Chile can be found everywhere in New Mexico: from highway signs welcoming you to the Land of Enchantment to dried red chile hanging along doorways to the smell of roasting chile in the fall to appearing on menus.
What is a chile, and why is it so ubiquitous here?
Chile is a Capsicum and a member of the nightshade family. Chile originated in the Americas, and were introduced to various parts of the world by traders. Don’t confuse a chile with a bell pepper or a jalapeno, and accept no imitations. Today, we’re talking about New Mexico’s own chile.
New Mexico green chile isn’t the hottest of the peppers – it comes in at 1,500 Scoville Heat Units on the Scoville Scale (Jalapeno is from 2,500 to 8,000 HSU and habanero from 100,000 to 350,000 SHU), but it is our favorite of the peppers and even holds the distinction of being New Mexico’s State Vegetable (an honor it shares with frijoles, or pinto beans).
Here in New Mexico you can taste chile in just about every food and drink imaginable. Chile is mixed with eggs for breakfast, incorporated into mashed potatoes and used on enchiladas, burritos and tamales. Chile is also used in wine, beer and even milk shakes.
A number of vitamins and minerals are found in chile peppers including calcium, iron, potassium, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and folic acid. In addition, research has found chile to help ease a variety of ailments.
So, which is it – chile or chili?
Here in New Mexico, we call our veggie “chile.” According to the Chile Pepper Institute, located on the New Mexico State University campus in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the word “chile” derived from the Aztec term “chili,” and Spanish-speaking Mexicans changed the spelling. The spelling “chile” was entered into the Congressional Record in the 1983 by U.S. Senator Pete Domenici. Just don’t spell our veggie with a capital “C,” as Chile is a country in South America.
Chili is either a meat or vegetarian dish usually made with beans, tomatoes and chili powder.
Red or Green? And, does it matter?
Red chile and green chile are the same plant, only red chile has had time to ripen and green chile has not. New Mexico’s green chile comes most famously from the southern area around Hatch, and the area around the northern community of Chimayo is known for its red chile.
Red chile has a more mellow and sweeter taste than green chile. So, when your waiter or waitress asks “red or green?” either answer is fine! And it’s okay to ask at a restaurant which chile is hotter and choose your preference. Want to try the both? Simply respond, “Christmas!”
Are ristras real chile?
Yes. Ristras, or strands of dried chile, are made from real chile. It is said that the tradition of stringing chile together and hanging the strands to dry the fruits was originally a Native American tradition. Chile were hung and dried in the fall and the chile eaten over the winter as a way to stay healthy. It is said that the length of the rista consumed over the winter should equal a person’s height. Be careful before serving up chile from your newly-purchased ristra – today, many decorative ones feature a non-edible coating.
So sit back with a glass of your favorite chile-infused drink and in front of a plate of your favorite chile meal and enjoy this New Mexico icon!