Its called “green chile”

Author’s note: Chile is New Mexico’s official State Vegetable. Green chile is the unripened plant roasted and used in cooking. These days, you can freeze the roasted chile and use it all year round. Red, the ripened chile is dried and used directly from ristras or in powdered form.

It’s amazing how misunderstood New Mexican cuisine is. Yes, I said “New Mexican”. There’s  a very distinctive traditional local food heritage here. It’s greatly influenced by the foods that the Pueblo peoples were cultivating at the time the first Spanish arrived, as well as the foods brought here by the Spanish settlers who arrived from Mexico over 400 years ago, and chile which the Spanish colonists settlers brought with them from Mexico. The original foods cultivated by the Pueblo people were the “Three sisters,” corn, squash, and beans.

Traditional corn at Acoma Sky City photo Steve Collins

Corn, one of the Pueblo people’s traditional crops is still grown at Acoma Sky City, photo/Steve Collins

Many local residents have pet peeves when it comes to misconceptions about traditional New Mexican food.  I wanted some input and posed the question about theirs to my local Facebook friends. They pretty much echoed my thoughts. Here are five things we really want you to know about our food and dining out here.

It’s called “green CHILE”

Bushels of green chile for sale at the Santa Fe Farmers Market

Bushels of green chile for sale at the Santa Fe Farmers Market phoot/Steve Colllins

In 2013, USA Today’readers voted to name Albuquerque, NM’s “green chile sauce” number one in their best iconic American foodsurvey.   That’s a great honor but, it’s not “green chile sauce.” It’s “GREEN CHILE,” just plain green chile, hold the sauce, please. And there’s also a red version. If you ask to have your food smothered in green chile sauce, nothing you can do after that,  even requesting “Christmas” (if you want to try both red and green) the way many articles on the local cuisine advise, they’ll know you aren’t from New Mexico. And the other thing is it’s “chile” not “chili,” and while there may be meat in it (usually pork) it’s never “con carne.” That’s Tex-Mex speak.

 It’s not MEXICAN, it’s NEW Mexican

Farmer Matt Romero roasting greem chiles at the Santa Fe Farmers Market

Matt Romero of Romero Farms roasting green chiles, photo/Steve Collins

People who visit don’t seem to realize that we have our own New Mexican Cuisine. They always want to try the “local Mexican food”. The local food IS Ne w Mexican. We haven’t been part of Mexico since for almost 200 years and even before that, there was a distinct New Mexican cuisine developed by Spanish Colonial settlers. It even varies regionally withing the state. While there are similarities, tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tamales and more, they are prepared differently here. New Mexican food relies heavily on “the three sisters,” the native Pueblo peoples were able to cultivate in New Mexico’s dry, arid, high desert soil. Add chiles, which the Spanish brought with them from Mexico and you have the four primary ingredients to that form the core of traditional local diet along with pork, beef and chicken.

Don’t send your food back because it’s too hot

Carne adovado smothered in New Mexico red chile at Ranchos Plaza Grill, Ranchos de Taos, photo/Steve Collins

Carne adovado at Ranchos Plaza Grill, Ranchos de Taos, photo/Steve Collins

If you aren’t used to spicy food, ask for a taste of the chile before you get your food smothered in it or ask for it on the side. They don’t take food back around here because it’s “too hot.” Even if you’ve had it on other visits here, taste it. Each year’s chile crop has different heat levels. It has to do with soil conditions, moisture levels and even when the chile was picked. Restaurant menus often warn you that they won’t take the food back, but sometimes you’ll miss the fine print. Err on the side of caution.

Sour cream is for gringos

New Mexico grown chile rristras made from dried red chilesfor for sale at a roadside stand

Ristras (strings of dried chiles) for sale at a roadside stand photo/Steve Collins

Traditionally, sour cream is not served with New Mexican food. That’s more of a Tex-Mex thing. According to Florence Jaramillo, owner of Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante opened in 1965, they are getting more requests for sour cream than ever before. Until I got used to the heat of New Mexico chile I was one of those sour cream eaters.

Order a soft-shelled taco

The Shed in Santa Fe is known for New Mexican cuisine and its red chile

The Shed iserving New Mexican cuisine, since 1952 is known for its chile photo//Steve Collins

In New Mexico, as in our neighbor to the south, locals eat soft-shelled tacos. While you will find the hard-shelled version in some New Mexican restaurants, go native. Depending on the restaurant, they may come in flour, corn and blue corn varieties. Where did the popular hard-shelled version originate? According the San Francisco Weekly, the pre-formed hard taco shell originated at Taco Bell.

Now that you know the dos and don’ts of New Mexico cuisine and green chile, visit one of the local restaurants specializing in local “home cooking” the way grandma used to make it.

If you have a pet green chile or other chile peeve we didn’t mention, we’d love to hear it.

Read more about New Mexican food:
Searching for the perfect Santa Fe breakfast burrito
7 great Santa Fe restaurants to start your day
New Mexico cuisine: comfort on snowy day




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6 Responses to “Its called “green chile””

  1. Alouise
    September 16, 2019 at 10:08 pm #

    I haven’t been to New Mexico, but it’s definitely a state I’d love to visit. I love trying local cuisine, but I was never really sure how New Mexican food differed from Mexican food or Tex Mex, so this post was very interesting. I like the tip about the chiles. It never really occurred to me that the spiciness could vary from year to year, but it makes complete sense.

    • Billie Frank
      September 17, 2019 at 9:18 am #

      Come visit! Actually, when we were writing this post it occurred to us that we need to write one that really addresses the differences between New Mex, Tes-Mex and Mexican. It’s on our growing list.

  2. Suzanne Castillo Devlin
    May 8, 2019 at 2:51 pm #

    Wrong about where the hard shell taco originated. It absolutely was not Taco Bell. I was born in Belen, NM but grew up in S. California. In 1953 we had a young woman who lived with us and who worked for my mother. She was from Chihuahua, Mexico and she used to cook for us and made us the crispy tacos. She made them from pork or beef, lettuce, salsa and Mexican crumbly cheese. It was “cotija” cheese, if memory serves me well. Taco Bell has always made their tacos with very thin shells while the authentic Mexican tacos were made with the thicker corn tortillas or soft with flour or corn tortillas. Tacos vary from region to region in Mexico as they do here in the states. Jalisco is different from Chihuahua and the West Coast is often different from the East Coast though in recent years more Mexican have moved all around and authentic food from Mexico is more common. I love both soft and hard fried. Hey, variety is good. In New Mexico we eat chile. In Texas, they celebrate “chili” but also eat chile, especially in W. Texas. I live in Oregon now but I still cook classic New Mexico style because that’s what my mother did and it is the best: green chile stew, sopaipillas, sweet chile rellenos, empanadas, calabacitas, pastelitos, natillas. Okay, this is not good. I’m hungry!

    • Billie Frank
      May 9, 2019 at 3:37 pm #

      Great information, thanks for sharing. I ws just quoting the LA times. I have no idea where the hard taco originated- was just quoting the LA Times.

      • Suzanne Castillo Devlin
        May 9, 2019 at 6:07 pm #

        It was my pleasure, Billie. If you’re a mother to anyone or anything, I hope you have a wonderful day tomorrow. If you’re not a mother, I still hope you have a great day. Understand I have sons but also have dogs and they think I’m their mother as well. I’m not expecting flowers from Ruby, Pear, Ginger or Angus though. Perhaps just a wag of their tails.

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