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Southwestern Dining: New Mexico Style

September 07, 1989|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

No matter where you travel in the Southwest, you can count on two truisms. One: the weather will not be what you expect and two: wherever you are is the only place you can sample genuinely authentic Southwestern food.

I had these facts confirmed once again when I joined a group of fellow food writers on a recent study tour of Southwestern foods in New Mexico. Expecting the blazing hot days and semi-cool nights of late July, most of us packed accordingly. Big mistake. We should have packed sweaters and hip boots, as we were inundated during all but the last day of the New Mexican portion of our trip with heavy-duty, gully-washing downpours. Considering California's near-drought condition, I kept wishing I could figure a way to blow the constant deluge our way.

The food was something else again. Although we did eat in some of New Mexico's better restaurants, such as Andre's in Albuquerque and Coyote Cafe and La Casa Sena in Santa Fe, we were looking more for the historical background of Southwestern food, New Mexico-style.

We wanted to identify the ingredients and food preparation techniques that differentiate New Mexican cuisine from those of other Southwestern states, including California. So, rather than spending most of our time investigating New Mexico's contemporary food scene, we visited a number of Indian pueblos and talked with American Indians and museum and university authorities to learn more about the origins of this chile-spiced cuisine.

What we discovered is that traditional ingredients have remained popular throughout the centuries. Some methods of preparation have been modernized but many haven't. Those that have really have affected the end result very little.

Although basically American Indian rather than Spanish (Mexican) in origin, New Mexican home-style menus show great similarity to the foods of other Southwestern states. But seasonings, some ingredients and many of the food presentations and preparation techniques are different.

Two Dominant Ingredients

Chiles and corn are two ingredients that dominated nearly every menu we sampled. That's hardly surprising considering that chiles are the No. 1 vegetable crop in the state, according to Paul W. Bosland, assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

Bosland, a recognized authority on chiles, told us with a great deal of pride that New Mexico grows more chiles than Texas and California combined. New Mexicans take their chiles very seriously. They know the best places to find the hottest--around Hatch, N.M.--and as far as most New Mexicans are concerned, the hotter the chile, the better.

A traveler unfamiliar with the local penchant for spiciness will survive a New Mexican visit better if he or she approaches any bowl of green chile stew offered with caution. I personally ran afoul of one such offering at the Santa Ana Pueblo north of Albuquerque when a gracious American Indian hostess allowed me to sample some of her green chile stew. I thought my palate was geared to hot foods since I adore spicy curries and good Sichuan dishes. One bite of her stew, however, paralyzed my vocal chords, and I broke out in a sweat. That stuff was just plain hot. But, once the shock of that first taste was over, I realized it also was very good.

The No. 1 chile grown in New Mexico is the somewhat mild Anaheim, or long green chile, so familiar to fans of California-style Southwestern cuisine. But where we usually find locally grown Anaheims in the fresh green state, in New Mexico they often are allowed to mature to a ripe red color before picking. The dehydrated red pod usually is crushed into powder and used as a flavoring or to add color to prepared dishes.

There is one other marked difference between the Anaheims grown here and those cultivated in New Mexico. The higher temperatures and different soil in New Mexico produce chiles that are hotter than the same variety of chiles grown elsewhere.

The major difficulty facing chile growers at present, according to Bosland, is that there is almost no way to grow chiles of this type with a predictable, uniform heat factor. "Right now we're working on that problem," Bosland said, "but we haven't solved it yet. One chile may be hotter than blazes while the one next to it is mild."

A Spiritual Significance

As with most of the ingredients used in the New Mexican Indian cuisine, corn has a deep spiritual significance for the cook. In her small but definitive cookbook on Pueblo and Navajo foods and culture, "Southwest Indian Cookbook," (Clear Light Publications, Weehawken, N.J., $9.95) photojournalist Marcia Keegan quotes Agnes Dill, a prominent American Indian leader from the Isleta Pueblo. According to Dill, corn, the most important of all American Indian foods, comes in six colors. Each represents a direction. White is the east, red south, blue west and yellow north. Black is up and speckled is down.

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