Sancocho de Gallina Recipe from Panama

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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.

No matter where you travel in the world, chicken soup has a reputation for making people feel better. And it doesn’t matter if it’s Grandma’s traditional Panamanian sancocho, made from scratch, or if it’s just 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. They had prepared a delicious lunch of traditional foods, cooked over an open fire on their community stove.

For me, the meal highlight came from a mega-pot of sancocho de gallina that had simmered on the stove for hours. Judging from their isolated location, they hadn’t run down to pick up the meat at the corner store. it was obvious that the chickens in the pot had been running around earlier that morning. No wonder the other birds kept their distance from us!

Sancocho de gallina Panama, prepared in a big pot by campesinos in a rural village in Panama.
Delicious sancocho de gallina Panameño, as prepared by campesinos in a rural town.

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 a lot, anywhere from light brown to bright green, yellow, or orange.

The ingredients in the soup can 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 served a bowl of the soup that was cooked cook over an open fire, your sancocho will pick up a hint of the smokiness. That adds another layer of flavor.

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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 the amount of vegetables you use. To eat it the Panamanian way, it should be accompanied by a side of 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.

Panamanian Sancocho de Gallina

This is an authentic recipe for sancocho de gallina Panameño, Panama's national dish. This version comes from the country's capital, Panama City.
Prep Time20 mins
Cook Time1 hr 30 mins
Total Time1 hr 50 mins
Course: Soup
Cuisine: Panamanian
Keyword: chicken, comfort
Servings: 8 people

Ingredients

  • 1 chicken cut into pieces
  • 1 Tbsp. oil your choice
  • 3 garlic cloves pressed
  • 2 Tbsp oregano
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 4 Tbsp culantro* chopped
  • 1 large onion chopped into bite-size pieces
  • 3 pounds starchy vegetables otoe, name/yams, yuca/cassava, green plantains**
  • 2 ears corn broken into 1″ pieces
  • 3 tsp salt to taste

Instructions

  • 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

Notes

* If you can’t find culantro, chopped cilantro leaves and stems can be used.
**Any root vegetables can be used in a pinch, including potatoes, parsnips, turnips, and carrots.
Tip: 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.

Is culantro the same as cilantro?

Culantro and cilantro are different plants, although they have a similar aroma and flavor. Culantro has long, serrated leaves similar to long-leafed lettuce, while cilantro has wide, feathery fronds. Also, culantro has a stronger flavor and only its leaves are used in recipes. (Cilantro seeds are known as coriander.)

Panamanian sancocho gets its unique flavor from culantro. If you don’t have culantro you can substitute fresh cilantro, but you will have to adjust the amount.

Ready to make sancocho de gallina, Panama style?

Even if you haven’t always harbored a secret desire to sample yucca or ñame, here’s your chance to be a bit adventurous in the kitchen. 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 come back and rate our recipe after you make it!

Books about Panamanian cuisine:

ALSO READ:
Patacones Recipe (Fried Green Plantains)

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to around 60 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages inspired her to create As We Saw It with her husband Dan, a professional photographer. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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25 thoughts on “Sancocho de Gallina Recipe from Panama”

  1. I love Sancocho. I love it! but please, since we’re given a spoon to eat it with, cook that chicken until it’s falling- off- the- bone tender! Also, I can’t get the corn off of the cob with said spoon- is it just in there for flavor, or for eye appeal?

    The Hotel Bambito, in Volcan, Chiriquí, made Sancocho that was to die for! Another very well recommended restaurant not too far away made it with the chicken too tough to eat, and huge chunks of corn. The broth was good, though, which was fortunate since that was about all that was tender enough to consume!

    I’m really looking forward to learning to make the real deal here in New England, but I want to get it right with the ingredients. I think I can get the correct root vegetables in Spanish markets, as well as the Culantro, which isn’t too common around here. Any advice would be great!

    • We’ve wondered the same thing about the corn cob, Ellen. Could be it adds a subtle sweetness or a different texture, or looks, but no one’s told us why it’s in there. Though come to think of it, we’ve seen people unabashedly fish it out with their sppoon and eat it with their fingers. So who knows?

      If you have access to a Spanish market you shouldn’t have any problem finding all the authentic ingredients you’ll need. Cilantro is an acceptable substitute, but culantro should be availbale. It’s a key ingredient in recaito (a traditional base of onion/garlic/bell pepper). If you can’t find one of the ingredients, just remember that recipes vary a lot, so you’ll still be making the real deal. We’d love to see a photo and let us know how it turns out!

  2. After living and repeatedly revisiting Panama in the early ’90’s, I got back to AZ and searched for several exotic ingredients: aji chombo, culantro, & some still-unidentified soapberry fruit, similar to lychee, but with tasty, edible pits. After exhaustive research, it turned out that the aji & culantro were completely unavailable, even from CA-based specialty produce brokers. At that time, even Habaneros were non-existent in the West – period. So, there was no way for me to make my beloved orange, mustardy aji chombo hot sauce, which is so ubiquitous at roadside charcoal-grilled chicken around Panama City. Many years later, Habaneros became available at Mexican-oriented markets, and now there’re even at Kroger, etc! So, now, to my fellow foodies delight, I can make that salsa. But back to culantro/recao. For years, coriander/cilantro made a very satisfactory substitute, in my opinion. No other herb even comes close. However, now, with the explosion of Asian markets in the PHX area, culantro (or sawtooth herb) is readily available, and the price is really reasonable for a formerly-rare & exotic herb. For more info on Ngo Tau, see this excellent website: http://vietworldkitchen.typepad.com/blog/vietnamese-herb-primer.html It’s so exciting to have culantro available for so many recipes in the world’s recipes! P.S. I never did figure out what that fruit was. Lychee? Longan? I just dunno’…

    • Thanks for your comment, Kenton. We hear you on the habanero; it has a unique heat and is now pretty easy to find in American grocery stores. Unfortunately, we haven’t found many stores that carry culantro; it seems you have to go to areas that cater to Asian or Latin clientele, because they know how to use it in recipes. By the way, culantro is sometimes called Mexican coriander or sawtooth herb, so keep that in mind if you want your grocer to order some for you.

  3. Panamenian sancocho is always super delicious. I get it every time I go to Panama. I even make it at home. It is the best. I used also if anybody at my house is about to get sick with the flue.

    • Yikes! It’s fresh oregano. (Or since 1 Tbsp. of finely chopped fresh oregano = 1 tsp. of dried oregano, that would be 2 tsp. of dried oregano.)

      Omigosh, Ellen, that much dried oregano would overwhelm everything else. Thanks for pointing out my oversight; I’ve edited the recipe.

  4. This one is very similar to the one prepared in Puerto Rico. We use beef instead of chicken and tomato sauce is added (that will change the color of the broth). But, it is all about those delicious root vegetable. Sancocho is good no matter the recipe.

    • I didn’t know that a beef-and-tomato-based sancocho exists. It sounds delicious, though. I’ll look for it the next time we are on the island. What seasonings are most commonly used in Puerto Rican sancocho?

  5. Thanks for the tip on an alternative to the herb Culantro, there was no way I was going to find it here in Australia 🙂
    As we are heading into winter here I am on the search for new soup recipes so will give it a go.

  6. I’ve never heard of the dish, but it looks delicious and very healthy, too.. I’m not a fan over overly spicy food, so I think that this would suit me just fine. How similar in taste are culantro and cilantro? I haven’t heard of the culantra before. When we lived in Malaysia, I had to remember to ask for coriander at the market when I wanted cilantro.

    • Michele, I think you’re right because – lol – it’s a chicken soup and mom always gives us healthy stuff, right?

      Culantro is sometimes called spiny cilantro but its leaves look quite different and its flavor isn’t the same. They use it in some southeast Asian dishes as well as in Latin American cuisine and yes, you can use one if you can’t find the other.

  7. This looks absolutely delicious. I must give it a try. I love trying the local food when I’m travelling and your experience of tasting the home-made soup in a remote village is exactly the sort of thing I’d love to do. Thanks so much for the tip.

  8. All this food this week, yum! I love lots of regions use the basic chicken soup and give it a local touch. Sounds and looks delicious and I’m sure glad I’ve had my breakfast or I’d be drooling over my keyboard.

    • It’s really good, Lyn, and you’re right how every region has its own twist on chicken soup. I haven’t yet seen a recipe that didn’t look delicious.

  9. Ooooh, that looks SO good! 🙂 I am a sucker for soups anyway, so I’m whipping this up over the weekend. It seems similar to Sopa de Lima (which I learned about in the Yucatan); it uses most of the same ingredients but adds lime. Also tasty! 🙂 Thanks for the recipe!

  10. If sancocho is the Panama’s national dish you definitely had to try it, Linda. I looked at the recipe and it’s very different from what I use in my chicken soup, so I’m sure it tastes differently. I’d like to try it though, it looks delicious. Chicken soup is known to be a cure for many ‘conditions’ and a hangover is one of them. My mother used to give it to us as kids whenever we had high fever and the soup worked miracles. It’s probably all the healthy ingredients that you use in the soup that nourish your body back to health. I’m sure it must have been a very interesting experience to live in Panama.

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