A search for spice in Costa Rica

I recently traveled to Costa Rica and, and as always when traveling, I was on the lookout for a delicious soup. Sadly, my dining experiences did not come anywhere close to my expectations. While every meal was good, I didn’t find anything that stood out. The few times I opted for soup I was disappointed.

I found the ingredients and spices lacking and unimaginative. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that I tend to lump everything south of the U.S. border into the same group. In Mexico, Central America, and South America, I expect a certain flavor profile—chilies, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, clove, and vanilla. I also expect a little heat.

Food, however, was not one of the deciding factors on a vacation to Costa Rica. I wanted beaches, jungles, waterfalls, canopy hikes, colorful and exotic frogs and birds and, of course, sloths…all of which I found in abundance. Once home again, I was ready from some spice and this Mexican Coconut Chicken Soup soup never disappoints.

Mexican Coconut Chicken Soup > Taco Soup

When my kids were young, one of our go-to weeknight meals was Taco Soup—a little ground meat and taco seasoning, tomatoes, kidney and pinto beans, and corn, topped with sour cream, diced avocado, and cheese, and served with tortilla chips. A meal the whole family loved.

A few years ago, I ran across a slightly different take on this family favorite. This recipe called for coconut milk rather than tomatoes as a base. I was skeptical at first, but I am not sure I can ever go back to my basic Taco Soup. This recipe packs in the flavor—from the earthy warmth of cumin to the kick of chili powder, each spice brings depth and complexity to the soup while the creaminess of the coconut milk lends a soft sweetness that complements and balances the spices.

Mexican coconut chicken soup
Mexican Coconut Chicken Soup

A word about spices

The first spices I used were handed down from my mother’s pantry, which were probably handed down from her mother’s pantry. I didn’t really think they did much to add flavor to meals and once I discovered fresh herbs, I utilized them at every turn. Then I found out that dried spices lose their potency and flavor over time. Duh!

Spices not only add flavor and depth to dishes but also have numerous health benefits. Turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger possess anti-inflammatory properties that help combat stress and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. These antioxidants help neutralize harmful free radicals in the body, promoting overall health and well-being.

Additionally, many spices have been shown to aid digestion by stimulating the production of digestive enzymes and promoting gut health. For example, ginger and peppermint are known for their soothing effects on the digestive system, relieving symptoms of indigestion, bloating, and nausea. Cumin, fennel, and coriander are commonly used in traditional medicine to alleviate digestive discomfort and improve gastrointestinal function.

Spices transform ordinary dishes into extraordinary culinary creations by enhancing flavor and aroma. The vibrant colors—from the deep red of paprika to the golden hue of turmeric—add visual appeal to dishes, making them equally as pleasing to the eye as they are to the palate.

Using fresh, high-quality spices in cooking is essential for unlocking the full potential of flavor and nutritional benefits in your dishes. If you’re still using those old tins of spices handed down when your favorite auntie’s pantry, it’s time to move on. Throw them away and invest in some new ingredients! Experiment with freshly ground cumin or nutmeg. Try some freshly grated lemon zest or a squeeze of lime for a bright citrus note. Add fresh herbs like cilantro.

Mexican oregano vs. Mediterranean (Italian) oregano

This recipe calls for Mexican oregano—said to have a pungent flavor with hints of licorice and citrus. All I know of Mexican oregano is what I’ve found online. I’ve never found it in the grocery store. But I am not on a mission to find it and will update this article when I do!

Mexican oregano pairs well with paprika, cumin, and chili peppers. In Mexican cuisine, it is used to flavor beans, soups, and stews. Mexican oregano is different from Mediterranean oregano, so make sure the label says “Mexican oregano” when you purchase it! And if you can’t find it, don’t worry. I’ve used Mediterranean oregano in this recipe and still find it one of the most delicious soups I’ve ever had.

For the broth

For all of my recipes, I like to use Better Than Bullion rather than a boxed chicken broth. Better Than Bullion is a concentrated paste that can be added to hot water to dissolve and then added to soups. The concentrated mix allows you to flavor your soup to taste by using more or less product. It also comes in a wide variety of flavors: chicken, beef, garlic and sauteed onion, mushroom, vegetarian. And one 8 oz jar has 38 servings, making it very cost effective.

mexican coconut chicken soup

Mexican Coconut Chicken Soup

Chicken thighs are simmered with bell pepper, onion, beans, and corn in a Mexican-spiced coconut milk base and topped with lime and cilantro.
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Course Soup
Cuisine Mexican
Servings 6 servings

Ingredients
  

  • 4 chicken thighs
  • 4 cups chicken or bone broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 6 cloves garlic divided
  • 1 onion, medium, diced
  • 2 bell pepper, red/orange, diced
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 can pinto beans
  • 1 can sweet corn (optional)
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • 2 tbsp Mexican oregano
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne (optional)
  • red pepper flakes, to taste
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • lime wedges for serving
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, plus more for serving
  • sliced jalapeño, for serving
  • tortilla chips, for serving

Instructions
 

  • Nestle the chicken pieces into a medium pot and cover with the chicken broth and water. (I recommend using Better Than Bullion.)
  • Toss in several cloves of smashed garlic and most of the cilantro stems and leaves and bring to a boil.
  • Cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until the chicken is just cooked through, adding more hot water if necessary to keep the chicken submerged, about 30 minutes.
  • Remove the chicken from the broth and set aside to cool.
  • Strain the broth into a bowl, discarding the garlic and stems.
  • When the chicken is cool enough to handle, discard the skin then pull the meat from the bones, and dice or shred.
  • Wipe out the pot and return to medium high heat. Add 1 tbsp oil and the onions and peppers. Sauté until softened, about 5 minutes, then add several cloves minced garlic and spices.
  • Continue to cook for another minute, then add the reserved broth, stirring to scrape up any browned bits. Bring just to a boil and reduce heat to medium. Simmer for 15 minutes.
  • Add the chicken, coconut milk, beans, and corn, and simmer for another 5 minutes.
  • Season to taste with salt and, if desired, red pepper flakes, then stir in the lime juice and 1/2 cup cilantro.
  • Serve immediately, garnished with extra chopped cilantro and lime wedges.
  • Top with tortilla chips and sliced jalapeño.
Keyword avacado, bell pepper, chicken leg, chicken thigh, cilantro, coconut based soup, mexican chicken soup, onion, spiced soup, spiced soup