Sancocho de gallina, or simply sancocho, is a dish Panamanians take a lot of pride (and creative license) in cooking up. You’ll taste a slightly different version of this flavorful stew everywhere you travel in Panama. Preparing regional specialties such as Chiriqui’s signature sancocho (the heartiest in Panama thanks to the addition of a bright yellow native squash), Panamanian chefs make this national dish their own by tossing in extra ingredients such as rice, mazorca (corn on the cob), carrots, green chiles, plantains, and otoe.
For a standard version of this distinctive Panamanian classic, we checked in with Giana De Villalobos at The Restaurant in Boca Chica. Her sancocho recipe calls for:
1 (freshly caught) chicken
1-2 ñame (tropical variety of yam)
2 pounds of yucca, peeled and cubed
1 big leaf of “cilantro” (really culantro), chopped
Other seasonings to your taste:
The instructions are super simple: put everything into a pot and cover with water or broth. Bring to a boil, then simmer for at least an hour. Take out the chicken and pull the meat off the bones, tossing it back into the pot. Add more seasonings if desired and simmer another 20 minutes or so.
Watch Island Intern Ben Brown chicken chasing for sancocho in Boca Chica:
Culantro is the key ingredient in a truly authentic Panamanian sancocho. Frequently confused with its close cousin cilantro, this native herb of Panama is much more pungent and has many potent health benefits – probably why Panamanians claim sancocho as the best remedy for a hangover.
I can see why this chicken soup is such a renowned restorative. The vitamin-rich broth, salt, and spices bring you back into electrolyte balance after a depleting night of carousing, and the chicken provides protein for energy. But Panamanians are proud of their national dish for more than merely its salubrity. Sancocho has long symbolized the harmonious mixture of cultures coexisting in Panama through its variety of complementary ingredients and openness to reinterpretation. And this underlying meaning has particular significance for 2012 – Panama is gaining a lot of attention as one of this year’s hottest travel destinations and is welcoming an influx of newcomers to its shores. As travelers and expatriates take their first bite of traditional sancocho, they’ll taste the Panamanian penchant for seamlessly incorporating new elements into a well-balanced whole. Thanks to this good-natured hospitality, visitors have a hard time not feeling immediately at home in Panama, even when not dining on a comforting homemade chicken soup.
Contributing to these good vibes is the Panamanian sense of humor. In the small town of Boca Chica, where the Island Interns first tasted sancocho, local residents like The Restaurant’s chef Giana lead simple lives indulging in the wholesome pleasures of country life. With little else to do besides enjoy the rich natural surroundings of rural Chiriqui, the locals can’t really be blamed for having a little fun with Ben and Luke when they visited Boca Chica. It wasn’t really necessary for Island Intern Ben Brown to chase down and catch a chicken in order to eat sancocho at The Restaurant – so don’t worry, if you’re planning on visiting you won’t have to get over your bird phobia – but it was certainly entertaining for Giana, her fellow Boca Chicans, and now you! A little hazing of the interns never hurt anybody, right?
Lesser-Known Sancocho Facts
- By some logic, Panamanians say you should eat sancocho for lunch on a hot day to help cool off.
- Panamanian sancocho originated in the Azuero region, the center of activity for the upcoming Carnaval celebrations.
- Sancocho is a popular national dish found throughout Latin America – each country puts its own spin on this pervasive recipe.
- A typical Panamanian eats sancocho at least once a week.