It’s amazing how a few, simple ingredients can produce something so outstanding. That’s Sopa Azteca – a delicious Mexican tortilla soup. Add some even simpler finishing touches to an easily made broth of pasilla chilies, tomato, onion, garlic, oregano, and chicken stock. You’ll have an incredibly satisfying meal-in-a-bowl.
In his traveller’s book of recipes, The Road to Mexico (affiliate link, folks), Rick Stein says he loves Mexican cuisine because it’s an “extraordinary combination of savory, spicy, fresh, and sour.”
And our Sopa Azteca certainly ticks those four, hugely appealing boxes.
The intensely rich, deeply savory spiciness of its broth is built on a foundation of pasilla peppers together with cherry tomatoes that have first been charred until they darken in a dry, heavy skillet set on scorchingly high heat. That heat adds a deeply rich smokiness to the tomatoes and intensifies their tangy, natural sweetness.
Pasilla peppers steal the show
Lovely as those charred tomatoes may be, pasilla peppers are the real star here, adding an astonishing complexity to the strikingly powerful flavors of our broth.
Pasillas are the dried version of ripe chilaca peppers, and their name means ‘little raisin’ in Spanish. With a deep, ruby-red color that’s so dark it verges on black, these smoky, mild chilies have a particularly distinctive flavor that’s often likened to dried fruits and berries. And chocolate. Not the candy-bar sort, but rather the rich, bitter-sweet, dark variety with a very high cocoa content.
And then, underneath that complexity, pasillas have a lingering, wonderfully warming, mild heat. You’ll know it’s there, but the heat is a backdrop against which all its other flavors get to shine.
The same goes for the onions and garlic, which emphasize the savory spiciness of the tomatoes and pasillas. Softened together in a little lard over low heat, slices of red onion and garlic add an earthy sweetness to the broth, which is then nicely rounded by plenty of fairly salty chicken stock.
Adding the fresh and sour finishing touches
The essential ingredients here are avocado, limes, soured cream, cilantro, and soft, tangy cheese.
I say ‘ingredients’ because, in Sopa Azteca, they play a far more critical role than merely acting as attractive garnishes for the glorious broth.
They’re an integral part of this dish, with each one adding its flavor, color, and texture to create the overall effect that has made Sopa Azteca a classic example of Mexican cuisine’s simple sophistication.
Chunks of avocado and whole sprigs of cilantro add two very different types of freshness. The mild, nuttily creamy avocado introduces a starkly mellow contrast that sharpens the focus on the broth and highlights its delightful range of strong flavors.
The cilantro does something similar but in a far more freshly insistent way. Leave it whole – tender stalks and all – to maximize the aromatic immediacy of a unique taste with enough character to go toe-to-toe with the broth.
As you’d expect, the limes lead the charge by adding a cutting, sour tang. And that sudden sharpness is supported in a far subtler way by the soured cream and the cheese.
Now, to be more authentic, you could use Mexican crema and queso fresco if you can find them, but I used a couple of pretty good substitutes – easy-to-find sour cream in place of the crema, and nicely rich feta in place of the queso fresco.
And then there are the crisp-fried tortilla strips
Last but not least on the list of essential ingredients that complete the finishing touches are strips of golden, crisply fried tortilla.
Some of these are served in the broth, and some are served alongside. The result? You get two sets of texture, and two sets of flavor from the same batch of tortilla strips.
The strips that become softened in the broth pick up a fair amount of its flavors, but they still keep the homely, slightly earthy taste – and similar texture – of ‘plain’, warm tortillas. That’s because hot-and-fast frying in enough oil creates a surface ‘barrier’ that helps to stop the strips from turning unpleasantly soggy.
As for the strips served crisply alongside, well, these have all the crunchy taste of what they really are – the moreish, savory tortilla ‘chips’ at the heart of a plate of nachos.
It’s way more than the sum of its parts
For sure, Sopa Azteca gets referred to as soup, but, just like, say, bouillabaisse from France, it’s easily good enough to be a wonderfully satisfying meal in itself. And that’s how I’d recommend serving it.
I’ve read that, strictly speaking, this version should be more properly called Sopa de Tortilla and that, to earn the Azteca title it should feature some pieces of shredded chicken among its finishing touches.
That may well be the case. However, it strikes me that calling this ‘tortilla soup’ doesn’t do it any justice at all, and I’m confident that, time and time again, you will happily agree.
Like this recipe? You’ll love these too:
- Mexican Meatball Soup: Another delicious soup that eats like a meal.
- Spicy Taco Soup: All the things you love about tacos are here.
- Chipotle Carrot Soup: Earthy sweet carrots are terrific pairings with smoky chipotle peppers.
Sopa Azteca (Mexican Tortilla Soup)
For the broth
- 4 pasilla peppers The ones I used were each about 7 inches long and 1¼ inches wide. Stalks removed and soaked in ½ cup of boiling water for 15 minutes
- 1 ¼ pounds cherry tomatoes left whole
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 2 red onions peeled, halved, and cut into ¼-inch slices
- 6 ½ cups chicken stock I used 2 chicken stock cubes dissolved in boiling water
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons lard or clarified pork fat
For the essential finishing touches
- 2 avocados peeled, stoned, and cut into bite-size chunks
- 2 limes cut into ¼-inch slices
- 1 cup sour cream whole-fat
- 4 ounces feta cheese whole-fat. I used the sort that comes in ‘sticks’, broken into roughly ½-inch cubes
- 1 ounce fresh cilantro left whole, stalks and all
- 8 tortillas I used the store-bought, 8-inch, wheat variety. Corn tortillas would be more authentic if you prefer. Cut into ¾-inch strips
- 2 cups vegetable oil for fast-frying the tortilla strips. I used sunflower oil
Making the broth
- The first thing to do is to soak your pasillas in ¼ cup of boiling water. Use a jug or bowl that’s just big enough to hold the pasillas with a covering of the boiling water.
- While they’re soaking, you can set about getting a good, toasting char on the cherry tomatoes. For that, I used a heavy-bottomed 12-inch skillet.
- So, set your big, dry skillet on high heat for a minute and add all the whole cherry tomatoes. You’re now aiming to get a dark char onto the tomatoes as you stir them around a little for about scorching 5 minutes.
- After a few minutes, the tomatoes will start to soften and flatten a little, which is what you want to happen as they char. Once they’ve begun to soften and flatten, drop the heat to medium-high.
- Stir them a few times so you get them fairly evenly charred on that medium-high heat, and don’t be too concerned if some of the tomatoes start sticking to the bottom of the skillet – a little sticking is just fine because you’ll be deglazing the skillet with some of the chicken stock.
- Once the tomatoes have charred and turned slightly pulpy, turn off the heat and tip the tomatoes into your food processor. Good. Time now to deglaze your skillet, so it’s ready for gently frying the onion and garlic.
- To deglaze, add a ½ cup chicken stock to the skillet and set it on low heat. Now use a stout spatula to scrape off all the tomato that’s stuck to the bottom. This will probably take a few minutes of scraping and stirring on that low heat. Once that’s done, tip everything from the skillet into your food processor, along with the charred tomatoes.
- Now set your fairly clean skillet back on low-medium heat and add the lard. As soon as it’s melted, stir in the onions and garlic. Keeping the heat low, you want to gently stir-fry the onions and garlic so that they soften but don’t start to pick up any color. That will take about 5 minutes of very gentle frying on that low-medium heat. Once that happens, add everything from the skillet to your food processor. Time now to give the soaked pasillas some rough chopping.
- Use a slotted spoon to remove the pasillas from their water and transfer them to a chopping board. Add the pasillas’ water to your food processor, and then roughly chop the pasillas.
- Add the chopped pasillas to the processor and blitz the whole mix to a fairly smooth paste. I like to keep a little coarseness in the paste, rather than trying to blitz it completely smooth. Good. Your broth is nearly done.
- Set a large saucepan on a high heat and add the remaining chicken stock. As soon as the stock starts to boil, drop the heat to low and pour in everything from your processor. Your broth now needs to simmer slowly on that low heat for 30 minutes. When that time’s up, check the broth for saltiness, and adjust according to your taste – stock cubes do vary in their saltiness, so it’s wise to check the broth and perhaps add a little salt. The broth can now sit on a very low heat, so it’s ready to be served once you’ve fried the tortilla strips.
Frying the tortilla strips
- Add the oil to your big skillet and set it on high heat. As soon as it starts shimmering, but not smoking, add 8 or so strips of tortilla and let them fry on that high heat for about 30 seconds on each side. You’ll need to do this in batches so the strips can fry in a single layer with about a third-inch of space between them. Take a little watchful care with this frying because the strips turn crisp and golden surprisingly quickly in that very hot oil.
- As soon as a batch is fried, lift them out of the oil with a slotted spoon, and set them to drain on kitchen towel. Then repeat the process with your next batch of strips. As soon as they’re all done, you’re ready to serve
Serving your Sopa Azteca
- For each diner, place a big, warmed soup bowl onto a dinner plate. Add 4 fried tortilla strips to the bowl and then ladle an equable serving of broth over the strips.
- Now top each bowl of broth with a fair serving of the avocado chunks, spoonfuls of sour cream, and a scattering of feta cheese.
- Arrange a few slices of lime around the edges of each plate, along with some strips of fried tortillas, and a few sprigs of cilantro. Done. Serve at once.