(Panamanian Syle Chicken Soup)
I was around 6 years old when I was first served a bowl of Sancocho. I was living in Panama City, Panama at the time and my parents offered to drive our housekeeper, Maria, home for the weekend to save her from a day long commute of hopping from Diablo Rojo (the name they gave to the sweltering and over crowded busses of the time) to camiones and then back to foot. After four hours of driving to the interior parts of Panama we parked the car to hike the last 2 miles up to the elevated terrain where she lived. While my freckles grew larger and my feet blistered, Maria kept moving along, swiftly and joyfully. It was not a typical Saturday for any of us and it was definitely one to remember.
This journey didn’t take us to a typical Panamanian home of concrete and a tiled roof. Instead, it took us to a clearing in the jungle defined by a river of fresh flowing water and a backdrop of dense vegetation. In the middle were three small huts made of assorted wood and covered in palm fronds to block the heat. There were no windows, no doors, and only a bed made of sticks and more palms for furniture.
Maria and her family invited us to stay for dinner and I was overjoyed when my dad accepted. I was chasing the wild chickens when Maria’s sister invited me to accompany her to the river to fetch some water. I stumbled down the ravine finding it hard to find good foot placement and she moved confidently in her chancletas. Maria’s sister seemed to be a bit surprised that I spoke Spanish (not typical for a curly red headed girl with freckles in Panama) and seemed motivated to keep the conversation going. I felt like one of the cool girls while in her company and wasn’t in a hurry to get back to the group. When we returned, everyone was gathered around the fire which cradled a large stone pot. From it, came the smell of the wild caught chicken basking in fresh garlic, oregano, and onion.
It was sunset when Maria’s mother started to peel the corn, yams, and the yuca. (Yuca is a starchy root vegetable loaded with carbohydrates, manganese and vitamin C.) Maria’s sister chopped the culantro, a botanical cousin of cilantro with tremendous anti-inflammatory properties, and gave the corn, yams, and yuca one good hack each. With a nod, Maria ordered me to add the chopped herbs and vegetables, and then followed behind me with the pail of river water previously collected. She then covered the pot and smiled excitedly.
My sister and I played inside the huts while my mom and dad conversed with Maria’s family members. Laughter echoed through the forest as the sky grew darker. I can’t tell you how long the soup simmered because time was lost in this magical refuge from civilization. Eventually Maria announced that dinner was ready and handed us each a little clay bowl filled with Sanchoco de Gallina, the national dish of Panama.
The hearty broth based stew felt refreshing to the pallet, despite the hot and humid climate. The meat slid off the bone and the yuca was tender enough to cut with our spoon (which we eventually ditched to drink straight from the bowl). We all intently slurped down our portions and before we knew it, the light was gone. We thanked them over and over for the hospitality and with full bellies and the happiest of hearts, we began our journey back to the city.
*Sancocho is served throughout the world and there are many renditions of this recipe. It is said by my abuela and the abuelas before her that Sanchocho can heal anything- from a bad mood to a bad hangover.
This is my attempt to recreate that recipe and relive that wondrous childhood memory.
Sancocho de Gallina (Panamanian Chicken Soup)
1 whole chicken (bone-in), cut into pieces
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (your choice)
3 garlic cloves, pressed
2 Tbsp fresh oregano (2 tsp. dried)
1 tsp black pepper
4 Tbsp culantro*, chopped
1 large onion, chopped into bite-size pieces
2.5 pounds of yuca, peeled and cut into pieces
1 yam or other starchy vegetables (consider green plantains, or carrots), peeled and cut into pieces
2 ears corn, cut in 1/2 or in 1/3
4 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
Season the chicken with the garlic, oregano, 1 tsp. salt, and pepper.
In a heavy pot, brown the seasoned chicken in the oil over a medium flame and allow to sweat.
Set a little culantro/cilantro aside for garnish at the end. Add the rest of the culantro/cilantro, onion and water. Make sure water covers the chicken.
Bring to a boil and reduce to a low simmer for 20 minutes.
Add the root vegetables.
Cook until everything softens, about one hour. Be sure the veggies stay under water. If not, add more.
Add the corn and cook 15 minutes more.
Stir in remaining salt to taste.
Garnish with the reserved chopped culantro/cilantro and serve.
Notes 1. If you can't find the root vegetables notated in the recipe, substitute with other root vegetables, such as parsnips, turnips, potatoes, or parsnips.
2. If you are unable to get your hands on culantro, use chopped cilantro leaves (this will require more- 6 Tbsp as culantro is more heavily flavored).
3. Feel free to add more vegetables! (I like to add green beans to mine!)
4. The longer it sits the better it tastes. Leftovers will be amazing!!
5. Add a little hot sauce for an added kick!