Road Foodie: New Mexico

If you’re like us and many RVers, you love exploring America’s vast and varied culinary landscape during your travels. And I’m not talking fast food.

Red chiles are usually strung up to dry in the beautiful chile ristras typical to the state, then ground as needed before being cooked into sauces. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red chiles are usually strung up to dry in the beautiful chile ristras typical to the state, then ground as needed before being cooked into sauces. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Deep South to New England and Louisiana to the Southwest, each region has its own distinctive cuisine. In an earlier article on Vogel Talks RVing, we discussed the unique Cajun and Creole cuisine of Louisiana.

Another of our favorite cuisines is New Mexican, a blend of Spanish, Mexican, and Pueblo Native American cooking.

One of the first things many visitors want to explore when they come to the Land of Enchantment is it’s unique cuisine, a defining attribute of the state. If you’ve never had New Mexican food, then prep your taste buds now!

Its key ingredient? Chile. Chile comes in two varieties: red or green. Which one you will prefer is up to your palate. (Note: New Mexicans use the spelling chile, not chili, to mean the plant and the green or red sauce they make from it.)

Chiles are the soul of New Mexican cooking, which blends Native American and Hispanic influences into a cuisine unto itself.

Chile is the New Mexico’s largest agricultural crop. Across the state chile is consumed at every meal, is celebrated in songs and at festivals, and is the subject of the Official New Mexico State Question, Red or Green?, estimated to be uttered over 200,000 times a day in the state.

Chile: What’s the big deal?

New Mexican food is unlike any other, and it would be a shame not to take advantage of the variety of flavors available in the state’s wide array of restaurants.

The foundation of New Mexican cooking, long pungent chili pods can be picked in their green or red form. In either color, chiles become the key ingredient in cooked sauces served as an integral part of traditional dishes, rather than simply being served as a separate salsa-style accompaniment.

A field of red chiles in a field near Hatch. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A field of red chiles in a field near Hatch. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both Chile sauces are made from the same chile, but the red chile has been allowed to hang on the plant longer and become fully ripened.

Green chiles are typically roasted, and then chopped, to make a sauce flavored with stock, garlic, and onion. Red chiles are usually strung up to dry in the beautiful chile ristras typical to the state, then ground as needed before being cooked into sauces.

Perhaps surprisingly, the textures and flavors of the sauces are quite different. Green chile sauce has a sharper, “greener” flavor and the red tastes deeper, rounder, sweeter, and earthier. Neither is definitively hotter than the other. That depends on the growing conditions and the particular variety of chile. If you can’t decide between green or red chile, ask for it “Christmas,” which will give you some of each.

What is New Mexican Cuisine?

A mural in Santa Fe's historic La Fonda on the Plaza depicting Pueblo life. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A mural in Santa Fe’s historic La Fonda on the Plaza depicting Pueblo life. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For nearly 500 years, cooks here have been blending Native American foods—like blue corn and squash—with chile peppers, wheat flour, pork and other ingredients the Spanish settlers brought with them from Europe and Mexico to make what we now know as New Mexican Cuisine. Today, the smoke-kissed flavor of freshly roasted green chiles and the earthy fruitiness of red chile sauce are essential to favorite dishes, like breakfast burritos, stacked enchiladas, and stuffed sopaipillas.

Most restaurants do not offer you a choice of having hot or mild, but they do offer to put the red or green chile accompanying your meal on the side. You can also ask which is hotter, because it can vary from season to season. Green is not always the hottest.

For an authentic taste of Native American fare, head to the Pueblo Harvest Café located in the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center near historic Old Town Albuquerque. Incorporating traditional flavors into contemporary cooking, Pueblo Harvest Café reinvents and challenges ideas of what Native American cuisine is. You’ll sample fry bread, posole (hominy stew with chile) and other traditional feast day foods.

The beautiful chile ristras strung up for sale in historic Old Town Albuquerque. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The beautiful chile ristras strung up for sale in historic Old Town Albuquerque. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No adventure in New Mexico is complete until you have experienced the cuisine. At the center of it all is the chile, in both red and green varieties, which is used in everything from enchiladas to wine and ice cream.

Worth Pondering…

Delectable chile-con-carne… composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chile Colorado—a compound full of singular saver and a fiery zest.

—O. Henry, The Enchanted Kiss

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