New Mexico’s cuisine has been shaped by its unique history and culture. With influences from Native American, Spanish, and Mexican traditions, New Mexican food has developed into its own distinctive regional style. But does it qualify as “authentic” Mexican food? There is an ongoing debate about what constitutes real Mexican food and whether New Mexico’s interpretations measure up. This article will explore the origins and characteristics of New Mexican food, how it compares to Mexican cuisine from Mexico, and whether the label “authentic” is warranted.
What is New Mexican Cuisine?
New Mexican cuisine originated in the late 16th century when Spanish colonists began settling in what is now New Mexico. The native crops of corn, beans, squash, and chile peppers were incorporated into Spanish stews, rice dishes, and wheat breads. Over the next few centuries, New Mexican food continued evolving through various cultural influences. Native Americans, Mexicans, cowboys, miners, and Anglo Americans all contributed to the cuisine. Today, New Mexican food is considered one of the oldest regional cuisines in the United States.
Some hallmarks of New Mexican food include:
– Chile peppers – New Mexican cuisine uses red and green chile peppers more extensively than Mexican cuisine. Chile products like sauces, salsas, and powders are ubiquitous.
– Blue corn – Blue corn is used to make tortillas, pancakes, and other dishes. It offers a nutty, sweet flavor compared to yellow corn.
– Pinto beans – Beans served whole or refried appear in many New Mexican dishes like burritos and chiles rellenos.
– Posole – A hearty hominy stew often contains pork, chile, and other vegetables. It is a traditional Christmas dish.
– Carne adovada – Pork marinated and braised in red chile sauce is one of the most iconic New Mexican entrees.
– Stacked enchiladas – Corn tortillas layered with meat, cheese, and chili sauce differ from the rolled style seen in Mexico.
– Sopaipillas – These puffy fried breads are served with honey as a sweet complement to savory dishes.
So while New Mexican cuisine originated from Mexican and Spanish roots, it has taken on a personality of its own. But how authentic are its Mexican influences compared to food actually from Mexico?
Key Differences Between New Mexican and Mexican Cuisine
There are some major differences between the two regional cuisines:
Types of Chile Peppers
New Mexican cuisine relies heavily on native New Mexico chile peppers. The most common are the green chile and red chile. Mexican food uses a greater variety like jalapenos, poblanos, serranos, habaneros, and more.
Preparation of Chile
New Mexicans prefer to roast or grill fresh green chiles, then peel and seed them to make sauces, salsas, relishes, etc. In Mexico, chiles are more often used fresh, pickled, or dried and reconstituted. Canned or jarred chiles are less common in New Mexican cooking.
Use of Cumin
Cumin is a signature spice in Mexican cuisine, used liberally in items like chili con carne. But traditional New Mexican food uses little to no cumin, focusing more on pure chile flavor.
Rice and Beans
Mexican rice and beans are cooked together, absorbing shared flavors. New Mexican joints tend to serve beans and rice as separate side dishes.
Mexican cuisine uses queso fresco, queso Oaxaca, and other soft white cheeses. Cheddar and Monterey jack are more prevalent in New Mexican food.
New Mexican cuisine includes more casserole-style dishes that are baked like King Ranch chicken. Traditional Mexican cuisine does not rely as heavily on baked casseroles.
The customary alcoholic drink in New Mexico is beer, along with margaritas. In Mexico, beer, tequila, and mezcal are more typical.
New Mexicans enjoy frybread desserts like sopapillas and Indian tacos. Traditional Mexican sweets include options like flan, churros, tres leches cake, and more.
So while both cuisines share similarities, there are also distinct differences that set New Mexican food apart from the old world Mexican cuisine. But is it still “authentic” Mexican?
Is New Mexican Cuisine Considered Authentic Mexican Food?
Whether New Mexican food qualifies as authentic Mexican is controversial. Here are some perspectives on both sides:
Reasons Why It’s Not Authentic Mexican
– Originated in the US, not Mexico
– Incorporates Native American and Anglo influences absent in Mexico
– Uses different chiles and less variety of chiles
– Unique preparations like stacked enchiladas and chile relishes
– Significantly less use of cumin and other Mexican spices
– More cheese, beans, rice, beef – less seafood than Mexican cuisine
– Prominent use of frybread, sopapillas, Indian tacos
– Does not use key Mexican ingredients like huitlacoche, herbs like epazote
Reasons Why It Is Authentic Mexican
– Directly descended from the first Spanish colonists in the Americas who brought Mexican cuisine
– Still uses traditional ingredients like corn, beans, squash
– Chile peppers are an integral, defining ingredient (albeit different varieties)
– Many shared dishes like tacos, posole, tamales, burritos
– Stacked enchiladas still utilize corn tortillas in traditional red and green chile sauces
Among chefs and those in the food industry, there seems to be no consensus on whether New Mexican cuisine should be considered a true form of Mexican food today. But New Mexican restaurateurs and proud locals will always maintain its authenticity.
Notable New Mexican Dishes and How They Compare to Mexican Cuisine
To better illustrate the debate around authenticity, let’s examine some iconic New Mexican dishes and how they relate or diverge from Mexican cuisine:
This classic New Mexican dish is made from pork that has been marinated and braised in red chile sauce. While carne adovada resembles Mexican adobo, there are some differences:
– New Mexican carne adovada relies solely on red chile for flavoring versus a blending of chiles, herbs and spices like garlic, oregano, allspice and vinegar in Mexican adobo.
– Pork shoulder or loin is more common in New Mexico, while Mexican adobo uses more organ meats like liver or gizzards.
– Carne adovada is served as its own dish in New Mexico, while Mexican adobo is usually a marinade or sauce ingredient.
So while carne adovada derives from Mexican antecedents, changes to ingredients and preparation differentiate it from an authentic adobo.
In New Mexico, enchiladas are made by layering corn tortillas with fillings like ground beef, chicken, or cheese and smothering them with red or green chile sauce. They differ from traditional Mexican rolled enchiladas in a few ways:
– Stacked formation vs rolling into tubes
– Use of yellow cheese vs white Mexican cheeses
– Reliance on red and green chile sauces over mole, tomatillo sauce, or other Mexican sauces
Yet both styles use essential components like corn tortillas and chiles, just with some regional modifications. So stacked enchiladas could potentially still be considered a type of authentic Mexican food.
Posole is a hearty stew containing hominy (dried corn kernels) that has origins in indigenous Mexican and Central American culinary traditions. The New Mexican version is quite similar to posole from Mexico. Key ingredients – pork, hominy, chile peppers – remain the same. Some minor differences:
– New Mexico posole tends to use fewer herbs and spices like oregano, garlic and cilantro
– Mexican posole sometimes contains additional vegetables and garnishes
But the core stew and cooking methods are essentially identical between the two regions. Posole is likely the most authentically Mexican of all New Mexican signature dishes.
Carne asada simply refers to grilled meat, usually skirt or flank steak. It’s common in both New Mexico and Mexico. The only variations are the marinades and seasoning:
– In Mexico, carne asada is often marinated in lime juice, garlic, cilantro, and spices
– New Mexican carne asada relies more on chile powders, garlic powder, salt
Using grilled meat as the central component, New Mexican carne asada would be considered another authentic Mexican dish. The chile-based dry rub offers a regional twist without taking away its legitimacy.
Huevos rancheros are a classic Mexican egg dish, served for breakfast. The New Mexico version remains largely faithful to the original:
– Corn tortillas topped with fried eggs, salsa/chile sauce, beans, cheese
– Uses yellow Cheddar versus Mexican cheeses
– Tend to layer ingredients vs mixing together
The core ingredients and concept are identical to what you’d find in Mexico. Huevos rancheros would be considered another reliably authentic Mexican dish in New Mexico.
Other Cuisines That Have Been “Americanized”
The evolution of New Mexican cuisine from its Mexican immigrant roots is not a unique phenomenon in the US. Other ethnic cuisines have been adapted to American culture and tastes over time. A few examples:
Classics like spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, and garlic bread do stem from Italian immigrant traditions. But dishes were altered and improvised with new ingredients like processed tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and sweet Italian sausage, which aren’t as widely used in Italy.
American Chinese Food
Chinese immigrants adapted their cuisine to appeal to American tastes resulting in popular take-out dishes like beef with broccoli, shrimp fried rice, egg drop soup, and fortune cookies – largely unheard of in authentic Chinese cooking.
Tex-Mex combines Mexican staples like tacos, quesadillas, guacamole, and burritos with American touches like beef, cheddar, sour cream and hard-shell taco shells rarely seen south of the border.
So New Mexican cuisine follows a trajectory seen across cuisines brought to the US by immigrants. Additions and alterations are made over time – for better or worse. The degree those changes evolve away from the original food tradition may determine whether the label “authentic” still applies.
Future Trajectory of New Mexican Cuisine
How might New Mexican cuisine continue to develop in the future, and will it hold on to its Mexican roots? There are a few potential paths:
Greater Focus on Authenticity
Some New Mexican chefs are actively working to better honor the cuisine’s Mexican origins and avoid inauthentic “Tex-Mex” shortcuts like cheddar cheese and flour tortillas. Using traditional ingredients, cooking methods and presentations could strengthen ties to real Mexican food.
Purity Over Evolution
On the flip side, others want to zealously protect traditional New Mexican cuisine from outside influence. Keeping dishes like carne adovada, stuffed sopaipillas and stacked enchiladas intact ensures the regional style doesn’t disappear altogether.
Fusing Mexican and New Mexican
One current trend is chefs finding ways to fuse Mexican and New Mexican food. Using authentic Mexican mole or tomatillo sauces on New Mexican staples, for example, or incorporating puffy sopaipillas in Mexican desserts. This approach respects both cultures.
Continuing Down Its Own Path
New Mexican food may just become even more differentiated over time. Some chefs are moving away from the Mexican canon to continue innovating. New Mexican cuisine will evolve with its own distinct American Southwest character.
Predicting any cuisine’s progression is difficult. But New Mexican food has already endured for centuries and will likely only continue diversifying while still representing its cultural roots, even if those roots fray a bit further.
The debate around New Mexican cuisine’s claim to “authentic” Mexican food has arguments on both sides. In some ways it has deviated quite far from the traditional pre-Columbian and Mexican-immigrant dishes it derives from. But it retains a definite familial connection thanks to fundamental ingredients, techniques, and concepts.
Perhaps the safest perspective is that New Mexican cuisine should be considered a vibrant, living descendant of original Mexican cooking – like a daughter who bears resemblance to her mother but has developed her own distinct personality. It has its own merits even if the lineage has been blurred.
Regardless of whether the “authentic Mexican” label fully applies, New Mexican cuisine remains a cherished regional cuisine. Its chile-infused dishes hold a special place in New Mexican culture and identity. Tasting carne adovada in Santa Fe or a breakfast burrito in Albuquerque offers an experience which, while different from Mexico, has become proudly unique.