Saturday, April 21, 2018

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Panama

I continue my personal culinary challenge, Around the World in 80 Dishes.  The next challenge takes me to the República de Panamá.   The name, "Panama," is supposedly derived from an Amerindian word that means "an abundance of fish."  One can understand why the land may have been known for its fish and other seafood because its shorelines grace both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.  This geography is reflected in Panamanian cuisine.  During my research, I came across a lot of recipes for ceviche.  The Panamanian version of ceviche usually involves marinating the fish in lime juice, celery and sometimes peppers.

While ceviche has its place on the Panamanian table, I wanted to know what else may be served during a typical Panamanian meal.  After all, Panama's agricultural sector involves the cultivation of many different tropical fruits, vegetables, and herbs, along with raising cattle, pigs and chicken.  This abundance is reflected in a variety of dishes.  Many of the dishes sound familiar, like tamales, ropa vieja and empanadas.  However, there are uniquely Panamanian dishes, such as carimañolas (ground yucca stuffed with ground meat) almojábana (corn-flour bread) and patacones (crispy chips of fried green plantains).

As the foregoing dishes suggests, Panamanian cuisine is influenced not only by the available ingredients (as are all cuisines), but also by an interesting mix of cultures and influences.  According to Every Culture, the largest demographic group in Panama are the interioranos, whose heritage is a mixture of Spanish and indigenous cultures.  There are also sizeable African and native communities, as well as populations of Italians, Greeks, Jews and Chinese.  All of these groups exert varying degrees of influence upon the dishes that are served in the restaurants and homes throughout Panama.


For my challenge, I decided to make Sancocho, a type of chicken soup or stew.  The name comes from the Spanish word Sancochar, which means to parboil.  The dish itself is derived from cocido, a meat stew that is popular in central and northern Spain.  For example, in Madrid, you can find cocido madrileño, a stew consisting of, among other things, pork belly, chorizo, beef flank, bola (meatballs), chickpeas, potatoes, carrots and turnips.  As the Spanish explored and colonized the New World, they brought dishes like cocido, which took root amongst the local populace and evolved over time into dishes like sancocho.

As one could expect, many Latin American countries have some version of sancocho.  There are sancocho recipes from cooks in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. However, in Panama, sancocho or Sancocho de Gallina is the national dish.  It first originated in the peninsular region of Azuero in Southern Panama.  The dish spread throughout Panama, with regional variations emerging.  For example, in the town of La Chorrera (which is located east of the Azuero region), cooks make sancocho with free range chicken, onions, garlic, chili peppers, oregano and ñame (yams).  There is also Sancocho chiricano, which is a specialty from the Chiriqui Province in Eastern Panama.  This version is the heartiest.  It includes all of the ingredients for the basic sancocho and squash, which provides a yellowish color to the stew. 

The ingredients for the traditional Panamanian sancocho are simple and straightforward.  A free range chicken, along with ñame (yams) for flavor and texture, and culantro for flavor and color.  There is a list of other ingredients -- such as yuca, corn, onions, garlic, oregano, ñampí (taro) and otoe (a root vegetable) -- may also be used to make the stew.  Once prepared, sancocho is served with white rice on the side, which could be mixed into the stew or simply eaten alongside it. 

This is the version that will serve as my challenge.  I used most of the basic ingredients -- a free range chicken, ñame, and culantro (although I substituted the closely related cilantro), along with onions, garlic, corn and oregano.

Recipe adapted from What's Cooking Panama
Serves 4 to 6

1 stewing hen (2-1/2 lb), cut in serving pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
4 tablespoons culantro, chopped (cilantro can be substituted)
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
2 tablespoons green pepper, chopped
2 lbs. ñame, peeled and chunked (potatoes or yams can be substituted)
2 inch section of corn on the cob for each serving (optional)
2 quarts (8 cups) of water or chicken stock
salt to taste

1.  Stew the chicken.  Put chicken pieces into a stock pot with 2 quarts of water or chicken stock. Add onion, cilantro, oregano and green pepper. Cook for 1 hour. 

2.  Add the ñame (potatoes or yams).  Add salt to taste. Add ñame (yams) and cook until the ñame is tender. Add corn last 15 minutes of cooking. 

3.  Finish the dish.  Spoon the chicken and stew into bowls.  Serve with steamed rice on the side.

*     *     *

This culinary challenge represents the first one for Central America, which, until now, was the only region where I have not made a main course based upon a country's cuisine.  This challenge was relatively easy.  There were no complicated steps.  The most difficult part of this challenge is trying to culantro or ñame.  But, if you cannot find those ingredients, the substitutes of cilantro and potatoes or yams still help to make a very delicious soup.   Now, it is time to turn to the next challenge, and, only time will tell where it will take me.  Until then ...


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