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New Mexico’s Love Affair with Chiles
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  • States:
    New Mexico

In New Mexico, regional pride is rooted in local crops of chile peppers.

As such, the fervor is always hot. For example, the northern town of Chimayó is home to rare “native chiles” that are held near-sacred, their seeds passed along like secrets. Journey south to Hatch, New Mexico, and locals will seek to persuade you that their chiles are superior with the aroma of roasting peppers. Sample both and join the debate. At the least, be prepared to answer the question “Red or green?” Your response determines whether red or green chile sauce accents your meal. Answer “Christmas” for a taste of both.

Chiles Across New Mexico

In Chimayó, pocket-sized fields and markets hint at the elusiveness of the native chiles and small, twisted peppers. When ripe, the peppers are commonly dried and ground into molido, the foundational seasoning of red chile sauce and red posole, a traditional soup of hominy and pork. Chimayó chiles may also be eaten green and roasted.

Tucked in the valley of the Rio Grande, Hatch calls itself the “Chile Capital of the World.” The chiles include mild-to-hot green varieties and their red counterparts, which are matured and mellowed to a sweeter taste. Red peppers are used sundried or in sauces. Greens have distinct names like the Big Jim, sized right for regional dishes such as chiles rellenos (peppers that are stuffed, battered and fried).

But to get closest to the source, come when vendors roast the peppers on the spot, heaping them into hessian sacks; when the aroma of peppers roasting fills the air and the valley celebrates the harvest — that’s when you want to be here. Arrive in late August or early September to catch the Hatch Chile Festival, which takes place around Labor Day weekend, the first Monday in September.


Ulterior Epicure

For a taste of both red and green chiles, order your tacos, burritos or enchiladas "Christmas style," so you get both flavors in one!


Green or red in hue, the chile is a staple and a springboard for regional cooks and chefs. Beyond your morning eggs, presented here as rustic huevos rancheros, and the salsas, stews and enchiladas that delight your palate, seek out playful presentations such as the green chile cheeseburger.

If your culinary preferences skew spicy, there are additional offerings you’ll want to try across the U.S. Salsa, in varying degrees of heat, has more fans than ketchup these days. Sriracha, ubiquitous in Asian restaurants worldwide, is a culinary rock star in the United States. Made in California using orange and red jalapeno peppers grown on a local farm, it works on anything from pho to tacos. And buffalo-style recipes — chicken wings, fried shrimp — scream of cayenne, quieted by the accompanying blue cheese dressing.


Ways to “Spice Up” Your Travels around the USA

The green chile cheeseburger is a popular New Mexican specialty, so much so that it now has its own trail (New Mexico’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail). Follow it for spiced-up burgers and classic Southwest sightseeing.

On Louisiana’s wild Avery Island, see pepper fields and tour the factory where the famous, vinegary Tabasco sauce originates.

Around the U.S., spicy peppers are invading cocktails, often being paired with fresh fruit for a sweet-hot finish.