New Mexican cuisine: a food glossary

Locals mostly love it and most visitors want to try it. Northern New Mexican cuisine has a long and delicious history.  Here’s a glossary, in alphabetical order, of food terms that will help you when dining out in Santa Fe.

Biscochitos (also spelled bizcochitos) are the official New Mexico State Cookie. These anise flavored shortbread cookies are traditionally served at Christmas, weddings and other celebrations. Traditionally they used lard and purists still do, although, these days shortening and butter are frequently substituted.

Christmas Sauce Red and Green, photo Elizabeth Rose

Enchiladas smothered in red and green (aka “Christmas”) at The Shed, Santa Fe, photo/Elizabeth R. Rose

Blue corn enchiladas are traditional here and the New Mexican way is to stack and not roll. Then they are smothered with red of green chile (or both, known locally as Christmas).

Calabacitas, meaning “little squash,” is a New Mexican side dish made with yellow summer squash, corn and chile. Variations add onion, cheese and spices.

Caldillo (stew in English) is a thin stew made from green chiles and meat, traditionally pork and potatoes.

Carne Adovada is pork (usually shoulder) slow-cooked with a red chile chile. It is HOT but delicious, a New Mexican version of comfort food. Blue corn carne adovada blue corn enchiladas smothered in chile are divine.

Roasting chiles at farmers market

Green chiles roasting at the Santa Fe Farmers Market offer an enticing aroma, photo/Steve Collins

Chile is the New Mexico State Vegetable. It’s one of the the most basic ingredients in New Mexican cooking and it shows up in a lot of dishes. Both green and red chiles come from the same plant. Green chile, the unripened stage of the chile plant, is roasted, chopped and used in cooking. The whole chiles are also stuffed for chile rellenos. Red (the fully ripened pods) is traditionally dried and then either flaked (chile caribe) powdered (chile colorado). If left whole, they are either dried and bagged or made into ristras (hanging strings of dried red chiles). Both red and green chile can be made into a sauce also called “chile”. This is used to smother just about anything and everything. If both are on offer and you can’t decide if you want red or green, order “Christmas” and you’ll get some of each.

It’s official Frito Pie was invented at the former Woolworth’s, now the Five and Dime, in Santa Fe. Roadfood gurus, Jane and Michael Stern, affirm this in their new book, Lexicon of Real American Foodwhere they still serve it the original way: in the bag. A small bag of the Fritos is opened, topped with chile and shredded lettuce, onion, tomato and cheese. Many places serve it heaped in a bowl or on a plate, but there’s something special about eating it out of the bag. Full disclosure: some naysayers say it originated in Texas.

New Mexico food Bobcat Bite Green Chile Cheeseburger, photo Steve Collins

Bobcat Bite’s famous Green Chile Cheeseburger, photo/Steve Collins

Green chile cheeseburgers are are a basic burger, topped with roasted, chopped New Mexican green chile and cheese. Fresh-ground meat makes the best ones. They can be found everywhere in New Mexico including national fast food chains. The now defunct Bert’s Burger Bowl, opened in 1954, claimed to have been the first to serve them in Santa Fe. The Owl Café in San Antonio in southern NM claims to have invented them for Manhattan Project scientists who were working at the Trinity Sitet, where the first atomic bomb was tested at the end of WWII. If New Mexico has a signature food, this is it.

Menudo is a spicy stew made with beef tripe. For the uninitiated, tripe is the cow’s stomach lining. It’s not for the squeamish! The tripe, which is a white and a bit spongy, is cooked with chile and posole (a corn product similar to hominy). It’s a popular hangover cure in New Mexico.

Piñon is the nut from the piñon, a pine tree that grows in the high desert. The nuts, harvested from the cones, are used in cooking and baking. You’ll also smell the fragrance of burning piñon wood in the air during cold months. It’s a uniquely New Mexican aroma.

Posole (also pozole) is a corn and meat stew traditionally served at the holiday in New Mexico. It is usually made with pork but is often made with chicken. The corn kernels for posole are soaked in powered lime and water and then dried. As real posole can be hard to find outside of New Mexico and Mexico, hominy is sometimes substituted. As a holiday specialty it’s served with freshly made caribe, a sauce made from whole red chiles

Stuffed spoailla

Stuffed sopailla smothered in red at Rancho de Chimayo Restaurante, photo/Elizabeth Rose

Sopapaillas are a fried, puffy pastry. They can be stuffed with meat or chicken and smothered with chile, served as a side at a meal or eaten for dessert. They are great when accompanied with honey.

New Mexico Culinary Liaison and cookbook author, Cheryl Alters Jamison, rounds out our list with a couple Northern New Mexican food terms. She added:

Albondigas, the local version of meatballs, are often made with blue corn and mint. They are usually served in a broth laced with chile.

Natillas is a traditional New Mexican custard-like dessert is similar to flan but because it’s made with more milk and less eggs it’s got a thinner, less silky texture.

These are just a few of the terms that represent the unique experience of Northern New Mexico’s contribution to regional American cuisine.

There are New Mexican Restaurants on the New Mexico Culinary Treasures Trail for your Santa Fe dining pleasure. There other  Northern New Mexico restaurants around the state on the list too.



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9 Responses to “New Mexican cuisine: a food glossary”

  1. Jim O'Donnell
    October 7, 2019 at 9:12 am #

    Oh no. I’m HUNGRY now!!!

    • Billie Frank
      October 7, 2019 at 4:47 pm #

      Just look at the photos you took at Guadalajara Grill and go with the memories! And you’ll always have Orlando’s.

  2. Tofu Mom (Marti)
    August 13, 2019 at 5:11 pm #

    This article has several errors.
    First: Red and green chile sauces are somewhat different from each other but are made from the same chile in different forms.
    Green chile sauce is made with roasted green chiles that are roasted, peeled and chopped and mixed into a (usually, traditionally) chunky sauce.
    The red chile sauce is made with the ripe, mature chiles which have turned red - they are still called “green chiles” and are still the same plant: The ripe chiles are roasted and ground, sometimes with additional spices for a smooth puree-type red chile sauce.
    The two sauces, when served together, are called “Christmas”. Locals do not call ANYTHING “red and green chile”, for the record.
    Also, why would you picture a burger with a poblano pepper and call it a “green chile cheeseburger”?
    Green Chile cheeseburgers are almost sacred - to bear the title “Green Chile Cheeseburger”, they MUST contain genuine New Mexico Green Chiles on them.
    Also, your article fails to mention either tamales or Green Chile Stew, both of which are synonymous with New Mexican cooking. This should be well known by anyone truly familiar with the cuisine of New Mexico…

    • Billie Frank
      August 14, 2019 at 9:17 pm #

      I took a careful look at your comments. As a result, I did a little updating on the post to make some things clearer. For the record: the comment about NM green and red was meant to mean that there are two kinds of chile: green and red. It wasn’t meant to imply that someone would order it that way if they lived here. The post said if you have both together, it’s “Christmas.”

      Re: what the plant is called- I called the New Mexico Chile Institute today to check on that. The person I spoke with said that the plant is called “New Mexico Chile.” There are many different varieties of the New Mexico Chile. The green and red peppers are different stages of the chile plant. According to the experts, it’s not called the “green chile plant.”

      As to why we pictured the poblano burger- that’s the photo we had on hand at the time- it actually noted it was all cooked on the grill. We love grilled chiles and you can’t do that with the chopped version. It didn’t occur to me that it would be an issue and until yesterday, it wasn’t. We’ve replaced it with a photo of the iconic Green Chile Cheeseburger from Bobcat Bite.

      I didn’t “fail to mention” anything. They aren’t in there and now that you’ve brought this to my attention, when I have a moment, I may add them. They are important to the local cuisine, but so are a lot of other foods. This is not a definitive guide to NM foods. That would be a book. Perhaps, what you perceive as our lacks will motivate you to write a better one. That’s great! While we don’t claim to be experts in New Mexican cuisine, we’ve been eating it and reading about it for years. We just have a different take on it than you do. Viva la difference!

  3. Pamela Ortiz
    January 28, 2019 at 1:01 pm #

    Great article. I’m from Santa Fe but I live in Los Angeles so explaining New Mexican cuisine can be hard at times so your photos and glossary is perfect. Thank you.
    PS. you might want to add carne secca..LOL When my boss saw some that my folks sent to me…he said, “people eat that?”. LOL Yep they sure do.

    • Billie Frank
      January 28, 2019 at 1:22 pm #

      Thanks! Never heard of carne seca which sounds like dried meat. What is it?

      • Pamela Ortiz
        January 28, 2019 at 4:46 pm #

        Yes, several places in Santa Fe and Espanola sell carne secca or as the whites say beef jerky. You can buy in different flavors but its not like the beef jerkey you find in grocery stores. It’s hand made…and some have either red chili or green chili marinated in the meat. A must try! Very yummy. Its like pinion…everyone roasts & salt it and eat as a snack. Same with carne secca, its a snack.


        • Pamela Ortiz
          January 28, 2019 at 4:47 pm #

          Meant homemade 🙂

        • Billie Frank
          January 28, 2019 at 6:24 pm #

          I’ve seen people selling it along the road. Didn’t know it was considered an NM dish. Thanks for the info. I’m not a jerky fan so not sure whether I’ll try it or not.

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