10 Things to Know About New Mexican Cuisine

New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment, and that applies to its unique food too. From fiery to sweet, New Mexico’s mix of cultures and tastes makes the nation’s 47th state a must-visit culinary destination.

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Classic New Mexico Dishes

New Mexico cuisine is a blend of Native American, Spanish and Anglo tastes. While it shares traits with Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, it is distinctive. Chile (note the spelling) is the main ingredient that makes New Mexico food stand out, and is indigenous to North America. New Mexico Pueblo tribes have been cultivating chile, corn, beans and squash for millennia, and upon their arrival in 1540, the Spanish added it to their meals that included beef and cheese. Staples on New Mexico menus include beef and chicken enchiladas, tamales, carne adovada (red chile-marinated pork), burritos, huevos rancheros and chiles rellenos (green chiles stuffed with cheese then deep fried). Locals often enjoy an over-easy egg placed on top of their enchiladas. Calabacitas is a side dish of corn, squash, chile and beans. Spanish rice and refried beans are often served as sides as well. An Anglo influence is New Mexico's beloved green-chile cheeseburger and Frito pie (red chile poured over a bag of Fritos). The Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail is a list of restaurants vying for the best burger in the state. For traditional and newer New Mexico recipes, click here.

Chile is King

In New Mexico, chile goes beyond just being an ingredient. It is a symbol of state pride that adorns license plates that proclaim “Chile Capital of the World.” Technically a fruit, the chile is New Mexico’s official state vegetable (along with pinto beans, because you can’t have chile without frijoles. And, yes, beans are a legume, but anyway...). Beyond its cultural significance, chile is a $65 million industry in New Mexico and is the state’s number one cash crop.

Red or Green?

There are two types of chile - red and green - though they are actually one-in-the-same - red chile is just ripe green chile. The two have different tastes and uses, though, and which one is better and who makes the best are debated over many a New Mexico meal. Chile is grown throughout New Mexico, and some places such as Hatch are world-famous for their crop. When ordering a New Mexico plate, the server will ask "red or green?", in regard to what kind of chile the customer wants. This question is so prevalent that it was made the official state question in 1996. A favorite local answer is "Christmas," meaning both red and green. Green chile tends to be chunkier, and is often ladled on top of chicken-based meals, such as chicken enchiladas. Red chile is dried and ground up, making more of a sauce with a smoky flavor. It typically accompanies beef and pork-based meals, such as tamales. Color doesn’t determine which one is hotter. Learn more about chile at New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute.

Too Hot? Got Milk?

Chile’s heat comes from chemical compounds called capsaicinoids that also causes an endorphin rush, so those could be tears of joy. Good New Mexico chile should be flavorful with a bit of heat, but not flames-coming-from-your-ears hot. If your meal is too hot, milk or sour cream can cut the burn, as the fat bonds with and removes capsaicinoids from your mouth, whereas ice water can just spread the burn like a grease fire. Chile heat is rated in Scoville units. Bell peppers have 0 units and the world’s hot pepper, the Carolina Reaper, has 2,200,000 units. Typical New Mexico Anaheim chile range from 500 to 10,000 units.

Chile Ristras

Ristras (Ree-stras) are strings of red chile pods. This is a centuries-old method of drying red chile outside in the fall in order to make red chile powder. Beyond its practical purpose, ristras are a popular decoration and hung by New Mexico doorways year-round. Some ristras are shellacked to preserve them for the souvenir industry. You can purchase ristras here.

Roasting Green Chile

Green chile is roasted in order to blister the skin and make it easier to peel. Chile is poured into rotating tumblers that spin the chile over a flame. The chile is then poured into a plastic bag for peeling later. Removing the skin, seeds and stems is a favorite activity in New Mexico homes during the fall and heralds the beginning of harvest season and the coming holidays. Many find the smell of roasting chile an iconic New Mexico experience, and families often make a day out of purchasing, roasting and peeling chiles.

Posole

Posole (poh-SOH-lay) is a stew usually served in the fall and winter. It is a red-chile base with hominy corn, pork, garlic and vegetables to taste, and often topped with oregano. It is made in homes during the holidays and is a classic New Mexican comfort food. Check out a classic recipe here.

Hornos

Hornos (Or-knows) are beehive-shaped ovens made of adobe and cobblestones that have been used for centuries. It is believed that this design was introduced to New Mexico by the Spanish, who in turn learned it from the Moors. Hornos are still widely used throughout central and northern New Mexico, mostly at New Mexico’s 19 Native-American pueblos. Beyond being traditional, a horno is a very practical way to cook large amounts of food needed for pueblo feast days. They retain heat for a long period of time after the wood fire is removed, and allow for much more cooking room than conventional ovens. Horno bread and hand-held fruit pies are often made and sold to visitors near pueblos. Pictured is an horno at Taos Pueblo.

Biscochitos

Biscochitos (Biz-co-cheetos) is a favorite treat typically made around the holidays. It is a shortbread cookie with anise and is New Mexico’s official state cookie. Batches of biscochitos are often given as gifts.

Sopaipillas

Sopaipillas (Soap-a-pee-ahs) are a puffy fried dough served both with meals and as a dessert. For meals, they are served alongside tortillas and treated like bread. Many use them as a spoon to scoop up chile. Stuffed sopaipillas are meals in themselves, and filled with chile and meat. For dessert, they are served with honey. A corner is bitten off, and honey is poured inside.

New Mexico Wine?

You bet. In fact, New Mexico is the oldest wine-producing region in the United States. When Spanish priests arrived here in 1540 with Francisco Vazquez de Coronado and his conquistadores, they planted grapes in order to make sacramental wine. New Mexico’s hot days and cool nights make the perfect climate for growing grapes. It was Prohibition combined with flooding of the Rio Grande that squashed the wine industry here in the 1930s (officially). The art was forgotten until the 1970s when small vineyards were again planted. Today, those vines have matured wonderfully, and New Mexico wines frequently medal in national and international competitions. Large wineries such as Gruet call New Mexico home, as well as many smaller family operations that welcome visitors to their tasting rooms. Several New Mexico vineyards supplement California wineries. Check out this map of New Mexico’s Wine Trail for more information, and if you're in New Mexico in September, attend the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta.

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