Do you remember that old commercial where the snowman comes in from the cold and melts away to reveal a child smiling over a steaming bowl of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup? Now take that warm, inviting feeling, but “de-Americanize” it. If you’re Mexican, it’s likely that one of two soups comes to mind: menudo or pozole.
These two Mexican comfort foods have a lot in common while also creating a clear divide among people from the same country. Like a Game of Thrones rivalry, it’s important to know where your family’s loyalties lie. If there was a banner to be waved outside your home, would it belong to House Menudo or House Pozole? To understand the strong attachment people have to these soups, it’s best to start with a little history lesson, as I’ve come to realize this debate is deeply rooted in family tradition and geographic location.
The exact origins of menudo are difficult to pinpoint, but it’s generally thought that the soup hails from northern and central Mexico. So if you can trace your family lineage back to a northern state like Nuevo Leon or Sinaloa, you probably stand behind House Menudo. The story of this “working-class” soup of the people started in the 1930s when poor campesinos, or farmers, created the dish using the less popular parts of the cow. It’s easy to see why Mexican immigrants, hardworking and on a budget, would bring the comforts of this soup across the border.
In other words, you’re not going to be slurping down prime cut steak when you eat menudo. (Before you jump ship here, bear with me on the ingredient list.) Menudo generally comes in two varieties, red and white, the former of which is consumed mainly in northern parts of the country while the latter is more popular throughout central Mexico. My mom’s family is from northern Mexico, so red is what I’m used to. Fair warning that I am no expert and family recipes will vary, but here are your basic menudo must-haves:
- Beef tripe (the stomach lining of a cow)
- Cow or pig feet
- Chili pepper such as guajillo, ancho, or chile de arbol (skip if making white menudo)
- Spices such as oregano, rosemary, cumin, bay leaf
- Hours upon hours of cooking time
The soup is garnished with chopped onion, cilantro, and a lime wedge, and you absolutely must serve with tortillas.
I’ll admit menudo was not love at first sight for me. The thought of eating the stomach lining of a cow didn’t exactly make my mouth water. But as I got older, seeing my parents enjoy a bowl on Sundays piqued my curiosity. Ask me now and I’d say menudo served with carnitas wins out over any brunch offering I’ve come across in Chicago. Plus, if you ask anyone familiar with this soup, they won’t fail to mention that it’s the best hangover remedy. No need to reach for a Bloody Mary or a gallon of Gatorade when you can find the right local spot to pick up a container of menudo.
Menudo stands out not only for its chewy tripe bites, but also the heat it delivers. The spice in even the mildest bowl makes my nose run, which is why I tend to douse it in lime. Though menudo and pozole do share some ingredients, their flavors are distinct, and each pairs well with different sides. As I mentioned before, menudo’s match made in heaven is carnitas.
Although it’s pretty clear where I stand on this debate, I also want to give pozole its due credit. Pozole predates menudo by at least a few hundred years, and its origins make cow organs sound like child’s play. The soup can be traced back to the Aztec civilization, where it was consumed on special occasions (much like it is today) as part of religious ceremony (not like today at all). After a battle, the Aztecs would take a captured enemy warrior and make him fight until he inevitably lost and was killed. The fallen warrior’s body was then used in a stew that would be consumed by religious leaders, kings, and Aztec warriors.
Thankfully, since then, the main ingredients in pozole have changed. Similar to menudo, pozole comes in different colors: red, green, and white. Depending on which state of Mexico your family is from, you might have a preference for one type of pozole over the others. For example, red pozole is more popular in the state of Jalisco, green pozole is often made in Guerrero, and white pozole can be found in Colima. Once again, and even more confidently, I will say that I am no expert and family recipes always vary. However, at its core a great batch of pozole will have:
- Pork (sometimes chicken)
- Spices like oregano and cumin
- Ancho, guajillo, and/or chile de arbol (if making red pozole)
- Tomatillo, poblano, jalapeño, and/or serrano (if making green pozole)
- An endless amount of time to simmer
Garnish to your heart’s desire with shredded cabbage, lime, cilantro, avocado, radish, chicharron, and maybe more oregano. Hominy and the option of chicken make pozole the lighter choice and the more customizable of the two soups, considering the many add-in options. Many people would recommend a crunchy tostada as the perfect sidekick to pozole. Though it has its own spicy kick to it, the taste can be mellowed with the mix-ins.
Minus the human sacrifice, pozole still carries on tradition as a special occasion dish. I’ve most often had it at birthday parties, on Christmas Eve, and during New Year’s celebrations. I’ve also never seen it made in small quantities. When you make pozole, you make it for the whole family and then some.
In fact, a testament to the strong family ties associated with both of these soups is the fact that I hadn’t even tasted pozole until I was about 20 years old. I was at a birthday party for someone in my boyfriend’s family who is from a different part of Mexico than my family. We were in the backyard with tents, folding tables and chairs, and an absolute feast. But what stood out to me was a massive silver pot and a bunch of small serving bowls all filled with shredded cabbage, lime wedges, diced onion, and other toppings. In 80-degree heat, mosquitos devouring my sweaty legs, I finished every drop of that green pozole while my eyes watered. The best part is that usually—gasp!—I don’t even like spicy food very much. Yes, I like to break stereotypes.
On the other hand, my boyfriend has yet to try menudo and says he never will. I guess some people just can’t stomach the idea. When it comes down to it, menudo vs. pozole is like growing up eating your mom’s homemade cookies and then going to a friend’s house and being offered a plate of their mom’s own homemade cookies. You might turn them down flat just because they have raisins in them—but both cookies remind someone of home.
Where do you stand? Menudo or pozole? And if we want to go a few levels deeper: red, green or white?