Una Sonrisa Menos: Chicken Tortilla Soup

Chicken Tortilla Soup from bibberche.com

Last Thursday morning, my friend Cipriano boarded a flight from Tijuana to Oaxaca  to reunite with his wife, children, and fourteen grandchildren that he had not seen in more than four years. A few days ago, a co-worker took him to a salon where he had his salt-and-pepper hair died a ridiculously artificial black to hide the fact that he has aged. He spent all his free time this week at Target and Walmart, buying presents for his eagerly awaiting family.

We have worked together for almost two years and I will miss his small, hunched up form scurrying around, pushing the crates of glasses, and bringing the piles of green, yellow, and maroon Fiesta plates from his immaculately clean dish washing area. He appeared every morning at least half an hour early, greeting everybody with a wide smile that made his mustache shift upwards. He worked without complaining, endured the incessant teasing of the Mexican cooks and waiters, accepting their jokes with giggles, and trying to reciprocate the best he could. He claimed to be fifty two, but the wrinkles on his face revealed a more advanced age.

The only words in English el viejito has learned to pronounce are “thank you”, “hello”, and “break”. When I met him, my Spanish consisted of Adios, Hola! and una cerveza mas fina. I could sing a few lines from Besame Mucho and Un Año De Amor from Pedro Almodovar’s movie High Heels, but we really could not communicate. Using my Italian to try to break the language barrier, I asked Cipriano if he would teach me Spanish. He agreed enthusiastically, and from that moment on, my days at work were filled with phrases and sentences that he would pronounce in his toothless Spanish, gesticulating and using charades to make me comprehend their meaning. I would come home and pore through books or consult the Internet to get the grammatically correct forms, and go back to work to put to use what he had taught me.

With a forlorn look in his dark beady eyes, he told me of his village nestled in the hills a few hours outside of Oaxaca. He told me of his wife who tends to their goats, pigs, cows, and chickens. He told me how he missed the burro that he rode every day to and from the village center, as they did not own a horse, nor a car. He smiled every time when he remembered his wife’s homemade comidita, the small corn tortillas filled with roasted pork, some frijoles and arroz served with a Coronita or two. Talking about the people he loved and the land he left behind, he resorted to diminutives, making everything closer, more endearing, and childlike.


He walked home up the hill after his shift, just to change his uniform and walk down the hill to his night time job. More dishes to wash, more tables to clean, more cooks and waiters to tease him about missing his wife. He greeted every day with a glint in his eyes, grateful for any small thing that made his day better, perennially happy and eager to joke and accept jokes, no matter how cruel. He worked six and seven days a week for more than four years, day and night, walking along the paved sidewalks of Southern California and dreaming of a distant village somewhere in Mexico where calves are born, and chickens are slaughtered, and cows are milked, and his wife is making small, sweet corn tortillas and maybe thinking of him.

On his last day at work, I brought my camera and I took pictures of Cipriano with all the employees: waiters and cooks, managers and busboys, hostesses and prep guys. In each photo, he stood erect, trying to appear taller, his face sporting his usual wide smile even though a cook couldn’t resist the juvenile antic of holding his fingers behind Cipriano’s head like donkey ears. I printed the pictures and gave them to him to take home, to have at least a few faces by which to remember the four arduous years he spent in the US, trying to make as much money as he could so that he can help his family.

He made me promise to visit him and his wife if I ever make it to Oaxaca, and I agreed. I wrote down the name of his village and all the families related to him that would know where to find him. I showed him the piece of paper with names in Spanish and he averted his eyes, smiling, saying bien, bien. In that instant I knew that mi amigo viejito did not know how to read nor write, and my heart ached for him. If I had known, I could have taught him a little every day, just like he taught me Spanish.

The last time I saw him, he came to pick up his paycheck wearing a freshly ironed plaid shirt and a baseball hat. I gave him all the tips I made that day and told him to buy something nice for his wife and a lot of chocolates for his fourteen nietos. He gave me a hug and we both fought tears as we made our usual jokes. I left, waving to him, saying Vaya con Dios, mi amigo Cipriano!  I wish you good winds… And just like that, there was one less smile in my world. But I smiled wider because there would be so many more smiles in his than he had known in too many years.

I hope that he has arrived safely. I imagine the whole village of San Bartolo Salinas has gathered to listen to his high tales while he is sipping mezcal and munching salsita. I wish that he finds his peace in the green hills of Oaxaca he missed so much, riding his loyal burro to the center of the village, sitting straight and smiling. And I hope that, at least once or twice, he thinks of his friends on the other side of the border that will remember him for a long time, hoping his smile is even wider for being home.

I was thinking of a recipe that would transport me to Cipriano’s Oaxaca and I knew I had a winner when I started collecting the ingredients for chicken tortilla soup. This is a perfect dish to mark a reunion of husband and wife. It is rich and flavorful, carrying many layers and bringing forth just enough spice to make your heart skip a beat. I don’t know what dish his mujer made to welcome him home, but I fancied that she served him a bowl of this wonderful soup and that his smile was as wide as mine at the thought that my friend is home.

Chicken Tortilla Soup from bibberche.com

5.0 from 2 reviews
Chicken Tortilla Soup
Recipe type: Soups
Cuisine: Latin-American
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4
Turning leftovers into completely different, but equally interesting and delicious fares is one of my favorite challenges. This is hearty soup is light on fat and carbohydrates, but packed with flavor. It comes together quickly and arrives at the dinner table in about 45 minutes. It is a versatile dish and accommodates exchanges and substitutions.
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 poblano pepper (or ½ sweet red pepper), chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 1 chipotle chile in adobo, chopped (optional, if you don’t like spicy food)
  • 1 28-oz can fire-roasted diced tomatoes, including liquid
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 can beans, rinsed and drained (I use whatever beans I have in the pantry)
  • 1 cup corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
  • 3 tomatillos, chopped (optional)
  • 1 cup shredded or diced leftover roasted or baked chicken*
  • juice of two small limes
  • ¼ cup cilantro, chopped
  • 2-3 corn tortillas
  • oil for frying
  • *If you don’t want to use leftover chicken, you can start from scratch, which will add
  • 7-8 minutes to your cooking time. Season one boneless chicken breast (or two boneless thighs) with salt, pepper, chili powder, and ground cumin, and sauté it
  • before you sauté the onions. When browned on both sides, remove from the pan
  • and let it cool off. Continue with the recipe.
  • Optional for Serving:
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • handful cilantro, chopped
  • queso fresco (if unavailable, use mild feta or jack cheese)
  • lime wedges
  1. Heat the oil in a heavy soup pot on medium heat.
  2. Add onions and pepper, and sauté until translucent.
  3. Add garlic, paprika, cumin, coriander, chili powder and oregano.
  4. Stir and saute until fragrant, about one minute.
  5. Add stock, chipotles, tomatoes, water and beans.
  6. Simmer ten minutes to allow the flavors to come together.
  7. Add corn, tomatillos, chicken and lime juice; simmer an additional 15 minutes.
  8. In the meantime, heat 1 inch of oil in a small pot on medium-high heat.
  9. Cut tortillas into thin strips and fry until crispy.
  10. Place onto a plate layered with paper
  11. towels to drain.
  12. Stir in cilantro and taste.
  13. Go light on the salt, since the tortillas will be salty.
  14. Slice avocado and divide between bowls, saving a little for garnish.
  15. Ladle soup
  16. into four bowls and top with cilantro, avocado, tortilla strips, crumbled queso
  17. fresco and lime wedges.


30 Responses to Una Sonrisa Menos: Chicken Tortilla Soup

  1. Amiga, you have such a way with words, my eyes teared up reading this. I think you have done him proud with this recipe, it looks delicious. Thank you for sharing this….

  2. Alan Cooke says:

    What an awesome story. A great reminder of how blessed we are and how hard many others are working to realize their dreams despite the obstacles. I’m sure you have many blessings in store for being such a wonderful friend to him!!

  3. Pilar says:

    Very touching! I love the way you write.

  4. O as always I love your writing Lana, so beautiful and moving! How great to have made a friend there– Oaxaca is gorgeous…. when are we going??? :)

  5. Rebecca says:

    Wonderful post what a wonderful reunion it will be and great soup

  6. Mary says:

    This is a lovely story.

  7. Darlene says:

    As always, your stories are so touching and heart-felt.

  8. Vicky says:

    This really is a great well written story. Incredibly touching. I truly do hope all is well with him.

  9. Lovely friendship you gained and so nicely expressed. And the perfect recipe to tribute your friend. Best regards to Cipriano.

  10. valentina says:

    I could read ten more chapters of this. I just love the way you tell such detailed stories that draw me in emotionally. It’s really so wonderful. And needless to say, the soup looks absolutely delicious!

    • Svetlana says:

      Awwww, thanks, Valentina:) One of these days I will have to finally start writing a personal essay book:) I make this soup often, especially in the summer time, as it is hearty enough for a whole meal.

  11. Lana, I am in tears. You’ve captured so beautifully the immigrant experience in such poignant detail that most of us don’t really feel. If you ever want to visit Cipriano, I’m in. Have been wanting to return to Oaxaca.

    • Svetlana says:

      Thanks, Adair! I tried to find this village on Google maps, but could not! I would LOVE to have you come along if I decide I am adventurous enough to visit Cipriano:)

  12. edie irwin says:

    Beautiful. I work with guys like this, a beautiful story. My daughter loves tortilla soup, I make it often and I agree with you… it must be MEXICAN oregano. Makes a world of difference.
    It was great to meet you at camp last weekend!

    • Svetlana says:

      Thank you, Edie:) We are lucky we live in SoCal where we can get all these different ingredients to make fabulous global dishes! I am looking forward to getting to know you better:)

  13. My eyes are full of tears. What a beautiful story, Lana. Is he back to Mexico for good or just for a visit? What prompted him to come to the U.S. in the first place? Had he been able to talk to his family on the phone while he was here? I have so many more questions about his backstory.

    • Svetlana says:

      Erika, I don’t know how he communicated with his family, as the village had no electricity nor running water. They were do poor that the only chance to feed all of them was for him to come to the US and work two and three jobs at a time to save money. I know that he lived in a two-bedroom apartment with a dozen or so other immigrants (I would assume that all or most were illegal), he never went out, he ate at work whatever mistakes the cooks made, and saved every penny. I don’t think he’ll be back. I tried to find the village on Google mas, but it’s so small that it does not show. SOmehow it makes me feel better that I am not the only one touched by his story:) Thanks!

    • Svetlana says:

      Dorothy, I am sad every time I think of Cipriano, but also happy that he had a chance to help his family. He was such a little ant, so hard-working:)

  14. zeljka says:

    Nicely written!
    Svetlana, you have your way with words that always touches my heart. If you ever publish your book I will be first in line to buy it!

  15. Christina says:

    Oh Lana, what a sweet post! I hope you do get to visit Cipriano one day; it would be such an incredible reunion for both of you, I’m sure!

  16. Lana, your beautiful writing really touched my heart and had me in tears (in a good way). I am so grateful that Cipriano found in you a friend who respected him and was able to share his story with all the dignity and integrity that it deserved. And your soup is beautiful too – I imagine that this is exactly the kind of dish that Cipriano’s wife might have made for him on his return.

    • Svetlana says:

      Susan, I am touched that my words touched you:) There are so many stories like Cipriano’s here in SoCal – I am grateful that I had a chance to tell it.

  17. Lana, everyone has a story, some more complex and poignant than others. You honored Cipriano with your beautiful words. An otherwise ordinary man was elevated to admirable heights by the way you shared his story. From now on, whenever I eat Chicken Tortilla Soup, Cipriano will come to mind.

  18. sippitysup says:

    We live our crazy busy Southern California lives and all around us there are stories like this. Few of us take the time to hear these stories. I’m glad you took the time to listen and to share. GREG

    • Svetlana says:

      Greg, I am a storyteller, I guess, and not a bona fide food blogger:) These little stories make my life complete:) Thanks for always finding the right words to inspire me!

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