Over the years, New Jersey-based chef Maricel Presilla has tasted many versions of sopa de lima, the citrusy chicken soup that is a specialty of Mexico’s Yucatán region. But none was as memorable as her first bowl, made for her in Mérida by an octogenarian home cook who was instructing her in Yucatecan cuisine.
The woman pulled the key ingredient—vibrantly fresh green lima fruit, or Mexican bittersweet limes—from the tree in her backyard, to add to the soup. Decades later, Presilla still recalls the intense floral scent. “That impressive aroma is what made the soup for me.”
In the Yucatán, known for its abundance of citrus, sour flavors are a hallmark of the cuisine, with the lima fruit one of its stars and sopa de lima one of its famed dishes. The base of the soup is simple: chicken gently simmered to create both tender meat for shredding as well as a rich broth. But the real power comes from the lima, which is juiced into the broth, as well as sliced and floated on the finished dish to double down on the bright aromas and flavor.
Recreating that particular sensory experience became an obsession for Presilla. But since limas are rare in the U.S., she had her work cut out for her. She experimented with many varieties of citrus, finally settling on bitter oranges, a tart varietal. “Bitter orange has acidity, but it’s not extreme. It’s more about aroma. It reminds me of a grapefruit,” she says. “So the mixture of grapefruit and lime is also a very good replacement.”
Presilla’s version of sopa de lima eventually ended up in her book “Gran Cocina Latina,” along with many other dishes she learned in Mérida. “This woman gave me so many incredible recipes,” she says. “I have all these treasures.”
We loved Presilla’s suggestion to replace lima with a combination of grapefruit and lime, a pairing that not only is accessible, but also one we’d heard before from Serious Eats’ J. Kenji López-Alt, who uses it in his sopa de lima. It worked wonderfully.
Most important was the timing of juices. Adding them early dulled their bright flavors and aromas. Added at the end, the flavors stayed clean and fresh, much as we imagine Presilla’s first bowl was.