Sancocho is the perfect comfort food. A national dish in Panama, with different versions popular throughout Latin America, the rustic chicken stew can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, dinner and anytime in between.
“It’s one of the options you get as a kid at parties,” says Carlos Alba. “Before they offer you chicken strips, they offer you a little bit of sancocho and some rice. It’s an integral part of being Panamanian.”
Known as “Chombolín” in the gastronomic world, Alba is the chef and owner of Íntimo, a 20-seat Panama City restaurant that “lives up to its name,” according to the New York Times, and highlights the multicultural nature of Panama with local ingredients. While sancocho is not part of the daily menu at Íntimo, it is usually a signature dish in Alba’s occasional tasting menus. “It’s an important part of who we are,” Alba says, “but we try to explore different things in the restaurant.”
Nicknamed sancocho, the broth’s full name is sancocho de gallina Panameño. The dish originated in the Azuero Peninsula of southwestern Panama, with ingredients from both the New World and the Old World, brought by the Spanish to the Americas. Some Panamanians, including Alba, claim that sancocho is the best hangover cure. Others argue that eating the stew on a hot day can help cool you off.
Alba grew up eating sancocho, but it wasn’t until his first job that he understood what it meant to cook it. “It was the first time I learned about the different styles that sancocho has to offer,” he says. “And the cooking experience was my favorite part. Making it with people while having a conversation is just beautiful.”
When it comes to sancocho, Alba thinks that the simpler the ingredients, the better. “Culantro, ñame [yam] and chicken. And then you can add some garlic, onions and oregano to make it extra good.” It’s all about the technique and process rather than the complexity of the ingredients.
“Everything from Panama that consists of people gathering together to cook is going to be a representation of who we are as a country,” he says. “And that’s what sancocho is about, sharing and learning.”
The chef isn’t the only one who loves talking about sancocho—there is even a podcast named after the soup.
In the show “Sancocho Talks,” chef and owner of El Trapiche, Domingo de Obaldía, joins Isaac Villaverde, chef and owner of La Tapa del Coco, and musician, publicist and amateur cook Roberto Varela as they talk about Panamanian culinary traditions. In the podcast’s second episode, titled “El Sancocho” (The Sancocho), the hosts discuss, in Spanish, how the soup is central to Panamanian cuisine.
According to Obaldía, who offers sancocho in his restaurant, traditional Panamanian sancocho has five ingredients: gallina (hen), yam, culantro, water and salt. Many people add onions, oregano, celery and other spices. And of course, a side of rice is important, he adds. (Alba agrees when it comes to the rice—he uses it as a thickener, putting it right into the soup.)
Sancocho is traditionally made with hen. The meat of the hen, which is older than regular chicken, is much harder, making it more difficult for it to disintegrate. Chefs can boil the hen for a longer time while still maintaining its shape and consistency.
“You need to use organic hen and season it with a lot of salt, diced onions, diced garlic and some fresh oregano,” Alba says. “The way the hen has been raised plays a very important role, as the quality is harder than regular chicken. The flavor is also very different, as organic hens eat lots of leaves and herbs.”
Although it now governs the broth’s flavor, the hen wasn’t originally a member of this dish.
In the “Sancocho Talks” episode, Obaldía mentions that the sancocho that is well-known today probably didn’t exist before the 1800s, or the advent of railways, given the cost of chicken at the time. Res (beef) was so cheap that there was a livestock crisis in 1590, he adds. “You couldn’t sell cows because there were too many cows and too few people,” he explains. So, they had to kill most of the cows, keep a few and restart. Although the prices were still low, they leveled off, and this is when beef figured prominently in the local gastronomy. And thus, sancocho was originally made with beef.
Today, besides the hen, the other dominant flavor in the soup is culantro, an herb that registers in every spoonful. “Culantro is like a wild species of cilantro that comes deep from the Amazonian Forest,” Alba says. “People grow it everywhere now.”
The yam, or ñame in Spanish, is also a key ingredient, as it acts as a thickening agent and gives the soup its special stew-like consistency. “Although it’s a simple dish with basic ingredients, it’s all about the small things done perfectly,” Alba adds.
To Alba, sancocho is representative of Panama’s culture, and how its food and the things Panamanians do are a combination of different cultures from all over the world. “For instance, the process in which we marinate the hen comes from the Caribbean side and from Africa, but the soup itself is part of every country in the world,” he says. “It’s a hearty dish we make with family. So, the soup has actually been influenced by time. People and time.”
Sancocho has different variations, even across regions of Panama. For example, Alba says that near the Caribbean side of the country, people usually add some spice, such as ají chombo, at the beginning of the preparation (instead of at the end). In the jungle, they often add plantains. And, near Costa Rica, additional tubers, such as cassava and taro roots, are added aside from the yam.
The “Sancocho Talks” hosts mention that when someone says “sancocho,” all of Latin America perks up—everyone thinks it’s theirs, and it is. Many countries, such as Colombia and the Dominican Republic, have strong ties with the dish. In the Dominican Republic, sancocho is also considered one of the national dishes, and it usually includes red beans, white rice, beef and chicken. There is a version called sancocho de siete carnes (seven meat sancocho) which contains beef, pork, chicken, smoked ham, longaniza (a type of pork sausage) and other meats. The Colombian kind features plantains, cassava and choclo (corn), and is also referred to as comfort food. Yet, what makes the Panamanian sancocho so special is its minimalism.
Alba agrees. “It’s pure,” he says. “It’s not that our sancocho is better or worse, but it’s just incredibly simple, and that’s what makes it so special.”
To Alba, the best part about sancocho is not consuming it, but rather being in a circle with family and cooking together. “It really brings people together,” he says. “It’s like family bonding.”
Chef Carlos Alba’s Sancocho Recipe
● 1 whole chicken cut into large pieces (organic hen, well fed)
● 1 whole onion diced
● 1/2 head of garlic diced
● 10 grams of fresh oregano
● 6 liters of water
● 200 grams of yam (peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces)
● 4 culantro leaves
Marinate the chicken with the diced onion, diced garlic and oregano. After starting the wood fire, add the chicken in the pot and stir for 60 seconds. Add water and bring it to a boil for ten minutes, let it simmer until the chicken is done. Then, add the chunks of yam and let them sit in the soup until cooked through. Finally, add the fresh culantro and let it simmer for another 30 minutes.
Serve with rice—and if you’re like me, add some hot sauce and lemon juice.