The state of New Mexico loves chile peppers. New Mexicans hang strings of dried red chiles called ristras in front of their houses for decoration, good fortune, and a steady supply of cooking ingredients; the annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta (the largest hot air balloon event in the world) often features an enormous ristra-shaped balloon; local gift shops sell chile pepper curios in every conceivable configuration.
New Mexico is the largest grower of chile peppers in the United States, so it is not surprising that the New Mexico chile forms the basis for the state’s distinctive cuisine. Many items found on New Mexico menus may seem at first glance to be similar to well-known Mexican and southwestern dishes—enchiladas, tamales, fajitas, guacamole, chiles rellenos, huevos rancheros, burritos or tacos—but the use of chiles, in nearly everything but the desserts, sets New Mexican cuisine apart.
In other parts of the southwest, like Texas and Arizona, chile powders, created from crushed dried chiles, are used to create sauces by mixing them with chicken or beef broth and thickening them with flour if necessary. In New Mexico, fresh green or red chiles are simmered and naturally reduced to create an entirely different kind of sauce. The tendency in New Mexico in a cooked red chile sauce is not to add tomatoes. Chiles are an ingredient in New Mexico; elsewhere they act more as a condiment.
Even the salsa enjoyed in New Mexico with tortilla chips is a little different; it will more likely contain chopped Hatch chiles rather than the more common jalapeños. The one point in common New Mexico cuisine has with its neighbors is the use of flour and corn tortillas, produced by local factories in immense quantities.
Typical New Mexican specialties include:
- Posole, a stew that begins with the dried corn product itself called “posole.” Native-Americans discovered before European involvement in the region that soaking corn kernels in a lime solution (made from ashes) would break down the outer hull of the kernel and hence make the corn protein more bio-available (they did not use those terminologies of course). The cook soaks the posole overnight, then simmers with pork, onions, garlic, oregano and chiles to make an economical and highly nutritious stew.
- Green Chile Stew: small chunks of pork stewed with onions, potatoes, garlic and green chiles.
- Red Chile Stew: many recipes, all using dried red chiles (the kind used for the ristra) that have been soaked in hot water to soften before being pureed with spices and aromatics like onions and garlic.
- Calabacitas: corn and squash (both native American staples), simmered with chiles.
- Carne Adovada: pork marinated in a red chili sauce with onion, garlic, coriander, Mexican oregano and vinegar. Available as a main dish, side dish, filling for a burrito, in restaurants, in supermarkets, all over the state.
- Sopaipillas: dough fritters that when deep fried puff up into squares, hollow inside. Sopaipillas are frequently enjoyed stuffed with meats, chiles, refried beans, or other combinations, or consumed alone as an accompaniment to main courses, in which case they are often eaten with a few drops of honey.
In addition to the use of local chiles in nearly every dish, New Mexican cuisine is also said to use more cilantro, and less cumin, than neighboring cuisines.
New Mexico has a number of indigenous Native American pueblos and recognized tribes, as well as small rural communities that enjoy special status originally granted by the Spanish crown many centuries ago. Each of these communities has its own variety of posole, green chile stew, and all the other favorites.
It would be tempting to think that New Mexicans take occasional breaks from chile-based eating, but even hot dogs and hamburgers may be served slathered with chile and served with side orders of refried beans and guacamole. A number of high-end restaurants in the state’s capital Santa Fe make liberal use of the traditional ingredients in their contemporary American fusion offerings. Among top-level contemporary American chefs even outside of the state, New Mexico chiles are highly prized.