There are many stories out there about the history of tortilla soup, but the majority of the information that I’ve found leads me to believe it originates from Mexico City, or central Mexico.
Although I was born in California, I actually had my first delicious bowlful of tortilla soup in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I fell in love with its hearty flavor and became an instant fan.
Now I live in Mexico, and of course, it is everywhere. But I have not found a vegetarian version at the restaurants that I’ve visited yet, so I have to make it at home.
Fortunately, it’s very simple! All one has to do is use vegetable broth instead of chicken. You could even make a vegan version, with dairy-free half-and-half.
Recipes vary, and I have tried to use a relatively common and simple one here, but with a little more chili added while it’s cooking, to make it a little spicier.
At the local Mexican food fair in my neighborhood, I purchased some homemade garlic and chile de árbol salsa in oil, and the combination of the two is amazing – I use it in everything.
In case you can’t find it pre-made, the dried chili pepper puree described below plus some oven roasted garlic will provide similar results.
A recipe for this was originally given to me by a friend from my hometown of Ojai, California. Ruben’s family owned some wonderful Mexican restaurants where I enjoyed eating for years, and where I made some good friends.
It was actually my friend’s idea, when I told him I was making this soup, to add a reconstituted chili puree. And then I realized I had just purchased the salsa, so I basically had it ready to go!
Thank you, Ruben, for your help, and thank you and your family for all the years of delicious Mexican food, friendship, and kindness.
When I’m sitting down to a big bowl of this delicious soup, I like to add all the garnishes. And I usually eat the soup on its own, or sometimes with a Caesar salad – which has Mexican origins (this might surprise you, I know, as it was created by an Italian immigrant who operated restaurants in Mexico and the United States)!
I love my food hot and spicy, so I add extra fresh sliced jalapenos on top, as well as everything else. But if you aren’t sure what your guests like, just put the garnishes out separately on the table, and let them add what they want.
For those who don’t choose to add some extra hot pepper, I think they’re missing out, but I know everybody doesn’t like their food super spicy.
The recipe serves 3-6, depending on if you want to use it as a side or a main dish. But this soup is very hearty, and it can be eaten as an entree very easily, with satisfying results.Print
If smoky, aromatic Mexican flavors fire you up, this creamy, vegetarian-friendly tortilla soup will satisfy all your spicy wishes.
- 1 small sweet onion, cut into wedges
- 1 yellow bell pepper, cut into quarters
- 2 small jalapeno peppers, halved with seeds and ribs removed
- 3 medium cloves garlic, unpeeled
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt, divided
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
- 1/2 cup water
- 4 dried chile de árbol peppers, stems removed and seeded
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon chili powder (seasoning blend)
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 14-ounce can diced fire roasted tomatoes
- 1/2 teaspoon maple syrup (or agave)
- 3 cups homemade or low-sodium vegetable stock
- Juice of 1 lime (plus additional lime wedges for garnish)
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- 4 corn tortillas, cut into strips
- 1/2 cup half-and-half, room temperature
- 1/2 cup sour cream or Mexican crema
- 1 ripe avocado, cut into chunks
- Small handful cilantro, rough chopped
- Sliced or pickled jalapenos (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- On a large rimmed baking sheet, toss the onions, peppers, and garlic with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.
- Roast until the garlic cloves are golden, about 8-10 minutes, and then remove them from the baking sheet. Toss the remaining veggies to make sure they get evenly browned on all sides and then return them to the oven. Cook until the peppers and onions are golden and lightly blistered, about 5 more minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the veggies to cool on the pan.
- Bring 1/2 cup water to a boil. Pour it over the árbol peppers in a medium-sized bowl. Steep until soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a blender and puree, or puree with a handheld immersion blender. Strain through a fine mesh sieve for a smooth texture.
- Slide the garlic cloves out of their skins. Rough chop all of the vegetables.
- In a medium-sized saucepot over medium heat, add the remaining tablespoon olive oil and swirl to coat. Add the chopped roasted onions, peppers, and garlic and season them with the oregano, chili powder, and cumin. Stir to combine.
- Deglaze the pan with the apple cider vinegar, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom. Stir in the fire roasted tomatoes, maple syrup, vegetable stock, pepper puree, and lime juice.
- Bring the soup to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer on low heat for 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, in a large heavy-bottomed skillet like a cast iron pan or a Dutch oven, heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil over medium heat. Fry the tortilla strips until golden brown, about 30-45 seconds. Remove and set them on a paper towel-lined plate to drain any excess oil. Sprinkle generously with salt while they’re still hot.
- A little at a time, whisk the half-and-half into the soup until it’s thick and creamy. Season to taste with additional salt.
- Divide the soup among bowls and garnish with your choice of toppings: a dollop of sour cream, a pinch of fried tortilla strips, avocado, cilantro, and jalapenos. Serve with the additional lime wedges on the side.
- Prep Time: 25 minutes
- Cook Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
- Category: Soup
- Method: Stovetop, Roasting
- Cuisine: Mexican
Keywords: tortilla soup, vegetarian tortilla soup, chili de arbol
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Cut the Onions and Peppers into Chunks, and Slice the Tortilla Strips
Chop the onions into chunks and remove the stems, ribs, and seeds from the peppers. Quarter the bell pepper and halve the jalapenos.
Stack the tortillas and slice them into thin strips.
Step 2 – Roast the Onions, Peppers, and Garlic
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
On a large rimmed baking sheet, toss the onions, peppers, and garlic with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.
Roast until the garlic cloves are golden, about 8-10 minutes, and then remove them from the baking sheet. Garlic can burn easily, so you don’t want it to brown as much as the other veggies.
Toss the remaining vegetables, to make sure they get evenly browned on all sides, and then return them to the oven. Cook until the peppers and onions are golden and lightly blistered, about 5 more minutes.
Remove from the oven and allow the veggies to cool.
Step 3 – Steep, Puree, and Strain the Chili Peppers
Bring 1/2 cup water to a boil and then pour it over the árbol peppers. Steep until they are soft, for about 5 minutes.
Transfer the mixture, liquid and all, to a blender and puree until smooth. Or, puree with a handheld immersion blender.
The chili pepper puree is potent, so be mindful of the strong aroma and wash your hands thoroughly after you touch hot peppers. Don’t rub your eyes!
Strain through a fine mesh sieve so your pepper puree is smooth.
Step 4 – Rough Chop and Saute the Roasted Veggies with Spices
Using a sharp knife, cut a slit in the top of each garlic clove and then slide the cloves out of their skins. Rough chop all of the veggies.
In a medium saucepot over medium heat, add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and swirl to coat the pan.
Add the chopped roasted onions, peppers, and garlic and season them with the oregano, chili powder, and cumin.
Step 5 – Deglaze the Pan and add the Liquids to the Soup
Deglaze the pan with the apple cider vinegar, scraping up any brown bits (or fond) from the bottom, and then stir in the fire roasted tomatoes, maple syrup, vegetable stock, pepper puree, and lime juice.
Step 6 – Bring the Soup to a Boil, and then Simmer for an Hour
Bring the soup to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low. Cover the pot with a lid, and let the soup simmer on low heat for 1 hour.
Step 7 – Fry the Tortilla Strips
Meanwhile, fill a large heavy-bottomed skillet like a cast iron pan or a Dutch oven with about 1 inch of vegetable oil and place it over medium heat.
You’ll know the oil is ready when it shimmers slightly, and when you dip a tortilla strip into it and it bubbles steadily. If it bubbles vigorously, the oil is too hot; if it barely bubbles, it’s not hot enough.
Fry the tortilla strips until they’re golden brown, about 30-45 seconds. Remove them with a spider or a slotted spoon, then set them on a paper towel-lined plate to remove any excess oil.
While they’re still hot, generously sprinkle them with salt.
You could cheat here and buy strip-style tortilla chips from the store, but I think they taste so much better when they’re freshly made!
Step 8 – Add the Half-and-Half, Prepare the Garnishes, and Serve
A little at a time, whisk the half-and-half into the soup until it’s thick and creamy. Season to taste with additional salt if needed.
Chop the avocado into chunks, rough chop the cilantro, and cut the limes into wedges. If you want a little extra spice, try some sliced fresh or pickled jalapenos.
Divide the soup among bowls and garnish them with a dollop of sour cream, a pinch of fried tortilla strips, avocado, and cilantro. Serve with the lime wedges.
This Fiesta-Friendly Soup Is Lit
This creamy, spicy concoction is the epitome of comfort food that warms you from the inside out.
If you’ve got dinner guests who can’t get on board with this boost of heat, cut the árbol puree in half. You can always save the rest to make a salsa or use it in another dish.
Sweet flavors and citrus also counter spice, so taste as you simmer, adding whatever you need to please everyone’s palate.
If meat-free Mexican-inspired cuisine is right up your alley, these other veggie dishes are sure to delight:
- Vegan Mexican Lasagna
- Vegetarian Grilled Corn and Green Bean Tacos with Cilantro Goat Cheese Crema
- Roasted Cauliflower Enchiladas with Poblano Cream Sauce
- Vegetarian Tacos with Mushrooms, Peppers, and Onions
How do you take your heat in a bowlful of homemade tortilla soup? Pickled jalapenos? Tangy hot sauce? Spill your spicy condiment suggestions in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this recipe a five-star rating if you loved it.
Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on January 10, 2015. Last updated February 18, 2020. With additional writing and editing by Fanny Slater and Allison Sidhu.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Lori Jo Hendrix
Lori was born in southern California and currently resides in Mexico. She is an actress and model who also writes in the fields of nutrition, wellness, and cuisine. Her passions include working as a volunteer with various groups in the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned and injured animals.