Hungry for a taste of Panama's national dish? Cozy up to a bowl of Panamanian sancocho, also known as sancocho de gallina Panameño. Or in other words, Panamanian chicken soup.
Sancocho is a delicious, filling, and economical dish that gets its distinct flavor from chicken, an herb called culantro, a bit of corn on the cob, and starchy vegetables such as ñame, yuca, plantains, otoe and yams.
I'm not sure if hot food really cools you off, but heat is one of the many things that Panamanian sancocho is said to remedy. Well, of course, chicken soup is mama's cure for all ills, worldwide.
Here in Panama, they also claim it helps to cure a hangover, and that may be true. It wouldn't surprise me if that was one of the reasons why it's eaten so often. After all, the local Abuelo rum is cheap.
In any case, no matter where you travel in the world, chicken soup has a reputation for making people feel better, from homemade sancocho to a store-bought can of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup.
Our first experiences with Panamanian sancocho
I first tried sancocho at a little restaurant we found while we were wandering through Casco Viejo, Panama's old town. I kind of felt like I had to, since it's Panama's national dish. As soon as I saw the fresh culantro herb floating around on top, I figured it would be good. I wasn't disappointed.
Then we went on a day trip to visit the historic Camino Real, which lies on the outskirts of Panama City. Our guide brought us to a remote village, where we were served a home-cooked campesino meal. The lunch they had prepared included a mega-pot of sancocho de gallina, cooked over an open fire on their common stove. Judging from their isolated location it was obvious that the chickens they'd cooked had been running around earlier that morning.
No wonder the other ones kept their distance from us!
Regional varieties of Panamanian sancocho
Every sancocho recipe is a little different, depending on the region and the chef. The color and flavor can vary from light brown to bright green to yellow and orange.
The soup's ingredients may vary in many ways but all the varieties they serve in Panama share one characteristic: They are rarely spicy. We may be in Central America but unlike Mexicans, Panamanians aren't very fond of picante foods. Sadly, that means that there aren't many hot peppers to be found in the grocery stores either. When we crave anything besides jalapeños and habañeros, it takes a trip to a specialty grocery to find them.
As for the regional differences in Sancocho recipes,
- The one they serve in Panama City is usually light brown because of the variety of root vegetables. Sancochos that are heavy in culantro have a bright, fresh flavor and a green hue. On the other hand, if you see a yellow or orange version, it's because the chef included a lot of squash (a.k.a. pumpkin) or yams.
- Sancocho chorrerano (made in the town of La Chorrera, outside Panama City) is a spicy exception, made of only chicken, onions, garlic, chili peppers, oregano and ñame. I haven't heard of any other versions with a kick.
- There's another version made in Chiriquí Province, which borders Costa Rica; it's called sancocho chiricano (duh) and contains a laundry list of ingredients, including squash. (We haven't tried that one yet.)
By the way, if you're lucky enough to be able to cook this over an open fire, your sancocho will pick up a hint of the smokiness, which adds another layer of flavor.
What is culantro?
Don't confuse culantro with cilantro. They may have a similar aroma and flavor, but they look completely different. Also, culantro's seeds aren't used in cooking. (Cilantro seeds are usually known as coriander.)
Cilantro will do in a pinch, but culantro has a stronger flavor. Panamanian sancocho gets its unique flavor from culantro.
Easy as pie? No, it's actually easier!
Maybe one reason sancocho has become Panama's national dish is because it's so incredibly simple to make. The most time consuming part is peeling the root veggies.
The recipe for sancocho that we are sharing below serves about 6-8 people, depending on how many veggies you put in. To eat it the Panamanian way, it should be accompanied by white rice. Panamanians will either mix the rice into the soup or take a bite with each spoonful.
Sometimes the soup is also accompanied by patacones. Super yum.
- 1 chicken, cut into pieces
- 1 Tbsp. oil (your choice)
- 3 garlic cloves, pressed
- 2 Tbsp fresh oregano (2 tsp. dried)
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 4 Tbsp culantro*, chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped into bite-size pieces
- 3 pounds of starchy vegetables (otoe, name/yams, yuca/cassava, green plantains)**
- 2 ears corn, broken into 1″ pieces
- 3 tsp salt (to taste)
- Season the chicken with the garlic, oregano, and pepper.
- In a heavy pot, brown the seasoned chicken in the oil over a medium flame and allow to sweat.
- Set a little culantro/cilantro aside for garnish at the end. Add the rest of the culantro/cilantro, onion and water. Make sure water covers the chicken.
- Bring to a boil and reduce to a low simmer for 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, peel the root vegetables and cut into bite-size pieces.
- After chicken has simmered for 20 minutes, add the root vegetables.
- Cook until everything softens, about one hour. Keep adding water so the veggies stay about an inch under water.
- Add the corn and cook 15 minutes more, until corn is tender.
- Stir in salt to taste.
- Garnish with the reserved chopped culantro/cilantro and serve.
- * If you can't find culantro, chopped cilantro leaves and stems can be substituted.
- **If you can't find the veggies mentioned in the recipe, you can use other root vegetables,, such as potatoes, parsnips, or turnips. Just be aware that your final result won't taste quite the same as the original.
- Add more vegetables to serve more people.
- And don't worry if you can't eat it all right away. Sancocho is one of those soups that only gets more flavorful with time. It also freezes well.
- Should you prefer a spicier flavor, feel free to add a little of your favorite hot sauce. We won't call the food police.
Are you adventurous? Even if you haven't always harbored a secret desire to sample yucca or ñame, here's your chance. If you're a daring cook, consider this a perfect opportunity to try a new veggie or two, because now you finally have a recipe that explains how to prepare it.
Please try this recipe and then come back and let us know what you think.
Books about Panamanian cuisine:
- Flavors of Panama by Nilsa Lasso Lang
- Delectable Dishes of Panamanian Cuisine
- Recetas de mi suegra: Recipes from my mother-in-law (bilingual edition) by Pat Alvarado
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