This traditional Sopa Azteca (Tortilla Soup) recipe is made with a simple, richly-seasoned, tomato-chile broth that is ladled hot over crispy tortilla strips and loaded up with your choice of toppings. Feel free to add chicken and/or cheese if you’d like!
This winter, I’ve been on a mission to learn how to make authentic sopa azteca that tastes more like the tortilla soups I fell in love with in Mexico (and notably less like the modernized Tex-Mex versions I’ve always known in the States). And now that I’ve figured it out, we can’t stop making this one in our house. ♡
During our recent trips to Mexico, I became a bit obsessed with ordering sopa azteca (also called sopa de tortilla or sopa de tortilla azteca) anytime I spied it on menus. Usually served as an appetizer, this tortilla soup was consistently made with the same main ingredients — crispy corn tortilla strips, a piping-hot garlicky tomato-chile caldo (broth), fresh avocado, and a combination of sour cream, fresh cilantro, lime wedges and/or fried chile strips sprinkled on top. Some restaurants also included chicken or soft diced cheese in the soup, while others kept it vegetarian (or vegan). Some kept their soup fairly mild, while others (whew!) had us sweating. Some served the soup pre-assembled, while others served us bowls full of tortilla strips with a side of DIY toppings and then ladled in the steaming hot caldo table-side. But every single bowl of sopa azteca we tried was downright delicious.
The magic of this soup, of course, is all in that delicious, rich, soul-warming caldo. Turns out, it’s surprisingly easy to make in just 20-ish minutes with a blend of tomatoes, onion, garlic, oregano, chicken or veggie stock and dried pasilla (or ancho) chiles. And yes — I have to insist — the dried chiles are essential here! If you are new to working with dried Mexican chiles, though, please don’t be intimidated. They are super-easy to use and are hands-down the key ingredient to giving the broth the most amazing smoky, earthy, delicious flavor. Feel free to also fry up a few of the chile strips to sprinkle them on top of the soup, which only takes an extra minute or two of extra prep time and is really fun too!
Anyway, after so many years of enjoying various Tex-Mex and modernized versions of tortilla soup in the States, I’ve really appreciated finally learning about the authentic prehispanic Mexican sopa azteca — “la reina de sopas” (queen of soups), as one Mexico City restaurant we loved called it — that inspired them all. If you ask me, nothing beats the original when it comes to this classic. So if you happen to be a fellow tortilla soup super-fan, it’s time to give authentic sopa azteca a try!
Sopa Azteca (Tortilla Soup) Ingredients:
Before we get to the full recipe below, here are a few important things to know about the ingredients you will need to make this sopa azteca recipe…
Dried chiles: From what I’ve read, different regions in Mexico often traditionally use different varieties of dried chiles to make sopa azteca. But dried pasilla chiles (also sometimes called chiles negros) seem to be the most popular. Their rich, smoky, slightly-sweet, earthy flavor tastes absolutely amazing in this simple tomato broth. And while pasillas are generally moderately spicy, there can sometimes be some significantly spicy chiles mixed into a batch. So if you are averse to heat, I recommend starting with less chiles and then you can always add in more if you’d like. (Alternately, if you can’t track down pasilla peppers, dried ancho chiles would be the closest substitute. They have a sweeter flavor and are also considerably milder in heat, if you would like a less-spicy soup.)
Tomatoes: Traditional sopa azteca is made with fresh Roma tomatoes. But if you’re in a hurry or ripe tomatoes are not in season, you can sub in two (14-ounce) cans of diced tomatoes instead. (I would recommend using fire-roasted diced tomatoes for extra flavor!)
Onion and garlic: Which we will briefly sauté and then purée with the tomatoes and chiles.
Stock: This soup is most commonly made with chicken stock, but feel free to use veggie stock if you would like to make it vegetarian or vegan.
Seasonings: A simple mix of dried oregano, salt and black pepper. If your local market also happens to sell fresh epazote, I highly recommend tossing in a sprig too, but the epazote is totally optional.
Tortilla strips: This soup originally came about as a way to use up leftover corn tortillas! Simply cut them into strips and fry them in a sauté pan until crispy. (Or if you are in a hurry and would like to save a step, you can simply crumble some corn tortilla chips into your bowl instead. Not traditional, but it works!)
Avocado: I also recommend adding a generous amount of diced or sliced fresh avocado to each bowl of soup.
Chicken (optional): Feel free to also add some cooked chicken (shredded or diced) to your bowl to make chicken tortilla soup.
Cheese (optional): It’s also very common to serve sopa de tortilla in Mexico with diced soft cheese (such as panela or oaxaca cheese). But feel free to add in any other diced, shredded or crumbled Mexican-style cheese that you have on hand.
Toppings: Finally, the toppings! I recommend going big here on any toppings that you love best, such as chopped fresh cilantro, lime wedges, sour cream (or Mexican crema), and/or fried pasilla strips (which can be made by thinly slicing the chiles and then frying them in a bit of oil for 30-60 seconds until curled and crispy).
How To Make Tortilla Soup (Sopa Azteca):
Detailed instructions are included in the full recipe below, but here is a brief overview of the process for how to make tortilla soup plus a few helpful tips!
Toast the chiles. First, we want to briefly toast the dried chiles in order to bring out the fullness of their flavor. If you have a gas stove, you can toast the chiles by using tongs to hold them an inch or so over the open flame, turning them for a few seconds until blistered and fragrant. Or alternately, if you have an electric stove, you can heat a skillet over medium-high heat and press the chiles down onto the hot skillet on each side for a few seconds until blistered and fragrant.)
Sauté the veggies. Next, we will sauté the onion and garlic in a bit of oil until softened.
Blend the broth. Then we will transfer the toasted chiles, onion, garlic, tomatoes, and about 1 cup or so of the stock (enough to help the mixture purée easily) to a blender, and purée until completely smooth.
Simmer. Transfer the blended broth mixture to the stockpot, along with the remaining stock, oregano and epazote sprig (if using) bring the mixture to a very low simmer and let it cook while you prepare your add-ins.
Prepare the add-ins. This is a great time to fry up your tortilla strips and chile strips (if using, see instructions below) and chop all of your toppings. Go and and fill each serving bowl with a handful of tortilla strips and chicken (if using), and set aside.
Season the broth. Then give the broth a final taste and season with however much salt and pepper you think it needs.
Serve. And for the grand finale, ladle some of the steaming hot broth into each serving bowl over the tortilla strips, top with a generous helping of avocado and cheese (if using), sprinkle on lots of your favorite toppings…and enjoy!
Possible Tortilla Soup Recipe Variations:
Here are a few more ways to customize your sopa de tortilla…
Add beans: In various regions of Mexico, sopa azteca is also often made with beans puréed into the broth as well. So to make sopa azteca de frijol, simply add a (rinsed and drained) can of pinto or black beans to the blender with the other broth ingredients and purée until smooth.
Strain the broth: Some cooks also strain the blended tomato mixture when adding it back to the stockpot (just pass it through a fine-mesh strainer and discard the solids), which you are welcome to do too. But I personally like the extra texture and nutrients it adds to the broth and prefer not to strain mine.
Make it vegan: This soup is already naturally vegan if you make it with veggie stock (and leave out the chicken or cheese). Feel free to sprinkle in some vegan cheese or vegan chorizo, though, if you’d like!
Make it gluten-free: This soup is naturally gluten-free if made with gluten-free corn tortilla strips.
Make it spicier: Feel free to add in an extra pasilla chile to increase the heat, or you can add in any other types of spicy dried chiles (such as chiles de árbol), fresh chiles (such as jalapeños or serranos), or a pinch of cayenne.
Use corn tortilla chips: To save yourself some time, feel free to just crumble in some corn tortilla chips instead of frying the corn tortilla strips.
Use shrimp: To turn this into more of a sopa de camarones (shrimp soup), use good-quality seafood stock instead of chicken or veggie stock and add a few shrimp to each serving bowl.
Use a different kind of cheese: While chunks of diced soft panela or oaxaca cheese are traditional with this recipe — or occasionally, cotija or queso fresco crumbled on top — honestly, any favorite diced, crumbled or shredded Mexican cheese would be delicious with this soup. So feel free to use whatever you have on hand!
More Favorite Mexican Recipes:
Looking for more authentic Mexican recipes to try? Here are a few of my favorite recipes that were inspired by our time in Mexico:
This traditional Sopa Azteca (Tortilla Soup) recipe is made with a simple, richly-seasoned, tomato-chile broth that is ladled hot over crispy tortilla strips and loaded up with your choice of toppings. See notes above for possible ingredient variations!
Toast the chiles. Briefly toast the chiles by using tongs to carefully holding each chile an inch over a gas flame, turning for a few seconds until the chile is blistered and fragrant. (Or alternately, if you have an electric stove, you can heat a skillet over medium-high heat and press the chiles down onto the hot skillet on each side for a few seconds until blistered and fragrant.) Transfer the chiles to a blender or food processor and set aside.
Sauté the veggies. Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté for 5 minutes until softened, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and sauté for 1-2 minutes more until fragrant, stirring frequently. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the mixture to the blender along with the chiles.
Blend the broth. Add the tomatoes to the blender, along with 1 cup or so of the stock (enough to help the mixture purée easily). Then purée until completely smooth and no large chile flakes remain.
Simmer. Transfer the blended broth mixture to the stockpot, add the remaining stock, oregano and epazote sprig (if using). Cook over medium-high heat until the broth reaches a simmer. Then reduce heat to medium-low to maintain the simmer and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
Prepare the add-ins. While the soup simmers, go ahead and prep all of your add-ins. (See notes below for instructions on how to fry tortilla and chile strips, if desired.) Fill each serving bowl with a handful of tortilla strips and cooked chicken (if using), and set aside.
Season the broth. Give the broth a taste and season with however much salt and pepper you think it needs.
Serve. Ladle the hot broth into each serving bowl over the tortilla strips, top with a generous helping of avocado and cheese (if using). Then load each bowl up with lots of your favorite toppings. Serve immediately and enjoy!
Pasilla chile substitutions: As mentioned above, different regions of Mexico often turn to different dried chiles to make this soup. If you can’t find dried pasilla chiles, you can use dried ancho chiles as an alternative, which have a sweeter flavor and are also less spicy. I recommend using 2 large pasilla or ancho chiles for this recipe, but feel free to just use 1 chile if you are sensitive to heat or 3-4 chiles if you would like an even more intensely-flavored broth.
How to fry the tortilla strips (and chile strips): Pour enough frying oil (such as vegetable, canola or avocado oil) in a large saucepan or sauté pan until it is 1/4 to 1/2-inch deep. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is 350°F. Carefully add in a handful of thinly-sliced corn tortillas and fry for 1 to 2 minutes until the strips are lightly golden and crispy. Use a spider strainer to transfer the tortillas to a paper-towel-lined baking sheet, spread them out in an even layer, and cool until they reach room temperature. Repeat with remaining tortilla strips. Then, to fry the chiles, use a knife or kitchen scissors to thinly slice the (stemmed and seeded) chiles. Add the chile slices to the hot oil and fry for 30 to 60 seconds until crispy. Transfer the chiles to the paper-towel-lined baking sheet and cool to room temperature.