Hungry for a taste of Panama’s national dish? Cozy up to a bowl of Panamanian sancocho, also known as sancocho de gallina panameño.
Sancocho is Panama’s national dish. 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 yuca, plantains, sweet potatoes and yams. Culantro is the flavor you’re going to find in sancocho, even more than the chicken. It is the flavor of Panama.
What is culantro?
Contrary to popular belief, cilantro is not an alternate spelling of culantro, nor is it the same plant, though they are in the same botanical family, have a similar aroma and flavor. The leaves of the culantro are the desired part for cooking. It is very popular in Caribbean cooking and especially popular in making this sancocho dish in Panama. In fact, the locals in Panama believe that culantro is the secret weapon for a good Sancocho. It is the most distinct of all the tastes that can be discerned within the stew, even more than the chicken, corn, pepper, garlic, oregano and onion.
What is the origin of sancocho?
Panamanian sancocho originated in the Azuero region of the country, and Panamanians swear by eating a bowl of the hot soup for lunch on the hottest days, to help cool off. Whenever you need it, it’s there for you. Sancocho is regarded almost as an elixir of life in Panama. So what makes it so special?
There are several variations and unique versions of sancocho that can be tasted throughout all of Latin America, but it is beloved most of all in Panama. This delicious stew is a staple for all meals. It invokes friends and family, lively conversations around the table, and happy bellies. You can eat sancocho year round, but on a chilly day, the satisfying blend of chicken, root vegetables, and corn on the cob hits the spot with as a warm, nourishing meal. Everyone loves sancocho, the national comfort food of Panama.
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. In Panama, they also claim it helps to cure a hangover just like chicken souse in the Bahamas, 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.
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.
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 (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 yams.
There’s another version made in Chiriquí Province, which borders Costa Rica. It’s called sancocho chiricano and contains a laundry list of ingredients, including squash. 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 that’s delicious.
Variations of Sancocho throughout Latin America
Sancocho (from the Spanish verb sancochar, “to parboil”) is a traditional soup (often considered a stew) in several Latin American cuisines. Variations represent popular national dishes in the Canary Islands, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Cuba, Panama, Dominican Republic, and Venezuela and stews such as the Corsican, Irish, Danish, German and Italian versions, plus bouillon in Haiti, and pot au feu in France.
It usually consists of large pieces of meat, tubers and vegetables served in a broth.
In the Canary Islands, the dish is usually made with fish that is cooked whole.
In Puerto Rico, sancocho is considered a fairly rustic dish. It is made with chicken and smoked ham (sancocho de gallina), top round beef, pork feet with chickpeas (sancocho de patitas), or beef short ribs with chorizo. There are several versions and every household has their own take on sancocho, but a true Puerto Rican sancocho always calls for corn on the cob, a variety of tubers, guineos, sofrito, and sazón. Other vegetables and flavoring can include celery, carrots, ginger, thyme, parsley, bay leaves, orégano, wine, and rum. The hearty stew is served with a small bowl of rice, pique criollo (hot sauce), tostones, and bread.
In Venezuela, sancochos are prepared throughout the country, recognized as a typical meal of the weekend. The stew can be beef (usually in the Llanos region), chicken (usually central and western region), beef stomach and shank (simply called “tripe”) or goat (here called “goat tripe”, typical of western Falcón and Lara states) and fish or seafood (usually East and Caribbean coast). When mixing two types of meat (chicken and beef, etc.), it is called crossover or cruzado. Among vegetables and traditional spices for all varieties are yam, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, potato, cassava, jojoto (maize/corn), celery (celeriac), taro (mafafa/malanga), pumpkin (squash), cabbage, Chinese taro or Chirel hot pepper, cilantro, and green or topocho banana.
In Colombia, sancocho is a traditional food made with many kinds of meat (most commonly chicken, hen, pork ribs, cow ribs, fish and oxtail) with large pieces of plantain, potato, cassava and/or other vegetables such as tomato, scallion, cilantro, and mazorca (corn on the cob), depending on the region. Some top it off with fresh cilantro, onion and squeezed lime, a sort of “pico de gallo”, minus the tomato. It is also served with a side of sliced avocado and a plate of white rice, which is usually dipped in with each spoonful of soup.
In the Dominican Republic, sancocho is considered one of the national dishes, along with la bandera (the flag), consisting of white rice, generally red beans and meat, usually chicken. There is a variant called sancocho cruzado or sancocho de siete carnes, which includes chicken, beef and pork, with other meats. Sancocho de siete carnes means “seven meat sancocho” and is considered the ultimate sancocho dish. Longaniza, a type of pork sausage, is also used. Sancocho de gallina (hen sancocho) is common as well, often made for special occasions or on weekends. While sancocho de habichuela (bean sancocho) and sancocho de guandules are common, other types of sancocho are very rare.
There is a similar dish in Paraguay called puchero, which is also a type of stew. Another similar dish is olla de carne (meat pot) that is found in Costa Rica.
In the Sierra of Ecuador, sancocho, also known as fritada, is a comfort food made with pork. In the coastal region, it is similar to the Colombian sancocho. It has the typical ingredients of yuca, plantains, and corn (choclo). It can be made of fish, hens, chicken, oxtails or beef. Due to cultural differences, it can cause confusion when people go from one region to the other.
Reflecting on its Spanish influence, sancocho is also eaten in the Philippines, where the hearty stew is made with fish, beef shanks, three kinds of meat, chicken, pork butt, bacon, chorizo de Bilbao and morcilla (Spanish blood sausage) as well as yuca, potatoes, cilantro, corn, cabbage, bok choy, carrots and string beans. Known as cocido in the Philippines, it is often confused with puchero Filipino, which may use ham and different sausages.
Sancocho in Panama uses the basic ingredients like chicken, yams and culantro (giving it most of its characteristic flavor and greenish tone); often yuca, mazorca (corn on the cob) and otoe (taro) are added. Other optional ingredients include ñampí (as the Eddoe variety of taro is known), chopped onions, garlic and oregano.
At heart, sancocho is a delicious stew that you could have at breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s so incredibly simple to make. The only thing that takes time is peeling the root veggies. 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 is often accompanied by the much-loved patacones, fried plantains, which are another staple in the Panamanian diet.
So on a hot summer’s day or a cold winter’s night give this sancocho de gallina panameño a try.
- 1 chicken (about 4 lb), cut into pieces
- 1 lb cassava , peeled and cut into pieces
- 3 lb yam (or sweet potato), peeled and cut into pieces
- 2 ears of corn , each cut in 3
- 1 small bunch culantro (or cilantro) , chopped
- 1 large onion , chopped
- 1 green bell pepper , cut into small cubes
- 4 cloves garlic , chopped
- 2 tablespoons oregano
- Place the chicken in a pot and cover with water.
- Cook over high heat for 5 minutes after boiling.
- Reduce heat and add yams, corn, and cassava. Cook over low heat for 45 minutes.
- Add the onion, bell pepper, cilantro, garlic, salt, and 1 teaspoon oregano.
- Cook 15 minutes more.
- Turn off the heat and add the remaining oregano. Cover and wait 10 minutes before serving.
- Serve the sancocho with white rice.