We all have those nights when nothing but a big bowl of noodles will do; for some, it’s spaghetti and meatballs. For others, it’s lo mein. For many home cooks, the answer to a hearty, one-pan noodle dish is sopa seca, which translates to “dry soup.”
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The dish evolved from sopa de fideos, a popular Mexican noodle soup—in the “dry” version of this dish, the noodles absorb the tomato-based broth, yielding a creamy, saucy consistency. (There is a different dish from Peru called sopa seca that features noodles, meat, and a green sauce; this is not that.)
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Like its soupier counterpart, sopa seca is the epitome of weeknight comfort food in Mexican and Mexican American homes. To gain a better understanding of the dish, I consulted with my colleague Janette Zepeda. Zepeda was born in the United States and raised by parents who immigrated from Ixtlán del Río in Nayarit, Mexico. She often shadowed her mother, who served a rotation of classic Mexican dishes in the kitchen.
“Walking home from school, I could always smell what my mom was cooking from a few homes down the street,” Zepeda said. And it was often sopa seca. “Later in life I realized that this dish became a comfort food for my family. The smells alone make time travel back to my childhood possible.”
Sopa seca is built upon a base of fideos, which are short, thin, golden noodles similar to angel hair pasta. Fideos are usually briefly cooked in oil to enhance their flavor. The browned noodles offer a toasty but fairly neutral base to absorb the sauce—which provides most of sopa seca’s character.
Sopa SecaThis comfort-food dish—a staple in Mexican and Mexican American cuisine—takes one-pan noodles to the next level.
Building deep flavor in the simmering liquid was key. Some recipes call for a sauce of blended raw tomatoes, onion, and garlic; however, we found that cooking those ingredients in the skillet beforehand, as many home cooks do, takes the edge off any raw flavors. Precooking the tomatoes also yields a creamier, more velvety consistency.
After cooking, the tomato mixture is blended with oregano, various seasonings, and chipotle chiles, which add a distinct smokiness and subtle heat typical of sopa seca. Rather than using chicken broth to loosen the mixture, we combine water and chicken bouillon powder, a classic trick for boosting savory flavor in soups and sauces. Knorr brand bouillon, specifically, is sometimes called the “secret ingredient” in sopa seca, providing the distinct salty, round flavor found in home‑cooked versions.
“Knorr is something that most Mexican households have in their pantries—talk about an absolute staple,” Zepeda said. “Growing up, I didn’t know the name of the actual product; it was always my mom or grandma sending me over to the pantry to ‘grab the bottle with the chicken on it.’”
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The sauce is then combined with the noodles and simmered in the pan, covered to preserve moisture. As the mixture cooks, the noodles absorb the flavorful liquid and expand, while the sauce lusciously coats each strand. Stirring occasionally (but not too frequently) allows some noodles to crisp slightly on the bottom of the skillet as the sauce simmers.
Once finished, sopa seca is usually served with a cooling topping to tone down the heat; Mexican crema is traditional, but sour cream also works. Additional toppings include queso fresco, avocado, and cilantro for fresh and bright flavors to contrast the creamy sauce or some chicharrones for crunch. Or in true homestyle fashion, the noodles can be repurposed to your own liking, whether they’re fresh or left over.
“My mom would serve this dish and its toppings along with tacos de papa, which is a deep-fried mashed potato taco,” Zepeda said. “Everyone always built their dish slightly differently depending on their preference.”
However you serve it, sopa seca is a great dish to have in your arsenal to satisfy a craving for noodles. It comes together in a flash, is endlessly customizable, and checks all the boxes for adding pizzazz to weeknight cooking—it’s smoky, spicy, tangy, and extremely flavorful.