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American Southwest Food
Southwestern cuisine was created at the confluence of Spanish, Mexican, and Native American cultures, which took place especially in the region of New Mexico, but also in the states of Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and California. The rustic cuisine that formed has become iconic of the U.S. Southwest, with many similarities to Mexican food and its unique twist.
Early Spanish colonists settled in this region for a long period of time, accepting many of the customs of the Native Americans, especially of the indigenous Navajo tribes that shared the land. The natives cultivated chiles, corn, tomatoes, beans, avocados, and squash, which have been incorporated into the cuisine of the American Southwest. The Spanish brought ingredients from their homeland, including cheese, lard, and rice. Influences later came from Mexico and the cowboys of the South, further altering the cuisine to become the cuisine it is today. New Mexican cuisine is one of the more popular styles of Southwestern cuisine, followed by Arizona’s cuisine, which is known as Sonoran.
It is often said that the hotter the climate, the hotter the food, and Southwestern cuisine is no exception. Spices not only help to preserve foods to prevent them from spoiling in the intense heat, but many say that spicy foods also help stimulate appetites when the hot weather makes the thought of eating unpleasant. For these reasons and probably more, hot regions like the American Southwest are home to hot and spicy cuisine.
New Mexican Chile – Red or Green?
New Mexico can be considered the heart of the American Southwest, and is a state known for its culinary specialties, especially its chile. In fact, one of the state symbols, the official state question is “Red or Green?” These colors are, of course, referring to the two main types of chile made in the state. The difference between the two types of chiles comes from the point of picking the chile. Unripe chiles make green chile stew, while ripened chiles make red. Both types of chile are stewed into a sauce, and used in a wide variety of ways. They are added to everything, from typical Mexican dishes like burritos or enchiladas, to American-inspired foods like cheeseburgers, fries, and even pizza.
Hatch chiles, named for the city in which they are grown in southern New Mexico, are the most famous and commonly eaten variety of green chile. These chiles are cooked by roasting them over a flame, which is often done during the summer in public locations, even parking lots, where they are sold to passersby. Hatch, New Mexico is host to the annual Hatch Chile Festival every Labor Day weekend, which draws visitors from around the world to sample the famous Hatch chile.
Red chiles are made from the same type of pepper, but allowed to ripen on the plant for longer. Red chiles are usually dried before cooking, and can often be seen hanging in large bunches in homes, shops, and restaurants.
Both red and green chiles serve as the core of New Mexican cuisine, and are offered over many different dishes.
Literally translated to mean stuffed chiles, chile rellenos is a dish that originated in Mexico. In New Mexican cuisine, Hatch green peppers (though sometimes Anaheim or other varieties are used) are filled with meat and cheese. The chiles are then coated with a batter of egg and flour and then fried, melting the cheese inside. American variations of chiles rellenos often substitute American cheeses, like cheddar or jack, for the more authentic varieties of Mexican cheese. New Mexican restaurants usually serve chiles rellenos with red or green chile sauce poured over the top.
The cheese crisp is a specialty of the state of Arizona, probably created in Tucson. Similar to a quesadilla, the cheese crisp is a tortilla (usually flour, not corn) with cheese and butter sprinkled across the top, then placed in the oven until the cheese melts and the butter crisps the tortilla, making a crunchy appetizer. The major difference is that cheese crisps are not folded over or covered like a quesadilla, and are served open-faced. Other toppings include onions and cilantro and sometimes salsa or chile sauce.
Sopapillas and Navajo Fry Bread
The sopapilla is flat, fried pastry bread that is served in restaurants and homes across the US Southwest as a dessert. Sopapillas are served plain with a bottle of honey on the side, and are sometimes sprinkled with sugar or cinnamon. Since the bread itself is not very sweet, the sopapilla is sometimes served as a savory side during dinner instead.
Sopapillas are very similar to Navajo fry bread, which is an important part of the Navajo tradition. Like its name suggests, Navajo fry bread is a fried quick bread made by Native American tribes in the Southwest. Navajo fry bread uses ingredients introduced to the tribes after European contact, including lard, so the European influence in their dish is clear. Navajo fry bread can also be served as a side for the main dish or as a dessert. Fry bread is sometimes used as a taco shell for the Native American version of the taco.