The chile pepper has held New Mexico by the taste buds for centuries. As an ancient, locally grown mainstay, it also helps define the New Mexican’s sense of adventure, fun, and history.
In addition to its distinction as one of the world’s favorite spices, chile is one of the oldest: It’s believed to have originated 10,000 years ago in the Amazon region of South America in the area of Brazil and Bolivia. Evidence of chile eating as early as 7000 BC has been discovered in the Tehucan Valley south of Mexico City.
How chile first arrived in New Mexico is the subject of debate. Some believe the Spanish introduced it to the Pueblo Indians on their travels north from Mexico. Others hold that chile was grown in New Mexico centuries prior to the arrival of the Spanish, having been introduced through trade with the peoples of Mexico and South America.
The source of the chile’s heat is the chemical capsaicin, found in the pepper’s heart and membrane. The seeds themselves are not hot, but they absorb capsaicin from their contact with the heart and membrane. (Though “chile” is a Spanish spelling of chilli, the Aztec, or Nahuatl, word for pepper, “capsicum,” comes from the Latin capsicon, meaning chest or box.) In addition to providing a culinary delight to chile lovers, capsaicin has a long tradition as a healing substance and pain reliever.
According to chile authority Jean Andrews, the Mayans used the pods to medicate asthma, coughs, sore throats, and respiratory disorders. Indigenous people were aware of chile’s potency in treating cardiovascular and digestive disorders. Chile may protect against blood clots and prevent heart attacks, and it is known to hinder cholesterol absorption.
The chile is low in fat and high in vitamins A and C and beta-carotene. It also speeds up metabolism and helps digestion by intensifying stomach-acid production and sometimes working as a laxative.
Red or Green?
Around most New Mexico dinner tables, debate on chile’s medicinal qualities invariably gets pushed aside by a more immediate question: “Red or green?” Some folks demand their chile be red; others won’t have anything but green. Yet both, as different as they taste, come from the same plant. Red is simply the mature green, picked in its riper stage.
The green variety, generically called “Hatch” (for the New Mexico town that produces the bulk of the state’s crop), is the commercially developed type known as New Mexico 6-10 and the Big Jim. When it comes to red chile, the best is said to be grown from the old stock cultivated in Chimayó and other high mountain villages of the north – Española, Dixon, Velarde, and Peñasco.
By far the state’s most important vegetable crop, New Mexico chile is grown on 30,000 acres, mostly in Luna and Doña Ana counties. Sixty percent of the nation’s chile crop comes from the Land of Enchantment. Since 1980 chile consumption has doubled in the United States, much of it going into salsa, which in the 1990s surpassed ketchup to become the country’s most popular condiment.
When to Find Them
From mid-August through the fall, the New Mexican air is scented with the warm, enticing fragrance of chiles roasting out-of-doors in large, wire, propane-fired cages. Around State Fair time in September, people head for their favorite roadside stand to buy a sack of freshly roasted green chiles. Once stored in the freezer, the chile is used all winter long, in stews, enchiladas, salsas, and burritos.
As the season progresses into October, it’s time to buy a red chile ristra, a string of chiles, to hang full, heavy, and sweet near the front door, a sign of warmth and welcome. It’s said the ristra brings good luck – and it certainly is convenient to have the makings of soul-warming red-chile salsa right at hand.
And New Mexicans know in their bones that when they eat chile, they are not only eating a magically delicious, nourishing, and healing food – they are eating tradition. What sustained native people for thousands of years, and the Spanish for 500 years here, will sustain them now.