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New Mexico Food Lexicon

Green chiles

Photo Bobbie Hasselbring.

Food has a language of its own. There are even books with culinary definitions. Northern New Mexico has a food lexicon of its own. While many terms may be the same as those used in Mexican food, some are not regularly heard beyond the state’s borders. Even common Mexican foods are often prepared with unique regional flare in the Land of Enchantment. Many of the words are in Spanish, but English filters in as well.

Food terms can vary around the state. In Santa Fe and the surrounding area you’ll encounter Northern New Mexican-style food. The first thing to know about this unique cuisine is that it’s largely chile based – read: “hot.” It embraces the three foods the Spanish found the indigenous peoples cultivating when they first arrived in the late 16th century: corn, squash and beans, known locally as “the three sisters.”

New Mexican cuisine differs from the Mexican and Tex-Mex food that many Americans are accustomed to. There are even regional differences within the state. While the local fare has some things in common with Mexico, such as soft tacos, once you try it, you will understand the differences. Recipes vary from family to family and have been passed down from one generation to the next, in some families for over 400 years. Northern New Mexican cuisine is here to stay.

Here’s an alphabetical list of New Mexican food terms you’ll most often encounter when dining at restaurants serving the local cuisine.

Crispy biscichitos are the state cookie of New Mexico.

Crispy biscichitos are the state cookie of New Mexico. Photo Sergio Salvador.

Bizcochitos (also biscochitos) are the official NM State Cookie. While you can buy them in stores year-round, traditionally they are made at Christmas and for weddings and family celebrations. These anise-flavored cookies, cousins to shortbread, were traditionally made with lard; today, some bakers substitute butter or other shortening. But, the lard ones taste the best.

Blue corn was growing in New Mexico when the Spaniards arrived. Pueblo women traditionally make piki bread (similar to a very thin cracker) from ground blue corn mixed with ash then baked on a hot rock. The Hispanic culture uses blue corn to make tortillas which are used for enchiladas. These are traditionally prepared with the blue corn tortillas stacked with filling in-between the layers instead of rolled a la Mexican enchiladas.

Calabacitas (little squash) is a New Mexican side dish made with yellow summer squash, corn and green chile. Some people add cheese such as cotija or jack.

Carne Adovada is pork (usually shoulder) marinated and then slow-cooked in red chile. Depending on the chile, it can be hot! It’s comfort food New Mexican-style. (If you want to make it at home, see the recipe at the bottom of this post.)

carne adovada

Carne adovada features pork slow cooked in chiles. Photo courtesy Steve Collins

Chile is the official New Mexico State Vegetable. It’s one of the most basic ingredients in New Mexican cooking and it shows up in a lot of dishes. Both green and red chiles come from the same plant and both are hot. Some say red is hotter than green, but it depends on the seed stock, the farm, the growing conditions that season. Both green and red are made into sauces, also called “chile,” used to mother* food.

Green chile, the mature but not fully ripened stage of the plant, is traditionally roasted then seeded and chopped. Whole chiles are sometimes stuffed for the mouthwatering dish, chile rellenos. Green chile used to be a seasonal food, but thanks to freezing, it can be enjoyed year round. You know summer in New Mexico is coming to an end when the scent of roasting green chile permeates the air.

red and green chiles

Red and green chiles play a central role in New Mexican cuisine. Photo Steve Collins.

Red chile (the fully ripened plants) is traditionally dried and then either flaked (chile caribe) or powdered (chile colorado) and used for cooking. If left whole, they are either dried and bagged or made into ristras (the hanging strings of dried red chiles you see all over Northern NM). It can then be ground and used as needed.

Frito pie is a concoction of red chile (the sauce), topped with shredded lettuce, onion, tomato and cheese and served over Fritos. Some claim the dish originated in Santa Fe’s Woolworth’s (now the Five and Dime) in the 1960s where it was served right inside a split bag of the trademarked chips. While most places serve Frito pie in a bowl or on a plate, the Five and Dime still serves it up the original way, right out of the bag.

Green chile cheeseburgers are ubiquitous in New Mexico; even the national fast food chains offer this local favorite. Take a burger, top it with roasted, chopped, New Mexican green chile and then cheese and voila! The combination of the spicy chile and the gooey cheese takes the burger over the top.

Frito pie

Fritos, cheese, lettuce, onion, tomatoes and red chile sauce–pass the Frito pie! Photo Five & Dime Sante Fe.

Menudo is popular with local Hispanics who believe that the stew, made from beef tripe (cow stomach), is a great hangover cure. Be warned: it’s an acquired taste. Many New Mexican eateries offer it on weekends. Some serve it during the week as well.

Natillas is a custard-like dessert, a cousin to flan. The silky tasting “pudding” is made with whipped egg whites creating a velvety texture. It’s flavored with vanilla and often nutmeg and cinnamon. It can be served warm or cold. Refrigerating gives it a thicker texture.

sopapillas

These little fried bits of heaven are sopapillas. Photo courtesy Cafe Castro.

Posole (also pozole) is a corn and meat stew (usually pork). While you’ll find it year round, it’s traditionally served in New Mexico at Christmas and New Years. The corn kernels, similar to hominy, are cured by soaking in powdered lime and water and then dried. Already cured posole can be found either dried or frozen in some markets. On holidays it’s served with caribe, a sauce made from red chile and a slice of lime.

Smothered isn’t a local word, but it is an essential term to know when dining in New Mexican restaurants where dishes are often offered “smothered.” This means that either green or red chile (or both together, referred to as “Christmas”) in sauce form is ladled generously over the food. It can be very spicy and most restaurants won’t take food back for excessive heat. If you don’t have a fire-proof palate, ask to taste the chile before having your food smothered in it or ask for it on the side.

Sopapillas are New Mexico’s version of the beignet. The puffy fried dough often accompanies the main course and is traditionally served with honey. Stuffed with meat, chicken or beans and smothered with chile they become the main course. Sopapillas also make a great dessert when eaten with honey.  Sometimes you’ll find them on the dessert menu in New Mexican restaurants tootsed up a bit with chocolate or caramel or even ice cream.

tamales

Tamales, stuffed cornmeal pockets, may contain meat, fowl, cheese, veggies and even fruit. Photo Bobbie Hasselbring

Tamales are stuffed pockets made from masa (cornmeal) then stuffed with meat, poultry, cheese, vegetables and even fruit wrapped in a cornhusk or banana leaf and then steamed. They originated in ancient Mexico and were transported to Hispanic areas of the USA when the Spanish settled the Southwest. The traditional New Mexican version is made with pork and red chile.

There are many more New Mexico food terms, but these will get you through dining in The Land of Enchantment. If one you don’t know comes up, just ask. New Mexicans love to talk about their unique traditional cuisine. — Story by Billie Frank, RFT Contributor



Billie Frank

Billie Frank is a freelance travel and food writer. Her blog Santa Fe Travelers santafetravelers.com has been called the most comprehensive blog about Santa Fe. She did a stint as the Santa Fe Local Expert for USA Today Travel Media's 10best.com. Billie and her husband Steve Collins are passionate about food and travel.