On a recent trip to New Mexico, the scenery was as beautiful as we expected. The cuisine, however, was different than what my husband and I anticipated when we booked our getaway. I assumed New Mexican food would be very similar to Tex-Mex, with plenty of meat, cheese and tortillas. And indeed, these cuisines do share quite a lot, but I discovered there were also some marked differences. The meat portion sizes were quite a bit smaller than the gargantuan Texan offerings and most menu items are abundant in locally grown pinto beans, squash, red and green chiles and blue corn masa.
Many dishes come with shredded iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes on the side, and I didn't see any kidney beans or tomato sauce during my whole stay. Coriander, onion powder and garlic powder are probably the most common spices, and cilantro features a lot as both a flavoring and a garnish.
What is blue corn exactly?
Blue corn is really popular in New Mexico. Despite the name, it ranges from gray to nearly black in color, and has a lower glycemic index and 20 percent more protein than yellow or white corn. Blue corn isn't only for making tortillas. New Mexicans also use it to make pancakes and a sweet cinnamon-flavored drink called atole. Blue corn was originally cultivated by Hopi Indians and is prized for its sweet flavor.
New Mexico's food history
The borders of this state overlapped Navajo, Chiricahua and Mescalero tribal areas before the Europeans arrived. The Spanish conquistadores blended their cuisine with locally available ingredients. There were American forces in New Mexico during 1846's Mexican-American War, and America's victory meant popular stateside dishes combined with the Spanish and Mexican flavors indigenous to New Mexico at the time. It's fair to say modern New Mexican cuisine is a mixture of Northern Mexican, Pueblo Indian and Hispanic dishes and ingredients, although you will find other surprises on many menus, such as duck tamales and German sausage.
Green chiles with everything
New Mexicans love their chiles, and when ordering something with a sauce you will be asked, "red or green." If you want some of each, you can say the magic word "Christmas" and get a helping of both. The green sauce is sometimes hotter, but it depends which variety of chiles are used to make it. Chiles are so beloved in New Mexico you will find them in far more than just the burritos and enchiladas.
In fact, they're kind of hard to avoid! Chiles and chile sauce also make an appearance on everything from omelets to bagels. Green chiles are a popular pizza topping — and yes, you can also get them on fries. A New Mexican cheeseburger usually comes with whole or chopped green chiles on top. If your meal doesn't come with chile sauce, you can order it on the side or off-menu. As much as I like chiles, I was seeking an alternative by day 3.
Must-try dishes of New Mexico
The first dish I tried in New Mexico was the posole, and that really impressed me. A delicious blend of posole corn, onion, garlic, pork, oregano and chile, this traditional soup has been popular in New Mexico for hundreds of years. It can be made with hominy or posole corn which is a large-kernel white variety, alternatively known as maiz blanco or cacahuazintle. I also enjoyed the New Mexican combo plates. Sometimes it's hard to decide between a tamale, enchilada and taco, so that's when you order the combo plate, and enjoy the rice and beans on the side as well. Combo plates are great because you get to try a bit of everything, just like at a favorite Tex-Mex haunt.
If you like Tex-Mex adobada, you should try New Mexico's adovada. This is made by marinating pork chunks in red chile sauce overnight before slow cooking them. Adovada comes with a flour tortilla and often beans and rice, too. It can be used to fill burritos, tacos or enchiladas.
All in all, I was excited to try this cuisine and found many dishes I loved. I think New Mexican cuisine is misunderstood much the same way Tex-Mex and authentic Mexican can be confused. You won't see a Santa Fe or Southwestern salad on a New Mexican menu, for example. Those aren't traditional dishes, just out-of-state ones inspired by Southwestern ingredients. If you're visiting, you must try the carne adovada, the posole and the green chile sauce. Actually, it would be pretty hard to miss the green chile sauce!