It would have been perfect if I had a cold the first time I tried sancocho. This traditional dish is the chicken noodle soup of Panama. You’ll find this staple just about anywhere you go in the country. Each variation warms up your appetite with its calming balance of delicate and savory flavors. Sancocho is easy to whip up right in your own kitchen, provided you get the necessary ingredients. There are only a few, but you need to get them fresh if you want to do sancocho proper justice.
In our case, that meant chasing a chicken through town. More on that endeavor to follow, but first a little background on “The Restaurant” in Boca Chica.
Since it’s the only dining establishment in the small Panama town of Boca Chica, “The Restaurant” does just fine for a name. A central hangout for everyone in town, The Restaurant provides a meeting and eating place to the local community, and to travelers as well. A kindly woman serves modest Panamanian fare, offering traditional Panamanian dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you pass by, you’ll most likely see contented clusters of people kicking back with beers around the table, music sounding from the jukebox in the rear. No doors, no windows. Simply a covered patio that welcomes all guests, customers or not, any time of day. Spend enough time in the area and you’ll find that The Restaurant has a unique culture all its own. We found lots of great restaurants while dining in Panama city, but none with quite the same relaxed, open, communal feel of The Restaurant.
We decided we wanted to try some classic sancocho. That was fine with the nice woman from The Restaurant, but we had to earn it. Our task: catch the chicken.
Animals roam freely through the streets in Boca Chica. Dogs pal around with one another. Gaggles of geese wander aimlessly. Occasionally a herd of passing cows breaks up the cliques of animals for a moment. The chickens, though… they walk around like they own the place. We headed down the road and and spotted our chicken when the neighbor who sold him to us pointed him out in his backyard.
Catching a chicken sounds easy, right? They’re little, they can’t even really fly. For those who have never attempted this feat, I assure you catching a chicken isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. These dudes are fast! Their feet are a blur of motion as they weave around bushes and leap through barbed-wire fences. The chase continued down the hill to the dock, then up the road and through town. The locals seemed to be enjoying the sight of a gringo in a polo shirt running through town in frantic pursuit of runaway livestock.
We eventually cornered the bird in a side yard. A lesson on the importance of teamwork. The battle’s only half-won after you’ve caught your chicken – you’ve got to hold onto him! Containing a chicken is no easy task. After nearly losing him in a flurry of feathers, I was informed of the proper technique. Holding him by the legs, I walked back to The Restaurant with my mastered chicken, ready to send him to the pot.
Fast forward through the preparation process, and I’m sitting before a bowl of sancocho, steam rising from the surface. A velvety broth (made richer and thicker by the boiled yucca), seasoned with fresh cilantro and spices, and the crowning element: tender, delicious, very fresh chicken.
So… who’s ready to chase down the main course?