When you first look at a bowl of sopa de fideo, it might seem like any other chicken noodle soup, just with tomato added to the broth; another difference, which gives this soup its very distinctive flavour, is that the dry pasta is browned in oil before adding liquid. I have found a couple of references in cookbooks which mention pasta being introduced to Mexico in the late 1800s, but to me, several clues point to at least the thin noodles known as fideos being in Mexico for much longer than that. I could not help but to summarize my findings (please feel free to skip):
1) The etymology of the word (see also Word of the Day, March 26, 2018) – fideo comes from Arabic fidáwš, adopted in the Iberian-Arabic variations in Spain during Muslim rule, which ended in the XV century. That means that both the thin pasta and the word were known in Spain back then. Spaniards successfully blended their food traditions with indigenous cuisine in the Americas; they brought animals and crops, including wheat, so why would fideos not be included?
2) Reference by name and location – At internationalpasta.org , their section “history of pasta” points out different names that were used over the centuries for pasta: “But between the 1400 and the 1800, between the “lasagne” and the “vermicelli” the “fidelli” were born; these were pasta thread with a cylindrical shape. In this way, the pasta manufacturers also became the “fidellai”. This site also mentions that “… pasta was already widely accepted in Spain, most of all starting from the XVI century, the era of the Spanish viceroyalty in Naples.”
3) Same cooking technique as in the Middle East – where rice is mixed with short pieces of thin pasta (fidáwš?), which are browned in oil before liquid is added.
4) Same name in another Spanish colony – there is a dish called sopa de fideo in The Philippines, another former Spanish colony, and the dish is described as comfort food “…from the Spaniards back in the 1600s.” This soup includes a lot of local ingredients, just as the Mexican version contains tomato, but the Spanish ancestry is a relevant connection.
As far as I am concerned, these points place sopa de fideo on the Mexican table during Spanish colonial times. The addition of tomato, of course, was definitely Mexican.
After this provenance tantrum, let’s get to the kitchen:
Mexican Style Noodle Soup – Sopa de fideo
2 large tomatoes; pureed with 1/4 cup water (or two cups canned crushed tomatoes)
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 medium onion; peeled and cut into large pieces
1/2 lb fideo dry pasta (see *NOTE below)
2 cloves garlic; peeled
8 cups water (or chicken broth, see **NOTE below)
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 tsp salt, or more, to taste
2 limes; to serve
*NOTE: If Mexican fideos are not available, short vermicelli for Middle Eastern rice work great, too. This dish may also be modified by using any small pasta shape, such as star, orzo or alphabet; this version is also traditional, and it is simply called sopa de pasta (pasta soup).
**NOTE: The traditional recipe calls for chicken broth, and many cooks use water and instant chicken bouillon to prepare this soup. Using water gives the dish a milder taste, and keeps it vegetarian.
I had some tomatoes, so I washed them, removed the stem end and cut them into large pieces, then processed them in the blender with water, until I got a smooth puree; I set this aside right next to the stove, along with a strainer (or canned crushed tomatoes may be used instead.) In a large pot over medium heat, I poured the vegetable oil and added the onion. After about one minute, I added the noodles, dry and pale, from the package. If Mexican fideos are not available, those short vermicelli for Middle Eastern rice I mentioned above work great, or the dish may be generalized to sopa de pasta (pasta soup), using any small pasta shape instead, such as star, orzo or alphabet. I lowered the heat to continue cooking, and stirring to prevent burning, until the onions and noodles became translucent.
A couple of cloves of garlic can add a lot of flavour, so I stirred them in with the onions and noodles, and cooked everything until the noodles were golden brown; it is very important not to leave the pot unattended, because the noodles might burn quickly. I poured the reserved tomato puree through the strainer, and mixed to prevent the noodles from over-browning.
I added the water, and a pinch of salt; the traditional recipe calls for chicken broth, and many cooks use water and instant chicken bouillon (Knorr™), but I used water to keep the dish vegetarian (to be honest, I prefer the vegetarian version, because the only source of fat is the oil I add to brown the pasta, and the aromatics don’t get drowned in the chicken flavour). I set the heat at medium-high to bring the soup to a boil, and then reduced the heat to let it simmer for another 5 minutes. My soup was looking pale (supermarket tomatoes are not the best) so I added tomato paste, and that just brought all the flavours together (that same yummy effect as adding Knorr™). I removed the pot from the heat, covered the pot with its lid, and let the soup rest for another 5 minutes. Before serving, I discarded the onions and garlic.
Sopa de fideo may be served with lime sections and salt on the side, for a nice finishing touch at the table.
When I was a kid, I always liked my sopa de fideo, but for picky eaters, a sprinkle of parmesan cheese on top might make them think of it as a – more familiar – plate of spaghetti.