Tortilla soup is a hearty, flavorful Mexican soup made with chicken or vegetable broth, tomatoes, chiles, onions, garlic, and tortilla strips. It’s a staple of Tex-Mex cuisine and beloved for its comforting texture and spicy, tomato-forward flavor. But with a name like “tortilla soup”, it’s natural to wonder – why is it called that?
The History Behind the Name
The name “tortilla soup” comes from the key ingredient – crisp tortilla strips. While recipes can vary, authentic tortilla soup is always topped with lightly fried corn tortilla strips. This gives the soup its characteristic texture and allows the tortilla flavor to permeate the broth.
Tortilla soup originated in Mexico, where both corn tortillas and flavorful, tomato-based soups are dietary staples. The Aztecs and Mayans relied on corn as a primary food source and developed nixtamalization, the process used to create masa flour for tortillas. Spanish colonizers then brought tomatoes, onions, garlic and chili peppers from Europe and Africa after the 16th century. The marriage of these ingredients formed the basis for tortilla soup.
Origins in Mexican Cuisine
In traditional Mexican cooking, stale or leftover corn tortillas are often revived by cutting and frying them into crisp chips. These tortilla chips are then served alongside soups or stews to add texture.
This habit of topping hearty Mexican broths with tortilla chips gave rise to what we now call “tortilla soup”. Recipes for sopa de tortilla can be traced back to the 1930s in Mexican cookbooks. Its growing popularity in the U.S. brought the name “tortilla soup” into the mainstream.
While recipes vary, several key ingredients go into making classic tortilla soup:
Chicken or Vegetable Broth
Tortilla soup is built on a base of full-flavored chicken or vegetable broth. Chicken broth provides rich, savory notes, while vegetable broth makes the soup vegetarian-friendly.
Onions, Tomatoes and Chiles
Sautéd onions, tomatoes and chili peppers create the flavorful, aromatic base. Onions provide depth, tomatoes offer bright acidity, and green chiles bring a fresh hit of heat. Popular additions include jalapeño, poblano or serrano peppers.
Corn tortillas, cut into strips and fried to crispy perfection, are essential for texture and an authentic tortilla flavor. Warmed tortilla strips are added to the soup or served on the side.
Common garnishes include avocado, shredded cheese, cilantro and lime wedges. These add freshness and richness.
Chicken Tortilla Soup
The most popular version includes shredded chicken simmered right in the broth for extra richness.
Vegetable Tortilla Soup
For a meatless soup, veggies like corn, zucchini and peppers are sautéed with the aromatics.
Black Bean Tortilla Soup
Puréed black beans thicken the broth and provide protein.
Tortilla Soup with Rice
Long-grain white rice is simmered in the broth for heartiness.
Unique Blend of Flavors and Textures
Tortilla soup brings together a dynamic mix of textures and flavors for an ultra-satisfying meal:
Crisp Tortilla Strips
Lightly fried, crispy tortilla strips provide a pleasant crunch and corn flavor.
Warm, Nutty Broth
The flavorful veggie or chicken broth has a warm, nutty base with a bit of spicy heat.
Cool and creamy avocados, tangy lime juice, fresh cilantro and velvety cheese balance each spoonful.
Chicken, black beans and rice give the soup a protein boost that makes it a meal.
Together, these elements create a comforting soup that’s a feast for the senses. The contrast of crispy-smooth, spicy-cool, and nutty-tangy flavors explains why tortilla soup is so craveable.
How It’s Made
Making authentic tortilla soup at home is easy. Here are the basic steps:
1. Sauté the Aromatics
Onions, garlic, celery and peppers are sautéed to develop flavor. Tomatoes and spices are then added to form a thick, aromatic base.
2. Simmer the Broth
The vegetable or chicken broth simmers with the sautéed veggies to develop a rich, complex broth. Chicken or beans are cooked right in the broth.
3. Fry the Tortilla Strips
Corn tortillas are sliced into strips, then lightly fried in oil until perfectly crisp.
4. Ladle and Top
Once the broth is ready, it’s ladled into bowls and topped with the fresh, hot tortilla strips and other garnishes.
5. Adjust Seasoning
A squeeze of lime juice and pinch of salt brings all the flavors into perfect balance.
Why “Tortilla Soup”?
So why is this classic Mexican soup specifically named after the tortilla strips that top it? Here are some of the main reasons behind its famous moniker:
Starring Role of Tortillas
While the broth is the foundation, the crispy tortilla strips are the star player that makes this soup special. Their prominent role warranted top billing in the name.
The crisp, golden tortilla strips set tortilla soup apart from other Mexican soups through their iconic texture.
Frying intensifies the inherently nutty, corn-forward taste of tortillas. This strong tortilla flavor permeates the broth.
Origins in Mexican Cuisine
Topping boldly flavored Mexican stews with tortilla chips is an authentic tradition that inspired this soup’s creation.
Unique Hybrid Nature
Tortilla soup bridges the gap between soup and salsa – the name reflects this inventive soup-dip hybrid.
The name “tortilla soup” immediately conveys the taste, texture and tradition found in this beloved Mexican specialty. While the velvety broth may be the soul of the soup, the crispy tortilla strips are its heart and legacy.
How to Get the Best Texture
Achieving the perfect crispy-yet-tender tortilla strips is vital for authentic tortilla soup. Here are some top tips:
Cut Fresh Tortillas
For the freshest flavor and sturdiest texture, use freshly made tortillas. Store-bought tortillas work too – just avoid ones that are dried out.
Slice Thin Uniform Strips
Cut tortillas into even strips no wider than 1/4 inch. This ensures they crisp up completely without getting greasy.
Fry half the tortilla strips at medium heat until just shy of crisp. Remove and repeat with the remaining strips. Then fry all together until crispy. This technique prevents burning.
Blot Excess Oil
Let the fried strips drain on paper towels to soak up excess grease for a crisper texture.
Top Just Before Serving
Add the tortilla strips as the soup is served so they stay ultra-crisp and don’t get soggy.
Tips for Maximum Flavor
Coaxing the most flavor out of a pot of tortilla soup comes down to a few key techniques:
Sauté Aromatics Slowly
Cook onions, peppers and garlic over medium-low heat to tease out their natural sweetness before adding tomatoes.
Letting the soup simmer uncovered concentrates the flavors and allows some evaporation to intensify the taste.
Season in Layers
Season the sautéed veggies, then the broth, then finish with more salt, lime juice, cilantro and garlic once combined. This builds layered flavor.
Splash with Lime
A squeeze of fresh lime juice right before eating wakes up all the flavors.
Go beyond just tortilla strips! Avocado, cilantro, cheese and chili oil complete each bowl.
Tortilla soup provides an array of nutrients, making it a nutritious choice as well as a flavorful one. Some of the top health benefits include:
Immune-Boosting Vitamin C
Tomatoes provide a big dose of immunity-strengthening vitamin C. Onions and peppers also contain vitamin C.
Tomatoes supply lycopene and other antioxidants shown to reduce risk of certain cancers and heart disease.
Onions, garlic, tomatoes and chiles contain beneficial plant compounds that can lower inflammation in the body.
The vegetables and beans boast high fiber content to support digestive and heart health.
Options like chicken breast or black beans offer filling protein to keep you energized.
Primary sources of fat – like avocado and olive oil – provide monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that protect the heart.
So beyond tantalizing your tastebuds, tortilla soup delivers real nutritional value. It makes for a wholesome, balanced meal.
While tortilla soup originated in Mexico, it’s gained worldwide popularity for good reason:
Onions, tomatoes, peppers and crisp bread or tortillas are pantry staples in most cultures, allowing for cross-cultural enjoyment.
The basic formula lends itself to endless cultural adaptations. Chicken can be swapped for seafood, lamb, tofu – you name it.
The naturally meatless vegetable broth base makes it easy to prepare vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free versions.
Hearty enough for winter yet fresh tasting in summer, tortilla soup satisfies cravings all year long.
Mild enough for kids yet dynamic enough for adults, tortilla soup appeals to all ages.
Easy to Make
Using simple pantry ingredients, tortilla soup comes together with minimal effort for busy home cooks everywhere.
These qualities give tortilla soup broad, long-lasting appeal across cultures and generations.
Tortilla soup shines when paired with certain beverages, sides, appetizers and desserts. Here are some of the best matches:
Margaritas or Mexican Beer
A margarita or cerveza like Corona, Dos Equis or Modelo taste perfect with tortilla soup’s Mexican flavors.
Serving the soup with warm corn or flour tortillas on the side for dipping is a no-brainer.
Rice or Beans
For a heartier meal, try Mexican rice, savory black beans, or refried beans.
Quesadillas or Nachos
Start with quesadillas or nachos for an authentic combo full of warm spices and melted cheese.
A fresh avocado salad or sliced tomatoes balance the richness.
Cinnamon-sugar churros or sopapillas for dessert continue the Latin theme.
Tres Leches Cake
Milky, sweet tres leches cake complements the complex flavors.
Where to Enjoy It
Tortilla soup is a menu staple at Mexican restaurants and Southwestern eateries in the U.S. Some top spots to savor it include:
Authentic versions can be found at small family taquerias throughout Mexico, like Sopes El Tigre in Puebla.
Beloved bowls are served through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California – try Matt’s Big Breakfast in Phoenix.
The city’s strong Mexican food scene produces tasty tortilla soups at Cafecito and Topolobampo.
New York City
From old-school joints like Gonzalez y Gonzalez to modern spots like Cosme, NYC delivers stellar sopa de tortilla.
For the absolute freshest tortilla strips, nothing beats a batch made from scratch in your own kitchen.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about this beloved soup:
What kind of tortillas should I use?
Corn tortillas are traditional and provide the most authentic, robust corn flavor. Flour tortillas work too but lack the same impact.
Is tortilla soup spicy?
Spiciness varies greatly, though most versions provide a subtle heat. Boost the jalapeños or serve with hot sauce on the side to amp it up.
Can I make it vegetarian or vegan?
Absolutely! Use vegetable broth and skip the cheese/sour cream garnishes. Beans, corn and potatoes make good veggie add-ins.
Should I add tomatoes to the broth?
Yes, diced tomatoes are crucial for lending flavor, color and texture to the broth. Leave them out and you lose the “tortilla soup” essence.
Can I prepare it ahead of time?
You can make the broth 1-2 days ahead but add crisp tortilla strips fresh right before eating.
What’s the difference between tortilla soup and salsa?
Salsa is chunkier with less broth, while tortilla soup features a smooth, tomato-broth based soup crowned with crisp tortillas.
Tortilla soup has earned its place as a beloved comfort food thanks to its irresistible medley of textures and bright, fresh flavors. While the name pays homage to the crispy tortilla strips, ingredients like fire-roasted tomatoes, aromatic onions and peppers, and warm chicken or vegetable broth all unite to create its craveworthy flavor profile. This versatile soup makes the most of simple pantry ingredients yet packs a serious nutritional punch.
Easy to adapt to various tastes and cultures, tortilla soup is a crowdpleasing one-pot meal. Its complexity balances creaminess with crunch, spice with cool, and rich with bright. So the next time you see tortilla soup on a menu or whip up a batch at home, you can appreciate all the history and care behind its memorable name.