Sancocho is basically a Latin American chicken stew. But it is the best chicken stew I’ve ever had, certainly next to my mom’s. Of course, the ones down here don’t have matzo balls in them.
In Panama, sancocho typically starts with a 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. No, that’s not the same thing as cilantro. Culantro is a different herb, with a very different flavor and aroma — and it’s very popular in Panama.
I went out with a local chef, Francisco Castro, and he thinks culantro is the secret weapon for a good sancocho.
“It’s got a really acid bite,” Castro says. “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.”
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, ñame and otoe. Then they just let it simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.
Of course, many Latin American countries have their own versions of sancocho, but it really is the national dish here in Panama, First, you have the Spanish influence with the chicken and herbs, onion and garlic. Then when you get to the Caribbean side, they spice it up with aji chombo, a hot sauce.
At heart, it is simply this delicious bowl of stew that you could have at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Or even if you’re nursing a hangover.
Everyone in Panama, unsurprisingly, thinks their version of sancocho is the best. I asked some chefs here and they said, “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. That’s when the flavors really start to kick in.
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 something like when you’re in Vietnam or India and you’re eating spicy food, it helps you sweat a little bit and cools you off.
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.