Of all the variations on meatball soup in this world that don’t taste the least bit Italian – from ciorba de perisoare in Romania to bola bola in the Philippines – spiced-yet-also-cooling Mexican sopa de albondigas is our alltime favorite. Make no mistake, we’ve been known to inhale anything with meatballs, but if you happen to love Mexican flavors, this soup is a definite keeper.
Nothing about this recipe is meant to displace another now-international favorite: Mexican Tortilla Soup, typically made with sliced or shredded chicken. Indeed, nothing would taste wrong about hijacking this meatball soup with tortilla strips and generous splashes of freshly squeezed lime. The thing is, then you’d be back to one stunning recipe, one amazing taste, instead of two. Presented with such a delicious decision, we always choose the latter
Thanks to the popularity of Italian-American restaurants over the past century, meatballs are still thought of as an “Italian thing,” especially among Italian-Americans themselves. In many such families, the red-splashed handwritten recipe for Nonna’s Meatballs in Sugo (the name often used for the tomato sauce or “gravy”) is a beloved heirloom. With so much pressure from departed loved ones, we shouldn’t be surprised by the possessiveness that surrounds the subject of meatballs.
But… unlike some dishes around Europe and Asia than can be traced back to the Romans, most often to conquering Roman legions, the idea of seasoning chopped, shredded or ground meat and rolling it into balls before cooking seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. There were no Roman legions marching through Manila, for instance. No, it’s as though one day in the distant, ever-murky past, every food culture on earth woke up and shouted “meatballs!”
Like so many foods, then, meatballs became a canvas on which cultures could paint their own portrait – highlighted by choices like beef, pork, lamb chicken or turkey, and of course by spices. Meatballs always taste like the spices loved by the culture making them, from five-spice powder in parts of China to garam masala in India, from oregano and thyme in Turkey and Greece (there hangs a tale) to paprika in Hungary and cumin in Mexico.
One of the best-known areas to enjoy meatball soup is that belligerent mass that catches a spicy whiff of the Balkans to form today’s Greece and Turkey. Indeed, both cuisines point to the same city on the map for their dish’s origin story. The only problem: that city is Izmir in the modern Turkey born in the 1920s – and it’s still called Smyrna by many Greeks in memory of so many Greeks being driven out of their generational home in Greater Greece. Both cuisines form meatballs to be oblong, the Greeks often adding ground pork to the beef, the Muslim Turks definitely leaving out the pork.
In a similar way, the basics (and the name) of sopa de albondigas came to Mexico with its Spanish conquerors, who themselves cooked with spicy memories of their own centuries of living under North Africa’s Moors. Spaniards really loved pork. Moorish spices traveled to New Spain but their religious prohibition didn’t make it past the Straits of Gibraltar.
SOPA DE ALBONDIGAS
Many of our favorite flavors get woven into this traditional delight from south of the border. The mint in the meatballs, of course, isn’t mandatory, but many remember a mother’s or grandmother’s version that featured the mouth-cooling herb. Speaking of heat, you can add chopped jalapenos (or even hot sauce) if you prefer Mexican soups that give your mouth a three-alarm fire.
1 pound lean ground beef
¼ pound bulk pork sausage
¼ cup dehydrated minced onion
¼ cup dried minced parsley
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1 large egg
1 teaspoon finely chopped mint
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon lemon pepper
1 cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped carrot
½ cup chopped celery
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 (32-ounce) containers chicken broth
1 jar Fischer & Wieser’s Salsa a la Charra
1 teaspoon dried minced parsley
Chopped fresh cilantro
4 rainbow-colored mini peppers, cut into rings with any seeds removed
Make the meatball mix by combining all ingredients in a large bowl and then forming into 1-inch balls. To make the soup, lightly caramelized the onion, carrot and celery in the olive oil, then stir in the minced garlic for one more minute. All the chicken broth, salsa and parsley. Bring soup to a boil, then add the meatballs. Lower the heat and cook the meatballs in the broth about 30 minutes. When ready to serve, ladle hot into bowls and garnish with cilantro and pepper rings. Serves 8-10.