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Recipe: Panamanian Sancocho

Hungry for a taste of Panama's national dish? Cozy up to a bowl of Panamanian sancocho, also known as sancocho de gallina Panameño. It's 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, far from Panama City. Our guide brought us to a remote village to enjoy a home-cooked campesino meal. The lunch they had prepared included a mega-pot of it, 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 birds kept their distance.

Panamanian sancocho, prepared in a big pot by campesinos in a rural village in Panama.
Panamanian sancocho, as prepared by campesinos in a rural town.

Varieties of Panamanian sancocho

Every 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, and that's a good

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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 only thing that takes time is peeling the root veggies. Here's an easy recipe you can try; it serves about 6-8 people, depending on how many veggies you put in. To eat it the Panamanian way, serve it along with white rice on the side. You can either mix the rice into the soup or take a bite with each spoonful. It doesn't matter, they do both. Sometimes the soup is accompanied by patacones as well.

Also feel free to add a little of your favorite hot sauce if you prefer a spicier flavor. We won't call the food police.

If you're used to turnips and potatoes you can make it with those as well, though of course your final result won't taste quite the same as the original. But then again, perhaps you are adventurous and have always harbored a secret desire to sample yucca or ñame but never knew how to prepare it? If so, 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.

Panamanian Sancocho recipe

This is an authentic recipe for sancocho, Panama's national dish.

SERVES 8

PREP TIME: 20 MIN

COOK TIME: 1 HR 30 MIN

TOTAL TIME: 1 HR 50 MIN

Ingredients:

  1. 1 chicken, cut into pieces
  2. 1 Tbsp. oil (your choice)
  3. 3 garlic cloves, pressed
  4. 2 Tbsp fresh oregano (2 tsp. dried)
  5. 1 tsp black pepper
  6. 4 Tbsp culantro*, chopped
  7. 1 large onion, chopped into bite-size pieces
  8. 3 pounds of starchy vegetables (otoe, name/yams, yuca/cassava, green plantains)**
  9. 2 ears corn, broken into 1″ pieces
  10. 3 tsp salt (to taste)

Instructions:

  1. Season the chicken with the garlic, oregano, and pepper.
  2. In a heavy pot, brown the seasoned chicken in the oil over a medium flame and allow to sweat.
  3. 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.
  4. Bring to a boil and reduce to a low simmer for 20 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, peel the root vegetables and cut into bite-size pieces.
  6. After chicken has simmered for 20 minutes, add the root vegetables.
  7. Cook until everything softens, about one hour. Keep adding water so the veggies stay about an inch under water.
  8. Add the corn and cook 15 minutes more, until corn is tender.
  9. Stir in salt to taste.
  10. Garnish with the reserved chopped culantro/cilantro and serve.

Notes

  1. * If :you can't find culantro, chopped cilantro leaves and stems can be used.
  2. **Any root vegetables can be used in a pinch, including potatoes, parsnips, turnips and carrots.
  3. Tip: Add more vegetables to serve more people.
  4. 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.
Inspired?

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries She has an insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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18 thoughts on “Recipe: Panamanian Sancocho

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

  4. 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. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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?

    1. 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.

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