My abuela (grandmother) Gloria used to say that she could wake up the dead with her sancocho. She was not very far from the truth, for indeed this dish is special to the Lukumí practices to honor the Egún.
Her sancocho, as we call it in Puerto Rico, still is the finest I have ever eaten and it would make anyone one who enjoyed it break into a sweat. Abuela did not keep an Egún altar; she was more into Spiritism that any other African traditional religious practice. Regardless, in the process of feeding the family this delicious stew, she brought them together at the table, a common place to honor in her own way those who came before her with conversations that invariably would revolve around traditions and about the value of staying together as family.
In Cuba the same stew is called ajiaco and for the Yoruba it is known as iyako. The common thread is that the dish makes us remember roots that go all the way to Africa. No matter what you call it, making the perfect pot of this stew is a fine art, and just like storytelling, it takes time and practice to master it.
The sun was not yet up and my grandmother already had her kitchen table filled with root vegetables, onions, meats and herbs. Still on my pajamas, I would sit at the kitchen table and watch her with big saucer eyes as she peeled mounds of root vegetables. It would be years later that the skills I learned with her would be put into action while helping to prepare sancocho for my Egún where she now reigned amongst many other family members who had crossed over to the great beyond.
Making an ajiaco for the Egún always uplifts my spirits. I guess it was the same for my Lukumí ancestors who would make this dish to appease and honor their family spirits while showing their love by sharing some of their meager rations.
Here is Abuela Gloria’s Sanchocho recipe (Yields 8 to 10 large portions):
Play this meddley from Yoruba Andabó as you cook and you will feel the Egún all around you…
1 ½ lb of beef (some soup bones can also be used), lean and cubed into 1 inch squares
1 ½ lb of pork, lean and cubed into 1 inch squares
4 chicken thighs, skin on, cut in half
½ lb. Smoked cooking ham
(B) Aromatics & Seasonings:
1 minced bunch of recao or culantro (Eryngium foetidum)
8 ají dulces (Capsicum chinense)
6 chopped large garlic cloves
2 large yellow onions, chopped
2 Green banana peppers or one large green bell pepper
3 Bay Laurel leaves
1 Tbs. dried oregano
1 Tsp. Cumin seeds
3 table spoons of olive oil
½ tsp Annatto seeds
½ tsp. fresh ground black pepper
1 tbs. Sea salt (if you are cooking for Egún take out the salt)
Adobo to taste (when not cooking for Egun)
(C) Root Vegetables & Other Ingredients
1/3 lb. Green Pumpkin (Curcubita máxima)
1 lb. Malanga lila (Colocasia esculenta)
3 large green plantains
1 ½ lb. Yautía lila (Xanthosoma violaceum)
1 lb. Yucca (Manihot esculenta)
½ lb. potatoes
3 fresh corn ears
½ lb. White yam (Dioscorea ssp.)
2 tbs. white flour
Heat up the olive oil and place the Annatto seeds in it to render the red color. Discard the seeds and set aside the tinted oil. Brown the meats in additional olive oil, once they are seared, start incorporating all the aromatics except for the sea salt and/or the adobo if you are cooking for the Egún. If you are cooking for yourself and others, season to taste.
Peel the yautia, malanga, potatoes, yucca, white yam and pumpkin all cut into medium sized cubes. Add to meats one at a time every 5 minutes in the order in which they are listed, and pour 6 cups of water and add more water as it evaporates. Add the corn cut into 2 inch rounds. Using the fine grind of a box grater, grate the green plantains into a bowl, sprinkle with flour and adobo and shape into balls (like meatballs). Drop the plantain balls (bollitos de plátano) into the pot, check seasoning, add the annatto oil and keep on cooking in low heat and covered for an hour. Keep monitoring the liquid level as not to dry your stew.
You know your stew is ready when it had thickened and the root vegetables are all fork tender.
The ajiaco is garnished with a roasted head of pork when setting up a formal Zaraza a Egún, otherwise it is set at the Egún altar served in a igüera or calabash bowl.
I hope you can try this dish one day and that you always find the blessings of your Egún all around you. Maferefún Egún!
Oní Yemayá Achagbá