In New Mexico, chile is far more than a spicy condiment. It’s an integral part of New Mexico meals, and New Mexico culture itself. When ordering cuisine in Albuquerque or Santa Fe, chances are good that you’ll be asked the state question, “Red or green?” This refers to what kind of chile you would like. Can’t decide which to get? Order your plate “Christmas,” a mix of both red and green chile.
Green and red chile are the same fruit; red is ripe and tends to have a smokier flavor. Green chiles are typically roasted to blister the skin off, then deseeded and chopped. Green chile can be added straight to meals, including cheeseburgers, or added to a stew of broth with vegetables and/or meat, usually pork. Red chile is usually sun-dried, and is often tied into strings called ristras that also serve as a ubiquitous decoration throughout New Mexico. Once the chile pods are dried, they are crushed into a powder that can then be made into as a sauce.
Chiles turn red when ripe — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Which one is hotter varies from season to season depending on rainfall and temperatures; ask your server. To be safe, order your chile on the side with sour cream or milk to cut the heat. The chemical compound that gives chile peppers their heat, capsaicin, isn't soluble in water, but it is in fat from milk products or guacamole. Alcohol helps, too, and it never hurts to have a beer or margarita at the ready if your chile is particularly spicy.
New Mexico chiles aren't grown for heat. Many varieties, such as the common Big Jim, are low on the Scoville Chart, and instead are valued for their size and meatiness. Green chiles are often stuffed with cheese and deep fried to make chiles rellenos, a classic New Mexico dish.
Red chile pods for sale in Corrales, N.M. — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Because they come from a pollinated flower and contain seeds, chiles (like tomatoes) are technically a fruit. Chile is indigenous to the Caribbean and Central and South America (the word chile comes from the Nahuatl word "chilli"), and the Spanish brought it north to New Mexico when they first entered here in 1540. The Spanish called them “peppers” because of the similar kick of black pepper. The peppers of this time were small and hot. In relatively isolated communities in northern New Mexico such as Chimayo, these original strains of peppers can still be found, and efforts are underway to keep them from going extinct.
Ristras are red chiles tied to together to dry. They also make a common New Mexico decoration — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Chile lovers will tell you that nothing compares to New Mexico-grown chile. The soil here, combined with hot days and–er–chilly nights, creates the right conditions for the perfect chile pepper. The small town of Hatch in southern New Mexico proudly calls itself the Chile Capital of the World, and that title has yet to be challenged. Chiles have been New Mexico’s official state vegetable since 1965 (along with the pinto bean). Here, chile is spelled with the “e” as opposed to ending in “i,” which designated the meat and bean Texas-style dish.
Ripe chiles in the field — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
In July 2012, New Mexico enacted a law that any chile sold labeled as being New Mexico-grown must have been grown in New Mexico itself. According to the New Mexico Chile Association, chile is a $400 million industry for New Mexico, and like Idaho Potatoes or Florida Oranges, New Mexico wants to protect its name and crop from out-of-state competitors.
The crop is so important to the state that New Mexico State University in Las Cruces has established the Chile Pepper Institute, where chiles are studied for everything from food and medicine to weapons. Chile is being researched for a possible role in cancer treatment, and many pepper sprays use chile powder. Chile also has one of the highest levels of Vitamin C found in produce. The next time you're enjoying a plate of green chile enchiladas or bowl of red chile stew, you really are eating for your health.