Common throughout New Mexico are seen strings of chile peppers hanging from porch rafters and along walls. As the peppers dry they turn a vibrant red. A cheerful color during the autumn and winter months. The dried pods will later be soaked in water, made into a paste and simmered for hours adding flavor and substance for meals, long past the harvest.
A ristra is a string of dried garlic, onion or chile peppers. The stems of garlic can be used to form a braid for the string or as with chile they are tied or sewn in small bunches to a central cord.
Chile is part of an old culture, an ancient way of life. The ancestral origin of chile was probably in the area of Bolivia and Peru. Originally the Americas were the only place chile was found. It had been domesticated there for 7,000 years. Since the introduction of chile to Europe by Columbus, it spread rapidly along the spice trade routes to Africa and Asia. Now a quarter of the world’s population eat hot chile every day.
Faith and food are two traditions that have sustained the people of New Mexico for generations. Once a subsistence economy, many of the old customs retain a place in society today. Early settlers planted their own food, raised livestock and depended on natural resources for their sustenance. Fruit, corn, beans and chile could be preserved for future meals by drying in the sun. People today purchase most of their commodities but the custom of hanging chile ristras to dry still persists.
Considered the states signature crop, chile peppers are a basis for a complex and differentiated industry. The industry contributes much to the economy (5th in agricultural products) and employs numerous workers in manual farm labor, processing, value added products, marketing and other areas. According to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture nearly 3.05 million dollars of chile was exported to the world in 2018. Small farms and farmers markets that sell fresh chile and chile ristras are an important part in the local economy of small towns.
A welcoming doorway with chile ristra at the Randall R. Davies Audubon Center in Santa Fe, NM.
Green garland from the forest, red ristras from the farm add festive decoration to this southwestern home during the holidays.
Many types of peppers were first grown by Pueblo people, who continue to grow their own peppers, each with a distinctive taste. Different locations produce different flavors in chile. Chimayo for instance is known for a chile that is pungent, smoky and a high heat value. Other places will grow a pepper that has mild or sweet qualities.
The New Mexico chile as we know it was developed by pioneer horticulturist Fabian Garcia. Working with the New Mexico University Agriculture Department Garcia began a series of groundbreaking experiments in the late 1800s. He wanted to develop a more standardized chile pepper to help boost opportunities for New Mexico farmers. In 1913 he released ‘New Mexico #9’. The first variety with dependable pod size and heat level. Fabian Garcia is now highly regarded as the father of the NM chile industry.
Hatch, NM in the southern Rio Grande valley is the center of chile production in the state. Hatch green chile has become synonymous with ‘New Mexico #9’ and is in demand across the United States and prized around the world.
New Mexico chile – Nothing compares.
Simple recipe for NM red chile sauce: courtesy of Tomasita’s Restaurant, a Santa Fe favorite.
- 12 ounces dried whole New Mexico red chile pods, stemmed and deseeded
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon granulated garlic, or 3 cloves fresh garlic crushed
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more if desired
- Rinse the chile pods 5 times, then let soak in water in a bucket or large bowl for 5 hours or so.
- After the chiles have soaked for 5 hours, discard the water. Put the chile pods in a blender. Tamp the pods down into the blender, then add water to the top. Blend well into a paste.
- Put the paste in a large saucepan over medium heat.
- Make a roux. Put the oil in a saucepan, over medium heat, heat up slightly, add the flour and stir constantly. The flour should get toasted and brown, but do not burn it, about 5 minutes.
- Drizzle the roux into the red chili and mix to combine. This will make it thicker and change the color slightly, but it should not get white in color. The chili and liquid should just look darker and less bright than the red chili without any roux. Add enough roux and water to get the chili to the right consistency, which should be like gravy. You may not use all the roux.
- Add the garlic and salt. Leave the chili in the pot to simmer for 20 minutes, stirring regularly. Do NOT bring it to a boil, as that may burn the flour in the roux. Add more salt and garlic if needed and serve.
Serve hot over potatoes, eggs, beans, smothered burritos and more.
Till next time, Bon Appetit.