There is no more distinctive scent than the aroma of our famous green chile as it roasts over an open flame. Add to that the smell of piñon smoke, and there is no question about where you are—it can only be New Mexico. In late fall, the green chile turns a bright red as it dries, and the seeds become harvestable. It can be prepared as a traditional chile dish, but it’s also traditionally woven into ornamental ristras—long strands of dried red chiles destined to hang from eaves and portals all over New Mexico. But where did chile originate? Not in Mexico or Spain, as one might think, but in South America, where it has been cultivated for more than 6,000 years. It wasn’t until the Spanish conquistadors brought chile back to Europe from the New World that the rest of the world, including Asia and Africa, became acquainted with this new dining sensation.
The spice trade with India influenced the diets and tastes of Europeans with countless new flavors such as ginger, curry, cinnamon, turmeric, and black pepper, but none of these spices had yet reached New Mexico. It is said that Captain Juan de Oñate, who is credited with the founding of Santa Fe circa 1609, brought chile seeds with him for cultivation in the northern provinces of Nueva España, which was the early name for Spain’s colonies in the New World. The chile pepper was the first new “spice” introduced to the Puebloan peoples, and it was immediately incorporated into their diet, thus extending the popularity of hot and spicy foods to the American Southwest.
It seems odd that human beings would want to eat anything hot enough to make their mouth and tongue feel as if they were on fire, but in reality the neurochemical found in chile, capsaicin, only fools the brain into believing one’s tongue and mouth are burning, a mechanism that evolved as a defense against rodents, insects, and fungi. But why would 2 billion people a day subject themselves to such heat? It’s a phenomenon known as “benign masochism” in which the body reacts to the sensation of heat by producing endorphins, the same neurochemicals released during orgasm or through intense aerobic exercise (“runner’s high”). These make chile dishes taste “good,” good enough for billions to daily endure burning tongues and mouths.
So, a trip to Santa Fe has to include a sampling of chile dishes like enchiladas, green or red salsa, chile peppers, green chile stew, stuffed chiles, roasted chiles—anything chile, especially on chilly days. Just pay attention to the Scoville Heat Units (SHU) of your chile: for example, Tabasco sauce rates 2500 to 5000 on this scale, while the hottest chile ever tested was rated at 2.2 million SHUs! Believe me, no chile in New Mexico ever comes close to being this hot. But always check with your server about the level of heat, just in case.
At the Inn on the Alameda’s Agoyo Lounge you’ll always find a chile dish on the menu, and your chile experience will be magically enhanced by that other great Mexican contribution to the world’s cuisine: tequila, in the form of a margarita or just a shot. So stop by the Agoyo Lounge and savor the spice that turned the world upside down!