Until visiting Albuquerque, I had never heard of New Mexican cuisine. It features a blending of Spanish, Mexican and Native Pueblo Indian flavors and cooking techniques, with an emphasis on the “Three Sisters” of beans, corn and squash, as well as New Mexico’s most iconic food, chiles. (Fun fact: New Mexico is the only state to have an official state question, “Red or green?” which refers to whether you want red or green chile with your meal.)
The Truth About Chiles
One common misconception is that green and red chiles are two separate varieties of chiles. In reality, the pepper is green when it is younger, turning yellow and then red as it ripens. That being said, the preparation for green and red chile tends to differ. Red chiles are typically dried, rehydrated then puréed into sauce to enhance dishes like tamales, enchiladas and rancheros. On the other hand, green chiles are usually picked fresh to be roasted (nothing beats the smell of chiles roasting, a smell that permeates the air in New Mexico during harvest season), peeled and chopped or stuffed. If they are not used immediately, green chiles should be frozen to retain their freshness. You’ll often find green chiles made into a salsa verde and poured over enchiladas and burritos, although it’s not uncommon to find them baked into breads, presented on top of cheeseburgers, made into green chile stew, emptied and stuffed with cheese, or chopped and added into various recipes.
So, what are some typical dishes one should try when visiting New Mexico? Start your meal off with a green chile stew. While different restaurants will put their own spin on the recipe by adding certain meats and vegetables, the basic recipe features a base of roasted, peeled and chopped green chile, potatoes, tomatoes, onion, garlic and cubed pork for a spicy and hearty starter. Posole is another great soup option, a spicy corn-based dish with pork, chile pods and spices. For dips, common appetizers are guacamole—made fresh and served chilled—and chile con queso, a mixture of green chiles and gooey melted cheese.
There are many delicious entrées to sample when eating New Mexican fare. Carne adovada is one, featuring pork stewed in a red chile sauce. At Albuquerque’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s Pueblo Harvest Cafe you can sample a unique carne adovada-based breakfast with a native Pueblo twist by ordering Chackewe con Huevos. The dish features a blue cornmeal mush, a staple of the traditional Pueblo diet due to its high nutrient and zinc content. The mush is topped with carne adovada, eggs, cheddar cheese and tomatoes—and of course your choice or red or green chile—and tastes best when you mix everything together to blend the different flavors and textures.
Another must-try meal in New Mexico is chile relleno, a green chile pepper stuffed with cheddar cheese or queso fresco that is lightly dipped in cornmeal batter and golden fried. No trip to New Mexico would be complete without sampling a stuffed sopaipilla, a fried pastry filled with items like refried beans, ground beef, beef brisket, shredded chicken and/or carne adovada. Make it a dessert by taking a hot sopaipilla, biting off an end, and filling it with sweet honey. Pastel de chile verde should also be added to your menu, a green chile pie containing whole green chiles, cheese, olives, tomatoes and spices like garlic, black pepper, cumin and onion. Tamales, chalupas, tacos, tostadas, burritos and enchilladas are also common menu items you’ll find at New Mexican eateries.
A Quirky Trail
For a quirky New Mexican culinary experience, drive the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. The route allows you to sample the best of one of the state’s most iconic dishes, a hearty burger gowned in spicy green chiles. There are almost 100 stops on the trail, which takes you through cities like Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Gallup and Roswell. We recommend wearing sweatpants for this excursion.
*This post was originally published on Travel + Escape