5 Sep 2017

Today’s Special: Sancocho

What we eat is a direct reflection of our unique cultural and biological heritage. It is the foundation of identity. We always try to taste again what we enjoyed eating as kids.

How powerful our food is! I remember how excited I was about finding cassava (yuca) on a produce store in Mechelen, Belgium. I knew it would help warm Latin American and African immigrants’ souls there. Alfonso Jaén told me about how valued pigeon peas (guandú) are for Panamanians. He also mentioned the different plans for taking it to the US. I also remember the story of that Peruvian lady who was traveling to Miami. She was carrying fried guinea pig (cuy chactado), a popular dish in the Peruvian highlands. Customs officers did not approve of its entry to the US ... even though it was a gift for her relatives, well-seasoned and cooked as it was.

In September, the Biomuseo celebrates the importance of gastronomy. This is a good occasion for talking about the delicious and nutritive sancocho. It is, according to a friend, a national dish that is “… served as a revitalizing food at lunch, after a full day of hard work, or after partying all night long.” Perhaps the most amazing thing about sancocho is its simplicity. Ingredients required for sancocho are easy to find and they sum up the cultural exchange in gastronomy.

Modesty aside, I like to think I can find my way around the kitchen. I even bake good bread. Yet, soups are an unknown terrain for me. I prefer to ask the experts. There are different recipes for sancocho, depending on the geographical and cultural context. A sancocho in Bocas del Toro is different from the one in the Azuero region.  

Among the various types of Panamanian sancocho, there is an agreement on the basics.  Besides the essentials (salt, pepper, garlic), there are other four:

-Free-range hen (gallina de patio)

-Yams (ñame)

-Long coriander (culantro)

-Oregano (sprinkled on top in the end, covering the pot afterwards).

The multiculturalism of sancocho is evident in its ingredients. Long coriander is native to the tropical Americas. Spaniards brought the hens, yams, and oregano.

But at the same time it wasn't exactly in Spain where these ingredients originated. And I say "originated" risking that you believe it was the result of pure natural evolution, when in reality, it was due to the action of (mostly female) hands and human appetites, that slowly, over time, the varieties of plants and animals that make up the agricultural biological diversity on the planet today was selected.

Since the birth of agriculture, approx. 7.000-10.000 years ago, human beings have become true genetic engineers. Our preferences have significant influence on the plants we choose to grow. Thus, having an impact on the resistance and ability to thrive of selected species.

Below you will find more information about these 4 basic ingredients;. next time you sit before a hot and delicious sancocho, you will have a better understanding of what is in it.

Chickens: domesticated 7,000 years ago, its scientific name is Gallus gallus domesticus. Its last name, domesticus, shows it is a subspecies of the Gallus gallus, the red junglefowl from Southeast Asia. During its “induced” evolution, hybridization with the grey junglefowl (Gallus sonneratii) occurred. I have read about a population of 16,000 million hens, roosters, and chickens. This makes it the largest bird population in the planet today.

Yams (Dioscorea alata), ñame baboso for Panamanians, are native to Southeast Asia and surrounding areas, but  now it is right at home in China, Africa, Madagascar, Tropical South America, Southeast US, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In Florida, it has an invasive-species status, as it covers and damages natural vegetation, affecting even mature trees.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare) comes from the Mediterranean. According to the information I have, besides being a tasty spice, it has antibacterial and nematicide properties. It does not surprise me that its selection for sancocho is not only because of its flavor, but also for promoting good digestion.

Long coriander (Eryngium foetidum), culantro in Panama, is native to tropical America. Today it is present in all tropical areas of the world. It is a seasoning, also with medicinal properties. I have to mention the marvelous aroma and flavor it adds to food.

From Jaqué, Province of Darién, Professor Heriberto Torres, sent his answer. He says that the sancocho in Darién also includes the same 4 ingredients. Yet, there is a variation in the method: the chicken is roasted first. He also said that writing about sancocho contributes to the reaffirmation of food sovereignty and cultural identity. Thanks for the compliment!

Sancocho is another example of how diversity and multiculturalism make life more enjoyable. Proven fact.

We are lucky enough to have both in Panama, still. Let’s take good care of them.