New Mexico - (self-proclaimed) Chile Capital of the World!
New Mexico's state tag line is 'the Land of Enchantment', and it's certainly a magical place if you're a chilli (or chile) fan!
Whilst the state itself is enormous (nearly 30% bigger in area than the entire UK), the vast majority is pretty empty - lots of high mountain desert with the odd US military base or spaceport scattered about. There is though, a thin strip through the centre following the Rio Grande river that's extraordinarily fertile and the sandy soil, endless sunshine and cool evenings are perfect for growing chillies.
In the southwest of the state, Las Cruces is home to the only Chilli research centre in the world and they're continually developing new varieties and learning more about the extraordinary properties of this fabulous fruit of the capsicum plant. The centre is inspired by the work of Fabian Garcia in the early 1900s, and he's now viewed as the father of the entire New Mexican chile industry, as he helped identify and standardise the best chile pepper varieties that are now such an important part of the local economy.
New Mexican chiles (often labelled as Hatch chiles) tend to be large and pretty mild in heat, with a rich, sweet herbal flavour. They're often used when they're green and fresh, or roasted to remove the skins and give the chillies a fantastic savoury, slightly smoky flavour. You can see the roasting drums outside grocery stores in the late summer and the smell on its own is enough to tempt anyone to buy a few kilos of freshly roasted green chile!
They're certainly big fans in Las Cruces as you can discover on the Walk of Flame - a tour round the restaurants and stores that all offer a chilli-themed dish, from chilli margaritas to spicy New Mexican enchiladas, even green chile wine and a green chile ice cream sundae!
I was lucky enough to visit over the Labor Day weekend when the nearby village of Hatch hosts its annual chile festival. The streets are packed from early morning with everyone wanting to get a prime spot to watch the parade (including this year's Green Chile Queen), stock up on huge sacks of freshly roasted chillies and enjoy some fantastic New Mexican food:
Stacked enchiladas - many dishes in New Mexico are served with either red or green chile sauce, or you can have both in which case it's called 'Christmas'!
Sopaipillos - incredibly moreish fried dough either served sweet with cinnamon sugar or honey, or savoury (in which case it can be stuffed with meat or beans)
Calabacitas - stewed squash or courgette with onion, corn and roasted chilli.
Green Chile Cheeseburger - maybe the iconic dish of New Mexico. The cheeseburger is served with a big pile of roasted green chile which adds sweetness, a savoury fresh flavour and a little touch of heat. Delicious!
It was really interesting to have a chance to taste such genuinely delicious New Mexican food, and also learn a bit about the unique culture there. The combination of native Americans, Spanish settlers and Mexicans has given New Mexico a really distinctive and unusual cuisine that's far more ancient and sophisticated than I'd ever realised. I'd highly recommend a visit so you can try it for yourself, or keep an eye out for a new Taco Legend book exploring the wider world of Mexican food through the US and beyond!