Cuisine of New Mexico

Chile, Food of the Gods

Renowned New Mexico artist Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.” Millions of folks from all over the world have come to know exactly what she meant. The people, the culture, the landscape, the climate, and the cuisine—New Mexico just gets under your skin and takes hold.

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

The Land of Enchantment, New Mexico is known for its colors: turquoise skies, earthy browns, orange mesas, and purple sage. This time of year, though, the colors on everyone’s mind are red and green. Or maybe it should be red or green.

Chile is a term which usually refers to any of hundreds of chile peppers used in cuisines across the world to flavor and spice food.

In New Mexico, however, chile means much more than that. 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.

About 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 Ore House, a renown Santa Fe restaurant on the Historic Plaza. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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.

Culinary Enchantment

It’s never too soon to start planning your own culinary adventure.

Note the earthy tones in this mural at La Fonda on the Plaza. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico continues to celebrate the early blend of Native American and Spanish cultures that created their cuisine, different from anywhere else in the American Southwest or Mexico.

Always spelled with an ‘E’ on the end, chile reigns as the state’s vegetable, even though it’s technically a fruit. The pungent pod adds the pizzazz to the state’s beloved green chile cheeseburger.

Savor New Mexico’s special traditional versions of enchiladas, tamales, burritos, posole corn, pinto beans, and stuffed pockets of cornmeal dough called gorditas.

If you like your food really fiery, don’t miss red chile-marinated pork carne adovada.

Today, though, chile can top a pizza, turn into tempura, or enliven wine or a chocolate truffle.

Happy trails and buen provecho!

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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