Although Santa Fe cuisine as we know it today is an amalgam of Spanish, Mexican, and Native American flavors, savory New Mexican food historically began with Native American ingredients and cooking methods. Wanting to uncover the underlying Native influences of the unique tapestry of flavors that make up New Mexican cuisine, I went to Santa Fe. What I found might surprise you.
To the visitor, New Mexico looks dry and barren with bluebird skies that seem to withhold rains needed for abundant food production. Remarkably, thousands of people found bounty in this dry climate during the 1300 and 1400s.
“They knew how to control water and built small catch tanks to irrigate the land,” said Elmer Torres of San Ildefonso Pueblo. We hiked a high, dry mesa not far from Santa Fe so that Elmer could show me gardens built by his ancestors. Elmer pointed to small, carved indentations in the rock—the catch tanks— that the casual observer might miss. During rainy seasons the round carvings would catch water and hold it until needed for irrigation.
Former Picuris Pueblo governor Richard Mermejo, told us that “Prehistoric farming consisted of beans, corn, and squash—the Three Sisters.” Beans, corn, and squash crops that still thrive in the surrounding high desert (6-8,000 feet above sea level) are pillars of modern Santa Fe cuisine.
Dry climate sustenance
Indigenous people–Elmer and Richard’s ancestors—sun-dried their harvest, foraged local plants and game meat near the walls of adobe homes. Made of mud and grasses, the walls absorbed the sun’s rays and emitted warmth perfect for dehydrating foods hung nearby. The Spanish, who came on the scene in the late 1500s, called these communities of multi-storied adobe buildings pueblos, and the name stuck. Today, the people are often referred to as Puebloans, and their governmental organizations (19 in New Mexico including the San Ildefonso Pueblo and Picuris Pueblo) are named Pueblos.
Richard met me for dinner at Amaya at Hotel Santa Fe, The Hacienda & Spa, the only Native-American owned hotel in downtown Santa Fe. We sampled ancestral foods like quail, elk, and red trout, each prepared with a modern twist. To develop a menu that showcases native dishes, Mermejo consulted with Lois Ellen Frank, a Santa Fe chef who has documented foods of Native-American tribes from the Southwest for over 25 years. “She picked my brain about the food my family ate,” smiled the Picuris Pueblo elder. Native-American-influenced menu items created by Frank, co-owner of Red Mesa Cuisine, include elk tenderloin and watercress garnished ruby trout.
Not only did the ancient Puebloan people use dry land farming methods to grow “The Three Sisters,” but they also hunted wild game and foraged piñon nuts, fruits, and sunflower seeds. The Puebloans dried and stored some in pots for sustenance through winter months. Today, dried cherries, piñon nuts, and pepitas—a type of pumpkin seed—star in New Mexican dishes. Santa Fe chefs use these regional ingredients that date back to pre-contact times when foraged foods were essential sources of nutrition to garnish salads and hot foods
Food Fusion: New Arrivals Bring New Ingredients
As new people arrived on the scene in New Mexico over the years, they brought with them new ingredients and their own favorite tastes. When the King of Spain sent families to colonize the area, they packed up wheat, rice, melons, and chickens, and herded cows and sheep to Nuevo México. This first wave of food fusion added eggs, dairy, beef, mutton, and lamb to the regional diet.
Spanish colonizers also introduced new technology, the horno (oven.) “They brought the horno from Spain, which in turn had been brought by the Moors [from Africa] to Spain,” says Katharine Kagel chef-owner of the iconic Cafe Pasqual’s in downtown Santa Fe. Indigenous people adapted the beehive-shaped outdoor oven into their wood-fired cooking practices.
Regional Food Preparation
In an arid region like New Mexico, it only follows that drying would be a traditional food preparation practice. Dried corn, beans, and fruit were part of the Native diet. Today, you’ll find evidence of Native-American food preparation practices in many of the popular New Mexican side dishes—posole, frijoles and chicos.
Cooks reconstitute dried corn to make posole, a popular New Mexican stew or soup of hominy, meat and chile peppers. Chicos, unique to this regional cuisine, are dried corn kernels which locals process by steaming corn still in the husks, and then slow-drying the corn overnight in hornos. Wood-fired hornos produce rich, smoky flavors. New Mexican cooks like to throw a handful of dried chicos into stew or chile. And of course, the frijoles seen on restaurant tables started as dried beans (typically pinto beans) and are simmered by chefs with sautéed onion, garlic, and red chile powder. Many Santa Fe chefs combine these traditional ingredients with contemporary techniques.
Chile Peppers, Official State Vegetables of New Mexico
Experts debate whether the Spanish brought chiles to New Mexico or if indigenous people carried chiles from Central Mexico before contact. However, there is no debate over the fact that New Mexicans love chile peppers. Indeed, chile peppers and frijoles are official state vegetables of New Mexico.
New Mexican chile could be a red or green pepper, and the word is also used for sauce or stew made from red or green peppers. The regional stew is not called ‘chili,’ like Tex-Mex tomato-based thick soups. So important is this differentiation that New Mexico’s official spelling of ‘chile’ has been entered into the 1983 Congressional Record.
Sampling a Traditional Feast Day Meal
We tasted red and green chile in Elmer’s home at San Ildefonso Pueblo. “Beware of that one,” Elmer’s wife Deborah warned as she placed a bowl of green chile with ground beef on the long table. “It smells like the chile is hot.” The couple owns Passport to Pueblo Country and opened their Feast Day home at San Ildefonso Pueblo to us and others curious about Native foods and ways of life. They lead expeditions to Native lands and to other pueblos around New Mexico.
Second Wave of Food Fusion
The second wave of the Native-Spanish-Mexican food fusion hit the region with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1822. The commercial highway brought flour, sugar, and coffee by the wagonload and cast-iron preparation methods from the east after Mexico’s independence from Spain. Interestingly, avocados—the main ingredient in New Mexico’s ubiquitous guacamole—wasn’t introduced until the 1920s when the Fred Harvey Company started offering the Mexican fruit in its restaurants along the Santa Fe Railway line.
The unique blend of Native, Spanish, and Mexican flavors is preserved because of Santa Fe’s relative isolation from the rest of the country. The regional cuisine, which rarely uses cumin in sauces or chiles, cilantro, or tomato (challenging to grow in the climate in early days), is expressively different from similar food styles found in Arizona, California, or Texas.
When You Go
- Savor the Native flavors of calabacitas, a dish of sautéed squash and corn at Cafe Pasqual’s.
- Learn the secrets to creating New Mexican green chile at Santa Fe School of Cooking.
- Attend an authentic Feast Day festival with Elmer and Deb Torres, Passport to Pueblo Country.
- Bake bread in an outdoor hornos oven and learn to prepare dishes typical of a feast meal during foodie and cultural experiences at The Feasting Place, Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.
- Enjoy Buffalo Strip Steaks finished to perfection in a wood-fired oven at Red Sage Restaurant at Hilton Santa Fe Buffalo Thunder. The chef sources select local produce from Tewa Farms, a local Pojoaque Pueblo Native-owned farm.
Get more information at TOURISM Santa Fe.
As is common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.