Here is a great classic of Mexican cuisine: sopa azteca or tortilla soup.
It consists of strips of fried tortillas covered with chicken broth, tomatoes, pepper, garlic and onions, perfumed with epazote and cilantro. It is topped with Mexican cheese and avocado, and a touch of crema fresca (crème fraîche). Finally, it is finished with a drizzle of freshly squeezed lime juice. A nourishing and refreshing soup at the same time!
The chili pepper and lime gently spice up the soup, the herbs bring freshness while the avocado, cheese and cream bring contrasts with the crispy fried tortillas. A nice balance!
Nourishing, comforting, economical, it is not surprising that sopa azteca is very present in Mexican homes. Every cook has his own recipe and some people even judge a restaurant by the quality of its tortilla soup.
In Mexico, corn tortilla is the daily bread. Like French baguette, it gets stale very quickly. So, in an effort to reduce waste, people had to be inventive to make the best of the leftovers.
The soup is a good way to accommodate the tortillas from the day before. They are fried to make them crisp then added to the soup so they can absorb the broth. We could almost compare the Mexican “bread” soup to the traditional French onion soup.
What is the origin of sopa azteca?
Nobody knows exactly where the sopa azteca came from. It is particularly popular in the middle of the country, around Mexico City. It could have been born in the state of Tlaxcala, east of the capital. In the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, Tlaxcala actually means “maize land”.
Tortilla soup and more generally Mexican cuisine are the result of the fusion between the prehispanic heritage of the natives and Spanish colonization in the sixteenth century.
The traditional base of this dish is corn as well as other indigenous ingredients such as chili pepper, tomato and avocado; the Spaniards contributed to the consumption of cheese and domesticated animals such as chicken. They also introduced the technique of frying and making broths.
Queso panela (panela cheese) is one of the most popular chesses in Mexico. It is a fresh cheese made with cow’s milk,
that is soft, white and brittle. Its taste is not very pronounced but it has the particularity of absorbing other flavors. When heated, it softens while keeping its shape. Also, queso panela does not melt.
It looks like the Indian paneer or the Cypriot halloumi. You can also replace it with feta that is rinsed and drained to partly remove some of the saltiness. It is often used in Mexican cuisine, diced for garnish including tacos, burritos and salads.
What is epazote?
Originally from Mexico and Central America, epazote commonly called wormseed, Jesuit’s tea or Mexican-tea, is of the same family as spinach.
With cilantro, it is one of the most used herbs in Mexican cuisine. It flavors soups, papadzules, moles and tamales. It adds a particular rustic note. It has large serrated leaves with a powerful, pungent and slightly lemony and minty flavor. It can be eaten fresh or dried.
It is also used as a medicinal plant, particularly for its vermifuge properties since it eliminates most parasitic worms from the digestive system.
It is often associated with beans because it reduces the flatulence caused by these legumes. However, you should not have too much of it as its essential oil is toxic in high doses. So avoid the seeds and flower stalks, that are more concentrated in essential oil than the leaves, and as a precaution, pregnant women should avoid it.
Unfortunately, fresh epazote is very difficult to find outside the American continent unless you grow some in your garden.
What is pasilla pepper?
Pasilla pepper is actually a dried ripe chilaca pepper. It is also called black pepper because, although of green color, it turns dark brown at the end of the season. The fruit is long, 5 to 8 inches long and about 1 inch in diameter.
It has a mild flavor of raisin. It has a hotness of 4 out of 10 on the Scoville scale, just like Espelette pepper. So you can replace it with another relatively mild dried pepper.
It is used rehydrated or ground to spice up sauces, marinades, soups and moles.
The recipe for sopa azteca is one of the simplest in Mexico, but it’s all about the aroma of the broth and the quality and taste of the tortillas.
A little secret to getting a good sopa azteca is to use crispy strips of tortillas just before serving. So do not fry too much in advance and wait until the last minute to cover them with broth.
Frying the tortillas gives a more intense taste and a soft consistency. Subjected to a high temperature, they change texture to become pliable.
Some cooks add ground fried tortilla to the broth to boost the corn flavor.
- 1 chicken breast (with bone)
- 2 cloves garlic , chopped
- ½ onion , chopped
- 6 tomatoes , peeled, seeded and diced
- 2 pasilla chili peppers , cut into strips
- 1 teaspoon chicken stock powder
- 3 leaves épazote (Mexican tea), thoroughly washed and dried.
- 1 stalk celery , finely chopped
- ½ bunch cilantro , finely chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ teaspoon oregano
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 5 tablespoons sunflower oil
- 4 corn tortillas
- 8 oz. panela cheese , diced (traditional mexican cheese)
- 1 small avocado , diced
- 4 pasilla chili peppers , fried
- 2 tablespoons creme fraiche (or sour cream)
- 2 limes
- Cook the whole chicken breast with the bone in 6 cups of water for 30 minutes after boiling point is reached.
- Halfway through cooking, season with chicken stock powder, épazote, celery, half of the cilantro, bay leaf and oregano.
- Remove the cooked chicken, shred and set aside. Reserve the broth.
- Cut the tortillas into thin strips.
- In a skillet, heat the sunflower oil and fry the tortilla strips very quickly in very hot oil. Mix well, being careful not to burn them.
- Remove them from the oil and place them on paper towels to remove excess fat.
- In the same oil, fry the 4 pasilla peppers over medium heat and set aside.
- In a Dutch oven, heat olive oil and sauté the garlic and onion until translucent.
- Add the tomatoes and 2 pasilla peppers cut into strips. Mix well.
- Cook covered on low heat for 10 minutes.
- Liquefy with a little broth and mix for 3 minutes (the mixture must be fluid).
- Push the mixture through a chinois strainer (fine sieve strainer) and pour it directly into the reserved chicken broth.
- Cook over low heat until thickened.
- At the bottom of a bowl (or a hollow dish), add the equivalent of a julienned tortilla and pour the broth over. Add a little chicken breast, cubes of cheese, avocado and 1 fried pasilla pepper.
- Serve the soup and garnish with cream and the remaining cilantro.
- Season with freshly squeezed lime.