Canja is the mother of Cape Verdean comfort food. It’s a thick, rich and delicious chicken soup that’s made with rice, shredded chicken, vegetables and simple seasonings.
Interested in learning to make other Cape Verdean dishes? Make sure to check out this list of 25 Cape Verdean foods! Each dish has a link to the recipe!
Canja has long been a staple of Cape Verdean cuisine. We eat it to celebrate special occasions, to mourn the loss of our loved ones, and to fight off the cold and flu. Portugal and Brazil also have their own versions of canja that they either refer to as canja or canja de galinha which translates to ‘canja made of chicken’.
What is Canja made of?
Canja is a modest Cape Verdean dish made of very simple ingredients. Very rarely does it require a special trip to the grocery store. Chicken and medium-grain rice are the main ingredients, and the base of the soup is made with garlic, onions and sometimes tomato, depending on the cook. Garlic, paprika, salt, pepper and bay leaves are used to flavor the soup. Finely diced carrots and potatoes can also be added, and parsley can be used as a garnish.
This version of Canja
As with any dish, there are variations of Canja, whether it’s from family to family or island to island. No two cooks are the same and the rules aren’t set in stone. Here’s what I do that other cooks may do differently:
- Use boneless, skinless chicken thighs– traditionally a whole chicken is cut up for Canja including the bones and skin. I love skin, but not in my soup so that’s why I leave it out. Just a note that bones and skin are great for flavor so feel free to keep them in if you want to keep things traditional.
- Use chicken broth– some people use plain water and use a combination of bouillon, salt, sazon or adobo to season their broth. Whenever I use plain water I never get the flavor quite right unless I add a ton of salt or bouillon. For this reason I use chicken broth. Low sodium chicken broth also works well if you’re trying to control your salt.
- Season to taste- This one should go without saying but my salt measurements are suggestions. Everyone’s taste buds are different. Feel free to use as little or as much salt or seasoning you wish.
- Butter-this is commonly used to saute the onions in but I just use olive oil. I never got around to asking my grandmother if she uses butter in her Canja so I just leave it out. Many people do use butter though, I imagine it gives the canja great flavor!
How much does this recipe yield, and how long does canja take to cook?
This recipe yields around 8-10 servings. My recipe is scaled down because there are only 4 people in my household, 2 of whom are 5 and under. We always have plenty of soup left over which we re-heat throughout the week.
I cook my Canja for almost 2 hours. The reason that I let it cooks so long is to bring out the flavor of the chicken. Just the chicken alone cooks for an hour before adding the rice, carrots and potatoes so that the chicken is tender enough to shred. Finally, I let the Canja sit for about 30 minutes before serving, to let the flavors settle.
What to do with canja left-overs?
I’m usually not a huge fan of leftovers, but Canja re-heats very well, sometimes it even tastes better on the second day. My son loves to take it to school in a thermos. I love the break from cooking the next day after making a pot of canja.
I’ve heard of people freezing Canja, but I’ve never done it because my family is able to manage our leftovers. This should freeze just as any chicken soup with rice or noodles would.
How to make canja:
Step 1: Season the chicken
Cleaning chicken can be controversial but it’s something that’s done in a lot of cultures. I think of this “cleaning” step more like brining, because we’re essentially just soaking the chicken in water, lemon juice and vinegar, and then draining the water (followed by another cold rinse). Same thing you would do if you were brining a whole chicken or turkey.
After you’ve completed this step, place the chicken on a cutting board and cut it into pieces. Transfer the chicken to a clean bowl, and season the chicken with paprika, crushed garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil. Toss the bay leaves in, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour (I recommend over night).
Step 2: Brown the chicken and create the base
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large stockpot and brown the chicken on all sides. Make sure to reserve the bay leaves and add them to the pot. Once the chicken is browned, transfer it to a plate.
Add your onions, remaining crushed garlic and quartered tomatoes to the pot and saute them until the tomato cooks down. Try to loosen any stuck on bits from the bottom of the pan as you’re sauteing.
Step 3: Fill the pot and simmer for 1 hour
Add the chicken back to the pot, add the broth and then top the pot off with enough tap water to fill it three-quarters of the way up. Bring the pot to a boil, then let it simmer over a low flame for 1 hour.
Step 4: Shred the chicken and add the rice and vegetables
After 1 hour, taste the broth and adjust the seasoning to your liking ( I usually add about 2 teaspoons of salt). Remove the chicken from the pot and use a fork to break the chicken up. This can be done by just pressing the fork against the chicken. Once the chicken is broken up, add it back to the pot, with the rinsed rice and diced carrots. Make sure to maintain a low flame and stir the canja occasionally so that the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot.
Let the canja cook for another 30 minutes before adding the potatoes. Once you’ve added the potatoes, let the Canja simmer for another 15 minutes. If you want a more starchy Canja, let the potatoes cook slightly longer so that they break down slightly.
Step 5: Let the Canja rest and then serve!
Turn the flame off, give the canja a final stir and it rest with the lid on it for another 20-30 minutes before serving. This rest period is what gives the flavors time to settle and allows the canja to thicken.
Ladle the canja into bowls and top with some fresh chopped parsley (optional). Hot sauce is also optional but adds nice flavor and helps to kick the dish up a notch if you’re battling a cold!
Get ready to eat your feelings! I told you Cape Verdean Canja is comforting!
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Canja – Cape Verdean Chicken Soup Recipe
- 6 chicken thighs boneless and skinless
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1 lemon juiced
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt plus more to taste
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons crushed garlic divided
- 1 tablespoon olive oil extra virgin, plus more for drizzling
- 1 large yellow onion diced
- 1 large tomato quartered
- 8 cups chicken broth plus enough water to top the pot off
- 2 bouillon cubes
- 2 carrots diced
- 1-2 potatoes diced very small
- 1 and ½ cups medium-grain rice
- Place the chicken thighs in a large bowl. Use a spoon or spatula to rub the vinegar and lemon juice all over them. Fill the bowl with enough water to cover the chicken, stir a few times and let sit for 2-3 minutes. Drain the water, rinse 1 or 2 times and drain again.
- Season the chicken thighs with salt, pepper, paprika, 1 tablespoon of crushed garlic, and a drizzle of olive oil. Add the bay leaves and cover the bowl in plastic wrap. Let the chicken marinate for a minimum of 1 hour (or overnight) in the refrigerator.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in an 8-quart stock pot. Once the oil is hot, add the chicken thighs to the pot and make sure to reserve the bowl that you seasoned the chicken in. Brown the chicken for 2-3 minutes on each side and then transfer the chicken thighs to a plate.
- Add the quartered tomato, chopped onions and the reserved bay leaves to the pot. Saute everything until the onions are clear and the tomato cooks down. Add the chicken back to the pot.
- Add a splash of the chicken broth to the bowl that you used to season the chicken. Swirl the broth around in the bowl so that it loosens any seasonings that were left behind. Pour the seasoned broth into the pot and then add the remaining chicken broth. Top the pot off with enough tap water to fill the pot ¾ of the way up. Bring the pot to a boil, lower the flame and let it simmer for 1 hour.
- Taste the broth and adjust the amount of salt and pepper to your liking. Remove the chicken from the soup and shred or break it up.
- Add the chicken back to the pot, and add the rice and carrots. Let the canja continue to simmer for about 30 minutes.
- Add the potatoes to the canja and let it simmer for another 15-20 minutes.
- Turn the flame off and stir the canja. Put the lid back on and let the canja sit for about 20-30 minutes.
- Ladle the canja into bowls and serve it with hot sauce and chopped parsley if desired.