Tortilla soup is one of the most popular Mexican soups. Google it, and you can easily get tons of “classic” recipes and even more variations. The base is always the same — dry red chili peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, tortilla chips, cilantro, and lime. In some recipes tortilla chips are used to thicken the soup, in other, they are the topping. In central Mexico, this soup flavor is defined by pungent and tangy thin fleshed pasilla, in Michoacan region it’s a fruity and mild ancho, in Puebla a smokey chipotle takes the place. There are also a variety of additional toppings from cooked meat and poultry to avocado, cheese, and cream. Every local chef or home cook features the best regional ingredients in this soup. I often joke comparing tortilla soup in Mexican cuisine to borsch in Ukrainian.
Train Your Taste Buds
Control the Heat
I remember my first bowl of tortilla soup in the U.S. It was so picante, so spicy hot for my completely untrained palate, I could not breathe. I also could not recognize any flavors at all. So, I chose Michoacan variation of the soup with ancho and sort of diluted the chili heat with some sweet red peppers, charred and peeled. It worked! I like combining my tree favorite Mexican chili peppers — ancho, chipotle meco, and pasilla — in this soup. I still add sweet red peppers and tomatoes, both charred and peeled for more complexity. There is no cheese or cream in my version of the soup. Instead, I add cooked corn kernels and pomegranate seeds for sweet and sour crunchy texture. If I don’t fry my homemade tortilla chips, I choose my favorite Xochitl Totopos de Maíz made of blue corn, crushed.
Control the Flavor
There are parts of the chili peppers that are bitter. If you enjoy bitter notes in your food, use the whole pods. If you’d like to exclude bitterness, your first step in preparing dry peppers for using in any dish is to remove seeds and membranes. The second step is to cut them into smaller pieces. Then you have a choice to rehydrate them as is or dry toast them in a hot skillet or an oven for the third step. A few seconds of toasting will contribute more chili flavor into the final taste of your dish, make it more dramatic. Try both ways and choose your favorite. Finally, rehydrate peppers in hot water for 20-30 minutes to extract their flavor in full.
This recipe is part of Local Flavors: Mexican/Tex-Mex — Block 3, Soups cooking class.
Servings: 2 portions
- 2 cups water or stock
- 1 each Ancho dry chili pepper
- 1 each Chipotle dry chili pepper
- 1/2 each Pasiila dry chili pepper
- 1/2 each Bell sweet peppers
- 1 cup tomatoes peeled, seeded, diced, with juice
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 1 each key lime
- 1/2 bunch cilantro
- 1/4 cup cooked corn kernels
- 2 tbsp pomegranate seeds
Prepare dry peppers. Remove stems, veins, and seeds. Cut them into small pieces, place them in a bowl, and pour hot water over. Submerge them by pressing down. Leave for 20-25 minutes to reconstitute. Strain chili peppers and reserve the water.
Char sweet red pepper and tomatoes. Peel them and remove seeds. Dice sweet peppers, tomatoes, and onions.
Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high and sauté onions until tender.
Add peppers and tomatoes, reduce the heat, cover with a lid, and cook for 7-10 minutes.
Mash the vegetables. Turn the heat to high to cook them to a thicker consistency, stirring.
Add 2 cups of water (including reserved water) or stock and bring the soup to boiling. Season to your taste with salt, sugar, and the juice of half of key lime, freshly squeezed. Add chopped cilantro, stir, cover with the lid and let flavors develop for a few minutes.
Prepare toppings for serving soup. Slice the other half of the key lime. To serve, place a handful of tortilla chips on the bottom of every soup bowl, add a ladle of hot soup, top with lime slices, corn kernels, pomegranate seeds, and fresh cilantro.
Soup’s On: Sopa is a Mexican Menu Essential
"The soup course is known as sopa aguada, or “wet soup,” to distinguish it from the rice course, which is called sopa seca, or “dry soup.” And since sopa aguada is such an important part of a Mexican comida, a nearly endless array of soups has been created by the country’s home cooks and chefs. And many of these are substantial enough to be served as a main course for lunch or even dinner. [...] The sopa azteca at El Jardin is served in a bowl of broth with fried tortilla strips, accompanied by side dishes of shredded chicken, avocado, chile strips, and queso fresco, so that the customer can add ingredients according to individual prefer- ence. Other takes on tortilla soup are the Michoacán style sopa tarasca, flavored with ancho chile, at Don Artemio in Saltillo, and the sopa sacristia with chipotle at Meson Sacrista in Puebla. Los Danzantes in Coyoacan serves tortilla soup with chicharron, while the Los Danzantes in Oaxaca serves it with the local tasajo, or thinly sliced grilled beef."
Xóchitl (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈʃotʃitɬ]), the Nahuatl word for flower (so cheel).