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A Guide to Southern New Mexico Chile

By Sunny Conley

Last updated on Friday, January 10, 2003

Man roasting chile at Hatch Chile Festival. Photo by Sunny Conley.
Man roasting chiles at Hatch Chile Festival.  Photo by Sunny Conley.
Welcome to Southern New Mexico! You have ventured upon the hottest spot in the U.S.A. I’m not talkin’ solar heat. I’m talkin’ chile fire.

Chile peppers are the Land of Enchanters’ mysterious and highly addictive vegetable that may cause brows to sweat, noses to run, eyes to tear, and alas, guttural hiccups upon overdose. It’s a painfully pleasant experience we welcome many times daily.

Not only do we devour the hot little number but we chile chat ceaselessly. The noble chile plant has played a passionate role in New Mexico’s culture and cuisine since the early 1600s when the Spanish first planted along the fertile Rio Grande valley. Hundreds of years later, the powerfully pungent pod remains dear to New Mexicans. Although chile is now grown worldwide, New Mexicans self-assuredly declare “our pods are peerless.”

When I arrived from native Michigan to this chile kingdom a decade ago, the only pepper with which I was acquainted was the sweet, but no heat, red and green Bell. Little did I know that Bell’s next of kin would offer such savage euphoria. I now use the mojo in just about every dish I prepare. Indeed, as I key in these words, I savor popcorn lavished in red chile powder. (And I don’t go the movies without it.)

I admit, I’m a slave to the chile knight whose colorful armor ranges from yellow to green to red and to black. Some are long, slender and no thicker than a swizzle stick while others are rotund and nearly spherical. They vary in length from 1/2 inch Lilliputian to a 12-inch whopper. Some chiles are spicier, and others are hotter - usually the smaller the chile, the fiercer its bite. A chile’s heat quotient can vary from tepid to tongue blistering hot.

Without dispute, Southern New Mexico offers the best and tastiest chile in the world. Just 30 miles northwest of Las Cruces is the village of Hatch, known as the Chile Capital of World. Hatch cultivates over 30,000 acres of the succulent pod and celebrates the harvest each Labor Day Weekend with a festival that includes chile roasting, chile contests, chile parades, and traditional chile dishes. Year round these savory victuals are listed on menus at many area restaurants. Once you sample these offerings, I think you’ll agree – there’s no place north of the border with better chile eats.

To help you on your culinary excursion and to familiarize you with our chile lingo and lore, I offer the following brief guide.

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