Salvador Tagle can't resist a nice big squirt of lime juice. "We use limes in so much of Mexican cuisine," explains the executive chef at Il Sombrero restaurant in the Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel and Resort. "There's guacamole, ceviche, fresh salsa, sopa de lima. We always add a bit of lime. It's something we have to do." A signature ingredient of Mexican cooking - along with chilies, beans and cilantro - this smallest member of the citrus family lends intense flavour, a boost of Vitamin C, and reduces the need for salt.
But what kind of lime is best for Mexican dishes? Tagle laughs, remembering his own confusion when he came to the Middle East eight years ago. "In Mexico the lime is the yellow fruit and the lemon is the green." And contrary to what we assume about limes - that they are more sour than lemons since they contain one-and-a-half times more acid - Mexican limes are sweeter than Mexican lemons. Can we find them in the UAE? Sadly no, says Tagle. "But Indian limes still work well."
Small as a ping pong ball, juicy and aromatic, the yellow-green Indian lime is related to the Mexican lime, both having originated in Malaysia. From there, the cultivation of limes spread to India, the Middle East, China and the West Indies. Farmers in southern Europe tried growing limes during medieval times. But limes are sun worshippers, preferring the wet heat of the tropics. I can almost taste the sun in their juice, as Chef Tagle serves up a lime feast from the Il Sombrero kitchen: sopa de lima, guacamole, ceviche and finally, a lime tart, recipe courtesy of his mother, who still runs the family restaurant near Oaxaca.
Which recipe do I want? he asks. It's a tough call, but I can't seem to put my soup spoon down. Tagle smiles. "When I was sick as a child, my mother would make this for me: chicken stock, shredded chicken, a little lime juice." Mexican comfort food.
From the Yucatan peninsula, this hearty soup is particularly fortifying during winter months and is a meal in itself. Don't stint on the tortilla strips. And don't forget to let the avocado ripen beforehand. Serves four. Ingredients 6 corn tortillas * 150ml vegetable oil 80g white onion, in thin wedges 1 green chili (or jalapeno), seeded and finely diced 80g red bell pepper, finely sliced 80g green bell pepper, finely sliced 4 cloves garlic, minced 1 bay leaf Zest of 1 (Indian) lime (the skin, not the white layer underneath) 1 ml dried Mexican oregano, crumbled * 80g tomato, diced 1.5 litre chicken stock or broth
500g boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into large pieces 2 green onions (scallions), finely chopped (green part only) 100ml lime juice (about 5 Indian limes) 30g tomato paste 1 avocado, pitted and thinly sliced 30ml fresh cilantro (coriander), chopped Salt and pepper * Found in the Mexican food section at the LuLu Hypermarket in Khalidiyah Mall Method Line a large plate with a sheet of paper towel. Using cooking shears, cut the tortillas, two at a time, into half-cm strips. Heat the oil in a medium skillet and, when very hot, fry the strips in small batches, until light golden and crisp (don't let them brown) - 30 seconds to one minute.
Transfer the strips to the plate to drain. Repeat until all the tortilla strips have been fried, layering with more paper towel as you go. Set aside. Spoon 30ml of this frying oil into a large saucepan and add the onion, tomato, lime zest, bell peppers and chili. Cook over a medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables have softened, about four minutes. Add the garlic, bay leaf and oregano. Cook, stirring, for one minute.
Add the tomato paste and season lightly with salt. Stir and continue to cook until the tomato paste is integrated. Add the chicken stock and cut-up chicken breasts. Bring soup to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes. Remove chicken from the soup with a slotted spoon and set aside until cool enough to handle; allow soup to continue simmering. When the chicken pieces are cooled, shred with a fork or fingers and place back in the soup. Add the green onions and lime juice. Cook for five minutes, until the chicken is heated through and the soup is piping hot. Salt and pepper to taste.
Place a handful of tortilla chips into each soup bowl, then ladle in the soup. Garnish with the avocado and chopped cilantro. Serve immediately.