Sancocho is more than just a bowl of soup.  What first seemed to me like a modest stew made from kitchen scraps goes far beyond that.  It means something.

In Colombia, sancochos are made by slowly simmering beef, chicken, or fish with a combination of starchy vegetables that vary depending on the region – green plantains, potatoes, Andean corn, yuca, pumpkin or ñame.  Mothers and grandmothers across the country typically put on a pot of sancocho for Saturday lunch, which can stretch a few small pieces of tough meat into a healthy meal for a family of ten, or more.

Sancocho means something special is taking place, around the dinner table or alongside the river.  Driving out in the countryside, you will see families enjoying the day outside while cooking a pot of the famous soup over a fire.

Sancocho is a culinary road map through time and across many continents, with origins in Europe and the African tropics.  Culinary anthropologists believe that the first sancocho, a fish and plantain stew, came from the Canary Islands.

It was the African interpretation of a Spanish cocido – a boiled meal consisting of meats, sausage, carrots, cabbage, and garbanzo beans.  In the 16th century, the Spanish brought their Canary Islands sancocho to Colombia, where it was adapted over time by Colombian cooks with New World ingredients.

Many local versions emerged, and today every home cook makes their own version of sancocho, reflecting regional tastes and celebrating the local bounty, but one link to the original Canary Island sancocho remains. The binding characteristic of all Colombian sancochos is the use of green plantain, an ingredient also found in Africa’s tropical islands, which lends its waxy starches to the broth and the firm texture of the vegetables on the plate.

The sancocho from the department of Valle del Cauca, in and around Cali, starts with chicken or costilla de res (beef ribs), green onions, and a good pinch of freshly ground cumin.  Starchy vegetables are cooked in the meaty broth including green plantain, pastusa or sabanera potatoes, yuca, and pumpkin – along with aromatics like cilantro and rosemary.

To add body, some grate arracacha into the pot.  This Andean tuber, which tastes like a combination of celery, cabbage, chestnut and carrot, adds complexity.  Culantro, the pungent, wide-leafed perennial herb grown throughout Latin America, adds a distinct flavor.

In Barranquilla, a steaming pot in the kitchen means there is a party in the air – Carnaval is approaching.  Barranquilla’s sancocho showcases guandul, a native African grain now part of the Afro-Caribbean culinary tradition here in Colombia, and is served at Carnaval to celebrate the harvest that occurs in January, just before the big event.

Sancocho del Pescado, from the Caribbean coast, has a Costeño flair.  It reflects the mestizaje of the region as the original Spanish recipe has changed over time, and now uses indigenous tropical ingredients that have been adapted by African hands.  Caribbean sancochos showcase fresh fish from local waters, cooked slowly with yuca and ñame in a creamy coconut milk broth.  Platanos maduros (sweet plantains) sweeten and tomatoes give acidity and color.

There is no one true recipe for Colombian sancocho, just a list of ingredients handed down from grandmothers to mothers to daughters.  If you put everything on the list into a pot and cook it just right, the final result will remind you of home and conjure up grand feelings from humble beginnings.