New Mexico Chili: What’s the Difference Between Red and Green Chiles?

When you order at a restaurant in New Mexico you will be asked the question, “Red or Green?” This is not a Christmas quiz or a test for color blindness. What they want to know is whether you want your meal with red or green chile. In New Mexico, Chile is served with almost any dish. Chile Steak, Chile Chocolate Candy, Green Chile Cheeseburgers. Not to leave out Standard Mexican entrees like Enchiladas, Burritos, Tamales, Chile Rellenos and my personal favorite, Huevos Rancheros.

Both Red and Green Chiles both are the same variety of chile, the difference being the stage of ripeness. The Green Chile is immature while the Red Chile has fully ripened. There are a many different varieties of chile including serrano, jalapeno, jabenero, cayenne and piquin. Many of the most common varieties used in New Mexican cuisine are associated with places including Espanola, Sandia, New Mexico No. 9 and Rio Grande 21 chiles.

During the late summer harvest season, the pungent aroma of roasting chiles can be smelled in grocery store parking lots, roadside stands and flea markets. A steel mesh cylindrical drum is suspended horizontally over LP Gas burners. The drum has a “bird cage” door and is turned on an axle to roast the chiles evenly. Customers can select the fresh chiles from a burlap sack. It is a good idea to taste them before you buy to verify the “hotness”. The vendor opens the “bird cage” door, puts the chiles inside, and roasts them there before your eyes. The skins turn black as they are roasted.

The chiles must be peeled before they are eaten. Veteran chili chefs always wear plastic or rubber gloves while peeling. If properly roasted, the black skins are easily removed by rubbing the fruit. Some people peel them before freezing; others freeze the chiles and peel them immediately before cooking them. If milder chiles are desired, the seeds should be removed. Whatever you do, DON”T RUB YOUR EYES.

The “heat” of the chile comes from capsaicin; an alkaloid produced in the plant and stored in the membranes that hold the seeds of the chile. It is believed that the capsaicin compounds assist the survival of the plant by discouraging consumption by mammals which destroy the seeds during digestion. Birds, however, are not affected by the capsaicin. The seeds survive the trip through the bird’s digestive tract and are thus dispersed throughout the bird’s environment.

The capsaicin is used as an herbal remedy to alleviate the symptoms of muscle soreness and arthritis. Chiles have high nutritional value. They a good source of Vitamins A and C as well as calcium.

A native New Mexican and veteran chile eater recommended coffee as the best cure for excessive chile heat. He said that the hot coffee opens the pores of the mouth allowing the chile to escape. Other reputable sources recommend drinking milk. Personally, I drink coffee because I like the combination capsaicin/caffeine buzz.

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