Sancocho is the chicken noodle soup of Panama, plus the best cure for a long, late night of drinking. Late night stops for a bowl of sancocho reminded me of diner stops in NYC. Old friends meet up and compare notes on clubs and bars at one of the several Niko’s in the city, a cafeteria-style restaurant serving up Panamanian fare from steam tables, open 24-hours, every day. A more specific example of this is when night clubs serve up sancocho at 3AM on New Year’s Eve. My favorite spot, though, is Jap Jap (named after the sound a chicken makes). Jap Jap is an outdoor, large roadside place in Panama City where they sell killer rotisserie cooked chicken and their version of a souvlaki, basically grilled beef on a nice hero-like roll. The sancocho comes in a large styrofoam cup, and consists of pieces of stewed hen sitting in a yucca-thicken broth, studded with culantro. It is pretty hard to spend $10 here – portions are ample and nothing is expensive. This is the kind of fast food the Grub Blogger can approve: Tied to the culture, locally owned and with fresh ingredients.Sancocho is a country dish, made from old hens that no longer are much use as egg layers. Traditionally, you slit the hen’s neck, and hang it from a rafter to let the blood drain while you prepare a pit with some firewood and a couple of rocks on either side. Across this you put a makeshift grill with whatever is available, on which you put a huge, cast iron pot. Once this is set up, you stew the hen for hours, and the sancocho picks up a bit of a smoky flavor from the burning wood. Everything that goes in the pot is from the surrounding land. In Brooklyn, the Grub Blogger was lucky to get a few leaves of oregano from his terrace, so he had to do some urban foraging. I had remembered passing a live poultry market on my way to Red Hook in Columbia Heights, so I went to check it out.
After trying to ask some questions, I realized that it was either Chinese or monosyllabic English. I said, “Hen.” One of the guys grabbed a live hen out of a cage by its legs, and, with wings flailing, put it into a hanging scale and told me “$4.00.” I nodded my head, and he brought out a freshly slaughtered hen a few minutes later. Yeung Sun is a pretty hardcore place, but well worth the culture shock to get a real stewing hen.
The rest of the ingredients are onion, celery, carrots, bell pepper, culantro, carrots and garlic for the sofrito and root vegetables to thicken the stew and add some bulk. In Panama, they use a tuber called ñame for sancocho, which is very difficult to find. Yucca is probably the easiest substitution. I was able to find otoe, yautia and some yucca at my local market. I also put in some potatoes, which are not pictured.
Butcher up the hen, keeping the neck, heart, liver and back – and any eggs or proto-eggs. This was a pretty hardcore experience for me, finding this proto-eggs that look like yellow caviar in the cavity of the bird. Not as hardcore as the hen sliced directly down the middle I saw in the main food market in Panama, though. There were three, large eggs, without any shell, wedged into the bird, which still had its head and feet. My lady tells me that this makes for the best sancocho, and that the eggs, when, cooked in the stew, are out of sight.
Then marinate the bird with half of the sofrito for a few hours, or over night. Season the bird with salt and pepper, and heat up a little oil in a dutch oven, into which you put the bird and all the aromatics in which it has been marinating.
You are not looking to brown the bird, but instead start drawing out moisture, cooking the vegetables and getting rid of the raw look.
Then you cover with water, and simmer for a few hours, until the meat starts to become tender. It will never really fall apart, as the hen’s muscles are old and overworked, but it will start to pull away from the bone. At this point, put in the reserved sofrito, along with the tubers, and simmer until the tubers are tender.
Hit it will a little more culantro, and serve with rice on the side and some hot sauce.