he says. “It’s like a family bond.”
Sancocho recipe from chef Carlos Alba
● 1 whole chicken cut into large pieces (organic, well-fed hen)
● 1 whole onion, diced
● 1/2 head of garlic, diced
● 10 grams of fresh oregano
● 6 liters of water
● 200 grams of yam (peeled and cut into small pieces)
● 4 culantro leaves
Marinate the chicken with the diced onion, diced garlic and oregano. After lighting the wood fire, add the chicken to the pot and stir for 60 seconds. Add water and bring to a boil for ten minutes, simmer until the chicken is cooked. Then add the yam pieces and let them sit in the soup until they are cooked through. Finally, add the fresh culantro and simmer for another 30 minutes.
Serve with rice and if you are like me, add hot sauce and lemon juice.