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Super Sopas: 10 Soups and Stews that Takes Their Cues from Traditional Latin Recipes

Encebollado BELatina
Delicious encebollado fish stew from Ecuador traditional food national dish closeup

Once in a while, when my kids begin to whine about having to finish an adequate portion of the healthy and balanced meal they are served before they can even contemplate the idea of having dessert, I tell them it could be worse. They could have been born in Latin America, where they would be asked to finish both their sopa and their seco (the main dish, described in opposition to the wet soup as “dry”), to finally qualify for a postre. Not buying what I’m selling, they are content to explain to me the various reasons that is absurd, an exaggeration and an imposition, and include the fact that we live in South Florida where, they insist, it is way too hot to eat soup.

But we have air conditioning, and I can crank it up, is my usual retort to my guys, who much like my childhood heroine from the 1970s comic strip, the precocious pacifist Mafalda, have strong opinions on politics and the economy but not much taste for soup. I’m not sure why they reject this warm, nourishing, semi-liquid meal that is a staple throughout cultures and the best repository for all the random veggie odds and ends in the bottom of your crisper, but I suspect it’s because they’ve never suffered a bone-chilling morning in Bogotá, just to tuck into a bowl of steaming hot ajiaco for lunch. 

5 Ajiaco 

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Also known as ajiaco bogotano o santafereño, this bowl of heaven is best cooked in the biggest heavy-duty pot you can find. Locally prepared in hand-thrown ceramic pots, this chicken-potato-corn chowder is a tribute to the Andean bounty. In Colombia, it includes three types of potatoes — sabanera, pastusa, and the yolk-yellow, rich criolla — plus multiple whole ears of the local starchy, toothsome corn that is more like hominy than North American sweet corn. When recreating it in the U.S., a mixture of yellow and red potatoes will give you a close enough match, but try to find papa criolla either jarred or frozen in your local Latin American market. The other key ingredient is an herb called guasca, which you can order freeze dried from online dry goods stores.  

Once the stew is cooked together in a specific order so that some of the potatoes melt away and some remain softened but discernible, the dish is served in a deep bowl made of the same baked mud as the cooking pot. It is always a good idea to serve ajiaco with a small side plate, onto which each diner can lift out their piece of corn still on the cob (mazorca) and their portion of chicken (if it’s left whole, rather than shredded into the stew after cooking), which get eaten with one’s hands. A big chunk of avocado gets sliced and added to the soup, along with crema de leche and alcaparras (capers) to taste. In my husband’s family, they add hot sauce, too.

Black Bean Soup

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This fall/winter bowl of comfort, ever-present in any soup selection situation, from the hot bar at Whole Foods to the offerings at your favorite cafe, the standard black bean soup is an adaptation of a classic Latin American preparation. A flavorful black bean soup begins with a good sofrito, which is the basic mirepoix or flavor base of Latino cooking. Sofrito is an umami cook-down of aromatics like onions and garlic, peppers that can be sweet or hot, tomato paste and, depending on the country of origin, different herbs and spices.

Beans are staples in the cuisine of most of Latin America. Affordable and rich in protein, they can take the place of meat in a meal or make a small amount of if go a longer way. Bean soup is one of the clearest examples of the thin line between a stew and a soup, equally delicious off a plate mixed with rice or ladled directly from the bowl into the mouth. A Cuban version might have oregano and cumin; a Puerto Rican version might throw in some olives; Brazilian feijoada adds all kinds of odds and ends of meat; a Colombian version might substitute kidney beans for the black ones.

4 Sancocho 

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I was an adult when I learned that sancochar is a verb that means to boil or cook through while immersed in water. To me, sancocho was simply the broth soup generously studded with large pieces of root vegetables — potatoes, corn, yuca, plátano, arracacha — and hunks of chicken or beef (though some regions also make seafood ones). Unlike ajiaco, which takes on the thick consistency of a chowder, the liquid in a sancocho remains light and clearer, and the mixture of flavors is brightened by the addition of chopped cilantro or hot sauce. A part of cuisine throughout the Caribbean, each region has its own variations, but all of them are thought to be effective hangover cures.


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This Mexican staple is named after its main ingredient: hominy. Rehydrated and cooked as a legume or grain in Mexico, canned hominy is a good substitute here in the United States, when you recreate this meal-in-a-bowl. Traditionally, the richness of the broth is achieved through the use of the pig’s head and neck bones as a base. Hard to find here, any cut of pork or even chicken will make an adequate swap. Pozole comes in three varieties: traditional red, thanks to the addition of ancho and poblano chiles; white, which is the plain version; and green, so-colored by the addition of salsa verde. Shredded cabbage and radishes are popular garnishes.

3 Chupe de Camarón

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The immense bounty of the Pacific drives many of the gastronomical accomplishments of Perú. This particular stew features shrimp exclusively, but doubly, as the heads and shells flavor the base stock and the camarones themselves are the stars of the show. Almost like a New England clam chowder, this dish enriches the broth with milk and thickens the stew via the use of potatoes, corn, and sometimes rice. Giving the dish particularly Peruvian touches are the use of the local ají panca pepper (found in paste form or frozen in the United States), small cubes of queso fresco, and the garnish: a fried egg.


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Before long-bearded hipsters hung themselves out of a food truck offering up bone broth for your health, there has been a long tradition of caldos in Latin cuisine. A cognate for the Italian word for “hot”, in Spanish caldo means broth. If you order a caldo de bola in Ecuador, you would be served a deeply complex stew into which big, green plantain dumplings float, looking like magical realist matzo balls. In México, a caldo tlalpeño resembles a tortilla soup, but uses rice rather than shredded tortillas as a thickener. In Colombia, caldo de costilla is made with short rib, potato, and whatever else you can find, a perfectly improvisational recipe.

2 Aguadito

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With its essence in its name, the basis for this very cilantro-y soup is its broth. Popular in Perú and Ecuador, aguadito de gallina would cure a cold with its chicken base, easy-on-the-stomach rice and zing from the cilantro and the addition of lime juice to finish. Aguadito de mariscos, made with assorted seafood and similar flavorings, is also a delight.


Delicious encebollado fish stew from Ecuador traditional food national dish closeup

Named after its pickled garnish of marinated onions (and tomatoes), this Ecuadorian fish stew relies on cilantro, cumin, and a little chile in the broth to give the tuna and yuca that make up the bulk of this dish it’s traditional flavor. Once again, pairing a fresh protein with a thickening root vegetable results in a hearty stew made texturally interesting by the final addition of fried plantain chips.

1 Parihuela/Cazuela de Mariscos

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Parihuela is the quintessential seafood stew of Perú, a showcase of all of the various offerings from its Pacific waters, from bivalves like mussels and clams, crustaceans like shrimp and lobster, to fin fish like corvina. In other Latin American countries, this mixture of seafood together with a flavorful broth-based in sofrito is called cazuela de mariscos or seafood hotpot. A sort of criollo bouillabaisse or cioppino, the parihuela makes use of its local flavor palate, trading the saffron of the Provençal dish for aji amarillo, aji rocoto, cilantro, ginger, and lime.


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From the Dominican Republic, the antidote to the excellent rum is this excellent soup the next day. With the word for water right there in its name, this soup uses green plantain as the star of the dish, but it punctuates the mild-tasting fruit with some powerful flavors. With garlic and leek for flavor, culantro and cilantro for depth, and the sinus-and mind-clearing properties of allspice, a bowl of aguaji should be all you need to chase that hangover away.

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