Fall temperatures always seem to inspire a lot of excitement about any food associated with pumpkin, and although I enjoy the sweet flavor of this popular squash, for me the season’s change signals that it’s officially soup weather.
When that slight chill slips into the air, there’s nothing more enjoyable to me than a hearty bowl of soup. I especially love spicy, veggie-filled soups and stews that I’ve discovered in other countries like Jamaica’s pepperpot, brimming with yams and coconut milk, and Guatemala’s Pepi’an, flavored with pumpkin seeds and roasted peppers. But to me, the G.O.A.T. of soups has got to be the soothing, soul-warming sancocho.
I first tried this multi-layered chicken soup when I was visiting Panama. It was a summer evening in Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo district and the sun was setting over the cobblestone streets and restored 17th-century buildings. Faint strains of cumbia floated through the air as the clubs and bars prepared for the frenetic nightlife that the area is known for.
After a day spent touring the chaotic city center, all I wanted was a relaxing meal. I asked my waiter which traditional dish she recommended for my first evening in the city, and she just smiled and brought back a simmering bowl of chicken and vegetables in broth.
“This is sancocho,” she said, placing a small bowl of rice beside the soup. “This is what we love in Panama.”
The soup looked pretty basic to me, with chicken, corn, and potatoes floating in a light brown broth spiked with cilantro. But it only took one spoonful to understand why sancocho is beloved. The flavor was bright and fresh, the chicken mingling with oregano, garlic, and what turned out to be plantains to create a mix of textures and tastes. I lapped it up with the rice and felt restored.
I later learned that not only is sancocho Panama’s national dish, but it’s considered the ultimate hangover cure. That explains why it was featured on so many menus in the popular nightclub district.
Sancocho is a Latin American interpretation of the Spanish cocido. The dish’s origins can be traced to the Canary Islands, off the coast of Northwest Africa. A traditional cocido features meat, carrots, potatoes, and garbanzo beans, and in the Canary Islands, it’s made with fish and plantains. Local substitutions for these ingredients pop up all over Latin America.
Traveling across the region, I discovered versions of sancocho in almost every country. My personal favorite is the one found in Colombia, which is a little thicker and served with the all-important aji picante hot sauce. I had traveled to Colombia’s third-largest city, Cali, to attend the annual Petronio Alvarez Festival, a showcase of the music, dance, food, and crafts of the Afro-Colombian Pacific coast. I moved to the music that throbs through the sidewalks and highlights the city’s reputation as “salsa capital of the world” while exploring the rich food culture.
The sprawling open market, Galleria Alameda, displays tropical fruits, spices, fresh meat, and even live birds. It was here that I first tasted luladas, a refreshing drink made with tart lulo fruit, lime, and sugar. On Cali’s scenic riverfront, I fell in love with aborrajados, a rich, sweet appetizer of fried plantains stuffed with mozzarella. And at a small local cafe, I sampled arroz atollado, a classic and flavorful dish filled with chicken, pork, potatoes, rice, and lots of seasonings. I couldn’t stop finding new favorites everywhere I went.
But it was my reintroduction to sancocho that sealed the deal. I ordered a bowl and it looked similar to the Panamanian version, but the broth was thicker and it was accompanied with avocado in addition to the rice and aji picante. I swirled it all together and had a gastronomical party in my mouth thanks to the zing of the fresh peppers and the richness of the avocado, while plantains, cassava, potatoes, and a hint of achiote upped the heartiness. I felt like I didn’t need to eat again for another few days. It was the perfect bowl of soup.
Eating sancocho is satisfying on levels that the traditional American notion of chicken soup just can’t compete with. It’s the best way to stay cozy in chilly weather. Keep your pumpkins—I will be sipping sancocho all season instead.