If you’ve ever visited any of the states in the Southwestern United States, which include New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and the southern part of Colorado, you know that food is a big part of the vibrant lifestyle out here. As this area was originally settled by the Spanish and still holds fast to its Native American roots, the cuisine of the Southwest is a melting pot of cultures characterized by big, bold flavors and an array of traditional fruits, vegetables, grains and spices. So if you’re hungry, get a taste of the Southwest by digging into these hearty and traditional foods.
You may be surprised to know that the official state question of New Mexico is “Red or Green?” referring to the different colorations of the chile pepper, as red is the ripe form of this fiery vegetable. Green chiles appear in fresh sauces combined with cilantro and other spices like coriander, cumin and oregano. Many varieties of the chile pepper grow in the Southwest, most notably being the Hatch chiles, which are grown in and around Hatch, New Mexico.
All throughout the Southwest, you’ll find contests where chefs submit their best chili recipes in an attempt to reign supreme in the region as chili master. True chili connoisseurs scoff at the thought of adding tomatoes or beans into their chili, preferring instead to load up this hearty stew-like concoction with meat, either cubed or coarsely ground, simmering in a delicious sauce made from dried red chilies, spices and other flavorings.
Traditional tortillas in the Southwest were made from yellow or white corn, and sometimes with red or blue corn for special occasions. The corn is generally soaked in slaked lime and ground on an ungreased comal, or griddle, forming a wrapper for various meats, cheeses and vegetables. Nowadays, flour tortillas native to the Mexican state of Sonora have infiltrated the Southwest, and you can find both varieties in stores and restaurants.
Tamales are packets of corn-based dough that are wrapped with softened corn husks and steamed, with the corn husks removed right before being eaten. Traditional fillings for the tamales include shredded beef, slow-cooked chicken, pork, lamb or goat that have been seasoned and stewed with dried red chiles and spices.
Simmered dried beans are a mainstay of traditional Southwestern cooking, and they’re usually known as charro beans, or cowboy beans that are baked with various flavorings, like bacon, onion, garlic and other seasonings.
Fried bread and sweets
One of the most ubiquitous fried snacks in the Southwest is fry bread, a Native American food consisting of flat dough fried in oil, shortening or lard. Fry bread can either be eaten alone or served with various toppings like honey, beef, tomatoes, cheese, onions and lettuce. Along the same lines, you’ll also find sopapillas, quick fried bread served with honey. For dessert, round the meal off with flan, a molded baked custard often topped with dulce de leche, or almenrado, an almond-seasoned mixture of egg white and gelatin served with a custard sauce.
While the Margarita, a mixture of Tequila, lime juice and orange liqueur, is popular in restaurants across the Southwest, Mexican beers like Tecate, Modelo or Pacifico are more often drunk with casual meals. Non-alcoholic beverages include horchata, a sweetened rice drink, tamarinda, a sweetened drink made from tamarind pulp and aguas frescas, juices made from various fresh fruits.
Photo credit: iStockphoto/yuhirao
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