Northern New Mexicans are serious about eating, and the area's cuisine reflects the amalgam of cultural influences found here. Locals have given their unique blend of Hispanic and Pueblo recipes a rather prosaic, but direct, label: "Northern New Mexico Cuisine."
Food here isn't the same as Mexican cuisine or even variations like Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex. New Mexican cooking is a product of Southwestern history: Native Americans taught the Spanish conquerors about corn -- how to roast it and how to make corn pudding, stewed corn, cornbread, cornmeal, and posole (hominy) -- and they also taught the Spanish how to use chile peppers, a crop indigenous to the New World, having been first harvested in the Andean highlands as early as 4000 B.C. The Spaniards brought the practice of eating beef to the area.
Waves of newcomers have introduced other elements to the food here. From Mexico came the interest in seafood. You'll find fish tacos on many menus as well as shrimp enchiladas and ceviche (or seviche; chilled fish marinated in lime juice). New Southwestern cuisine combines elements from various parts of Mexico, such as sauces from the Yucatán Peninsula, and fried bananas served with bean dishes, typical of Costa Rica and other Central American locales. You'll also find Asian elements mixed in, such as pot stickers in a tortilla soup.
The basic ingredients of northern New Mexican cooking are three indispensable, locally grown foods: chile, beans, and corn. Of these, perhaps the most crucial is the chile, whether brilliant red or green and with various levels of spicy bite. Chiles form the base for the red and green sauces that top most northern New Mexico dishes such as enchiladas and burritos. One is not necessarily hotter than the other; spiciness depends on the type and where and during what kind of season (dry or wet) the chiles were grown. You'll also find salsas, generally made with jalapeños, tomatoes, onions, and garlic, used for chip dipping and as a spice on tacos.
Beans -- spotted or painted pinto beans with a nutty taste -- are simmered with garlic, onion, cumin, and red chile powder and served as a side dish. When mashed and refried in oil, they become frijoles refritos. Corn supplies the vital dough for tortillas and tamales called masa. New Mexican corn comes in six colors, of which yellow, white, and blue are the most common.
Even if you're familiar with Mexican cooking, the dishes you know and love are likely to be prepared differently here. The following is a rundown of some regional dishes, a number of which aren't widely known outside the Southwest:
biscochito -- A cookie made with anise.
carne adovada -- Tender pork marinated in red chile sauce, herbs, and spices, and then baked.
chile rellenos -- Peppers stuffed with cheese, deep-fried, and then covered with green chile sauce.
chorizo burrito (also called a "breakfast burrito") -- Mexican sausage, scrambled eggs, potatoes, and scallions wrapped in a flour tortilla with red or green chile sauce and melted Jack cheese.
empanada -- A fried pie with nuts and currants.
enchiladas -- Tortillas either rolled or layered with chicken, beef, or cheese, topped with chile sauce.
fajitas -- Strips of beef or chicken sautéed with onions, green peppers, and other vegetables and served on a sizzling platter.
green chile stew -- Locally grown chiles cooked in a stew with chunks of meat, beans, and potatoes.
huevos rancheros -- Fried eggs on corn tortillas, topped with cheese and red or green chile, served with pinto beans.
pan dulce -- A sweet Native American bread.
posole -- A corn soup or stew (called hominy in other parts of the South), sometimes prepared with pork and chile.
sopaipilla -- A lightly fried puff pastry served with honey as a dessert or stuffed with meat and vegetables as a main dish. Sopaipillas with honey have a cooling effect on your palate after you've eaten a spicy dish.
tacos -- Spiced chicken or beef served either in soft tortillas or crispy shells.
tamales -- A dish made from cornmeal mush, wrapped in husks and steamed.
vegetables and nuts -- Unusual local ingredients, such as piñon nuts, jicama, and prickly pear cactus, will often be a part of your meals.
You Say Chili, We Say Chile
You'll never see "chili" on a menu in New Mexico. New Mexicans are adamant that chile, the Spanish spelling of the word, is the only way to spell it -- no matter what your dictionary might say.
In fact, we have such a personal attachment to this small agricultural gem that in 1983, we directed our senior U.S. senator, Pete Domenici, to enter New Mexico's official position on the spelling of chile into the Congressional Record. That's taking your chiles seriously.
Chiles are grown throughout the state, in a perfect climate for cultivating and drying the small but powerful red and green varieties. But it is the town of Hatch, in southern New Mexico, that bills itself as the "Chile Capital of the World." Regardless of where you travel in the state, chiles appear on the menu. Usually you'll be asked whether you prefer red or green. Your best bet is to inquire which, on that particular day in that particular restaurant, is hottest and tastiest and make your decision based on the answer. If you can't decide, just say, "Christmas," and you'll get both.
Virtually anything you order in a restaurant is likely to be topped with a chile sauce. If you're not accustomed to spicy foods, certain varieties will make your eyes water, your sinuses drain, and your palate feel as if it's on fire -- all after just one forkful. Warning: No amount of water or beer will alleviate the sting. (Drink milk or eat a sopaipilla drizzled with honey.)
But don't let these words of caution scare you away from genuine New Mexico chiles. The pleasure of eating them far outweighs the pain. Start slow, with salsas and chile sauces first, perhaps rellenos (stuffed peppers) next. Before long, you'll be buying chile ristras (chiles strung on rope) and hanging them up for decoration. Perhaps you'll be so smitten that you'll purchase bags of chile powder or a chile plant to take home.
If you happen to be in New Mexico in the fall, you'll find chile roasting in tumblers in the parking lots of most grocery stores and at some roadside stands, the sweet, singed scent filling the air. If you have a means of freezing the chile before transporting it home, you can sample the delicacy throughout the year. This will certainly make you an expert on the difference between chile and chili.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.