“Red or Green?” is more than just a question in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Referring to which type of chile sauce a waiter should bring to the table, those two options have been the backbone of New Mexican cuisine and the unifying ingredient for the many foods and cultures that have called this state home. The query even became New Mexico’s official “state question” in 1999.
The Rio Grande rift valley
where Albuquerque now sits was first inhabited by stone-and-adobe dwelling Native
Americans, a collection of tribes known collectively as the Pueblo people. Spanish
explorers arrived in the 1500s, building missions and establishing farms, and
eventually founded a city in 1706, named Alburquerque after a Spanish duke (the
first “r” was later dropped). Anglo
settlers came in droves after 1848, when the territory of New Mexico was ceded
to the United States from the newly independent Mexico.
Relics of the past
live on in Albuquerque’s present day culinary scene. From Pueblo blue corn
porridge to Spanish empanadas, from Mexican carne asada to red and green chile,
a good meal is the best way to uncover the many cultures that have shaped New
Mexico’s largest city.
Native tastes and traditions
The Pueblo’s centuries-old staples -- beans, corn and squash – still play a
major part in their modern dishes. The Pueblo Harvest Café and Bakery, in the Indian
Pueblo Cultural Center, highlights both ancient recipes and contemporary variations
based on these traditional ingredients.
Blue corn atole, a slate-coloured
porridge, is a typical morning dish, hearty without being too thick or too
sweet, though toppings like berries or nuts can be added to enhance the flavour.
The café also makes blue corn pancakes for a European twist on the native blue
corn. Lunch and dinner include dishes such as bison, served on the bone or
ground into meatloaf; carne adovada, a pork marinated in red chile and served
with beans and squash; and posole, a traditional corn hominy and pork stew.
All entrees come with oven
bread, a traditional loaf baked in the adobe clay oven (also called a horno) on
the center’s patio. The beehive-shaped horno was introduced by Spanish settlers,
but quickly became a prominent feature in many Pueblo homes. The peasant-style
bread with its crunchy exterior and soft interior is often served with creamy,
sweet pinon butter made from locally-abundant pine nuts.
Enduring Spanish influence
In addition to their particular tastes, Spanish settlers brought in their
language, seen in today’s common foods like tortilla, salsa and burritos. The
Spanish also introduced pigs, cattle and sheep, dairy products like butter and
cheese, and garlic and other spices that resulted in a fusion of native and
At the National Hispanic Cultural Center, New Mexico’s Spanish
influence is captured through art exhibitions and live performances, and also
in the kitchen of the center’s La
Fonda del Bosque restaurant, where enchiladas, meat-stuffed sopapillas and
chile rellenos are served alongside Spanish rice or calabacitas, a mix of
summer squash, onions and green peppers.
Chicharróns are another Spanish
import, but are prepared a little differently here than in the rest of the
world. While most chicharróns are made from fried pork skin, New Mexicans fry
cubes of pork fat and meat without the skin. Cecilia’s Café (230 6th
Street SW; 505-243-7070) in downtown Albuquerque has mastered the balance of
keeping the petite pork pieces tender inside, but crisp and flavourful on the outside.
Order them in a burrito or as a side order.
An enduring ingredient
Despite an ever-evolving influx of new cultures, Albuquerque has managed to
keep its people connected to the land through one ingredient: the New Mexican
chile pepper. To this day, “New Mexican food” might refer to a
Pueblo, Spanish or Mexican meal, but the peppers add a signature punch of heat
to dishes both native and new.
Neither type of chile is necessarily spicier than the
other, as the weather patterns of a particular year can give a pepper more or
less heat, but many locals have a preference for one colour’s taste over the
are picked early in the season and used fresh; first roasted, then chopped or blended to make a sauce. Visit Albuquerque in
the late summer or early fall and you are bound to see and smell chiles
rotating in grated steel barrels over propane flames to loosen the skin and
bring out the flavour. Stop by the downtown Grower’s
Saturday mornings to pick up a freshly roasted batch, or order a green chile
cheeseburger from Sadie’s.
Red chiles have a smokier, more full-bodied flavour
that comes from the process of drying them out on the vine. Bunches of dried
red chiles called ristras serve as both decoration and easy food storage in
many New Mexican homes. When ready to eat, the pod is soaked in
water to reconstitute its volume and blended with water and spices to make a
red chile sauce. Find one- to two-foot-long red ristras at Wagner Farm in nearby Corrales, or try the red
sauce on huevos rancheros at Frontier Restaurant across from the University of New Mexico.
The best part of New Mexico’s state question is it
doesn’t have to be either or. Choose red and
green to sample the best of both.