Panamanians go ga-ga for a chicken stew called Sancocho

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Marco Werman: Time now to talk stew and, let's be clear from the outset, this is not just any old stew. I'm talking about a Latin American favorite called Sancocho. The World's regular contributor Steve Dolinsky sent us this tasty postcard from Panama City. Steve Dolinsky: Sancocho is basically a Latin American chicken stew. But it is the best Latin American chicken stew I've ever had, certainly next to what my mom used to make as a kid. Although, the ones down here don't have matzo balls in them. They typically have gallina de patio and that translates literally as a “chicken of the yard.” It’s a free range chicken, so it tends to be a little tougher, which means Panamanians have to cook it a little longer. Before they add it to the pot, they rub it with something called culantro. A lot of people from the US, when they hear culantro, they think "oh no, you've mispronounced cilantro," but culantro is a very different herb. It's probably the length from the palm of my hand to the top of my middle finger but the width of a thumb. It's got a very different flavor, a different aroma. It's extremely popular here in Panama. I went out with a local chef, Francisco Castro, and he thinks culantro is the secret weapon for a good sancocho. Francisco Castro: It’s got a really acid bite. But it’s the flavor you're going to find in sancocho, even more than the chicken. It’s our traditional dish. It’s the flavor of Panama. Dolinsky: So, there’s culantro, along with garlic and onion. They marinate the chicken in that, and then pour in water and add a couple of indigenous tubers. One is called ñame; it's from the Yuca family, it's really starchy and white. The other is called Otoe, which I've never seen, although I think it's related to cassava, they've told me. They just let that simmer and steep and do a rolling boil. It's just this fascinating, delicious, comforting bowl of chicken stew that you would have breakfast, lunch, dinner or even when nursing a hangover. It really is a national dish here because there's a real big influence from Spain here, which obviously is the chicken and some of the herbs, onions and garlic. But then when you get to the Caribbean side, they spice it up and they add aji chombo, which is kind of like an habanero. You also see more hot sauces in general over on that side. Of course, everybody thinks theirs is the best version of it and, in fact, many of the chefs I've talked to her about where to get the best Sancocho in town will say "Well you haven't really had sancocho until you go and eat in the countryside.” That’s where the “grandma cooking” begins, and they told me I have to eat it from a large, cast-iron pot with wood burning underneath it, having this long 45-minute to an hour and a half simmer/boil for this soup to really develop its flavors. Today, I’m looking outside and it's a beautiful, sunny day. It’s at least 85 degrees and humid (which is not doing great things for my hair by the way,) so it’s perplexing. You have this extremely hot and humid climate, and yet people are craving this hot, comforting bowl of chicken stew. I think it’s kind of like when you're in warm climates, like Vietnam or India, you're eating spicy foods, it's helping you sweat a little bit. It's sort of like if you’re from Panama, no matter what the temperature outside, sancocho just brings you back to a place of comfort and warmth and security, where everything feels right in the world. Panamanians just can’t get enough of sancocho. Marco Werman: Our food writer friend, Steve Dolinsky, sending us some good Sancocho vibes from Panama City.