(Note: This post was written for my friend, Gloria. I promised her an explanation of Mexican vs. New Mexican cuisine. But I thought others might find it interesting, as well.)
Most states have a state flower, a state bird, even a state song. But did you know that New Mexico has an official state question? It’s true. The state question is, “Red or green?” This is the question inevitably asked of you when ordering a meal at a New Mexican restaurant, and refers to the red or green chiles that will top your entree.
Most of the Mexican restaurants in the Albuquerque area are, more accurately, “New Mexican” restaurants. The cuisine differs from the Tex-Mex restaurants I was used to before moving here. New Mexican food comes from a blend of Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo influences. Probably the most obvious difference, though not the only one, is the prominent role of the chile in New Mexican dishes. (Notice, this is “chile” as opposed to “chili.” “Chili,” in New Mexico, refers to the ground beef, chili powder, tomato sauce and – sometimes – pinto bean concoction. “Chile” on the other hand is the fresh vegetable – I’m told it’s actually a fruit – grown in-state.)
New Mexico is famous for its home-grown chiles. Some are picked while still green. They are then roasted until the skin blisters, peeled, and chopped into a green chile sauce. Others are left to ripen, until they are red. The green ones must be used fresh, or be frozen fresh from the field, unlike the red ones that can be dried and ground into a powder and shipped anywhere. Therefore the green chile stays fairly close to home, for the most part, making it a regional specialty. (Note – the color of the chile does not indicate its “hotness.” There are both mild and hot green chiles, and mild and hot red chiles.)
Some differences you’ll notice when eating New Mexican food include the addition of vegetables, such as chunks of potatoes or corn in your tacos or enchiladas (an Indian influence); blue corn tortillas, in addition to the white or yellow varieties; the absence of jalapeño peppers and cumin (a spice used in Tex-Mex); and the method of preparation, especially for enchiladas.
Let’s talk about enchiladas. I was most familiar with beef and/or cheese enchiladas, wrapped in white or yellow corn tortillas, smothered in a fairly mild, creamy red enchilada sauce, with shredded cheese on top, the whole concoction then baked in an oven for a half-hour. (I’m making myself hungry!)
But when I order enchiladas in a New Mexican restaurant, they can be quite different. Corn tortillas are still used – sometimes white corn or sometimes blue. The tortillas have a small amount of the filling placed upon them. If you order beef, there will probably not be any cheese added. Sometimes they are then rolled, but often they are left flat. No enchilada sauce is used. Instead, the warmed tortilla and its filling are served topped with either red or green chiles – your choice. The chiles are chopped and made into a sauce, similar to a salsa. The enchiladas are never cooked in the chile sauce. If you, like me, don’t “do” chiles, then you just get the tortilla with a little dry meat or cheese on it. (Can you tell I miss the enchilada sauce I’m used to?)
Available at many New Mexican restaurants, as well, are authentic Mexican dishes, such as posole (a hominy, pork, chile stew), menudo (a spicy soup made with tripe, hominy and chile), and chorizo (a pork sausage).
One nice thing is that, at most New Mexican restaurants, your meal includes freshly fried, hot sopapillas and honey, always a delicious end to dinner.