In the canon of Colombian cuisine, my favourite dish is Sancocho de gallina, a humble chicken stew. There is a variety of different recipes but the basics are the same: a farm hen cooked slowly over a smoky wood re, served up as a soupy stew with sticky rice, with maybe a slice of avocado on the side. Sancocho just means ‘boiled’. The dish is widespread all over Latin America, having arrived from Spain by way of the Canary Islands many centuries ago, and can be made from kind of meat or fish, but the most common in Colombia is with chicken.
You can find sancocho de gallina over the country and it does not seem to be rooted in any particular region, but it does belong to the farms and fincas where many a family or social gathering is an excuse to wring the neck of a hapless fowl and cook it up. Roadside restaurants often serve it as the Sunday special, though a few do it daily (and tend to advertise it, just last week I saw a truck-stop eatery with a big sign saying ‘Sancocho de Gallina …Every Day!’).
I love it for its smoky flavour but also because it’s a light lunch when driving long distances in the hot lowlands, and doesn’t require three hours in a hammock to sleep it off like after a bandeja paisa. Years ago working in a town on the coast my office was next door to a restaurant called Uno y Dos…Sancocho Y Arroz, and my weekly treat was to lunch there in the shade of a huge fig tree.
In some jungle areas coriander can be replaced with a wild local plant called or culantro or cilantro cimarron. I first came across this working in remote Embera Katío indigenous villages, and we would walk in the rainforest to gather herbs to go with the chicken for dinner. Culantro looks nothing like coriander but has an almost identical flavour.
When prepared on fincas, the goal seems to be to use as much farm-grown produce as possible (the chicken, yams, plantains, lemons/limes) and buy as little as possible (rice, garlic, onion, coriander). This creates the variety of recipes and flavours, though the common basis is leaf coriander (cilantro), onions and the small green lemons (limones comunes).
This is the version my mother-in-law makes every Sunday on the finca, having first stalked the hen-house for an appropriate victim, which is throttled, scalded and plucked, then gutted and washed with the juice of sour oranges. Thrown into the boiling pot are yams (known locally as yucca and ñame) and plantain (known as platano verde) but she also chucks in a few potatoes and sometimes maize corn on the cob, though you can equally well use sweet corn. She simmers it over the wood fire for two hours. I asked her if there was a special wood she uses for the distinctive smoky flavour but she just said “any wood that burns” so I guess it does not matter.
An aunt in Montería showed me a more refined version of sancocho made with cubed chicken breasts slow cooked in lime juice with cumin (comino) and coriander. I sometimes cook this up in London, no wood fire unfortunately, but the tangy sauce more than compensates.
Here, my “Londonised” sancocho recipe that serves 4 and prepared with chicken breast.
500g of chicken breast, off the bone, cubed into large chunks,
1 large white onion
1⁄4 cup of fresh squeezed lime (or lemon) juice.
2 tsp of cumin powder
1 chicken stock cube in 1⁄2 litre of water.
1⁄2 cup chopped leaf coriander
1 clove crushed garlic
300g of sweet potato (or normal potatoes)
300g of plantain
2 cobs of sweet corn, cut into rounds
(about three or four per cob).
500g of white rice.
Preparation (1 hour max):
Sancocho stew: Blend the onion, lime juice and leaf coriander in a food mixer to make a smooth sauce. Add a bit of water if it is hard to mix. Put sauce on stove in large pot and add stock cube and water, cumin and corn. Simmer for 15 minutes (or until corn is nearly soft soft). Add chicken, potatoes, plantain and garlic. Simmer on very low heat for 30 minutes (until chicken cooked and potatoes soft).
Note: if you use yams like yucca these need more cooking so add with corn at beginning. While stew is simmering, cook white rice by absorption method making sticky rice. Cut up avocado. You can serve the soup and chicken in a bowl and the rice and avocado on a plate.