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Mexican Soup Customs

Panza llena, corazón feliz, or "Full stomach, happy heart

Never doubt that soups are a major part of Mexican culture--traditional for holy days; traditional as first and third courses at comida, the big meal of the day; and often serving as the entire cena, or late supper. And they reflect the fusion of Indian foods and foodways with the Hispanic influence of Spanish settlers from the 16th century on.

From the Aztecs, Mayans, and Toltecs came menus featuring the new world "holy trinity" of corn, beans, and squash/pumpkin, as well as its tomatoes, chiles, tomatillos, pinenuts, maguey, nopal, jicama, potatoes avocados, achiote, epazote, cocoa, and vanilla. From the Spaniards came old world goodies: livestock with all the meat, cheese, and other dairy products they entailed. Also orchard fruits and wheat. At last natives had the tripe and calves hooves they needed to chase their tequila hangovers with menudo soup!

Soups served at comida are both "wet"--sopa aguada--and "dry"--sopa seca. The wet ones, served as the first course fall into the following categories:

  • sopas, which are flavorful broths with light vegetables
  • caldos, which are heartier in ingredients
  • pozoles/menudos, which are heartiest of all and can serve as a whole meal at cena.
The dry soups are actually hand-me-downs from the Aztecs and Mayans and denote soupy/stewy food, quite substantial.

What are some of the traditional soups? Certainly pozole, served on Christmas eve. And many Lenten soups--like Caldo de Vigilia, made of cactus and smoked fish in Oaxaca; like Caldo or Sopa de Haba, bean soup, served throughout Lent, but especially on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; and, most controversially, sea turtle soup, as turtle was exempted as a meat since medieval times. Then for weddings: Caldo Ranchero de Paisano in Oaxaca, festive even for the very poor.