Know Your Ingredients: Chile

Okay Maybe It’s A Little One-Sided

Dan Pennington
6 min read
A Nonobjective Green Chile Discussion
This is enough green chile to last a New Mexican family of four all month!
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Another year and another debate about chile superiority between half of the Four Corner states—your silence speaks volumes, Arizona—leaves us with no new ground covered, as always. You might remember we wrote about the debate itself and what it meant within our current political climate last month, but let’s dig into the real root of the issue itself: What are the actual differences between our chiles? Not based on a level of pride, not set in stone because of tradition, but let’s get just straight to the core facts about the real differences offered between the varieties found in Pueblo, Colo. and Hatch, N.M.

Let’s get the most damning fact against Hatch chile out of the way at the start: Pueblo was growing green chile long before we were. To be more specific, multiple Pueblos were cultivating their plants and seeds way before we got started with what are our modern green chile plants in 1894. The plant that is essentially Hatch green chile (and the truest form of what a green chile plant is considered to be and look like) now was originally known as “New Mexico No. 9” and was released in 1913. I know, it sounds like a Burqueno-made perfume perfect for those nights in front of the fire in the dead of December to draw your lover in with the fresh-roasted scent of mid-September on your neck, but these plants were, at the time, a complete breakthrough in chile-growing technology.

Fabián Garcia, a horticulturist from New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts aka NMSU, used strains of different of chile from New Mexico and southern Colorado to breed and develop a chile that would match the needs of then-modern New Mexico peoples. Using 14 different versions of local chiles such as poblano, negro and others, the final product was a chile that was hotter than any of the others while also being a "larger, smoother, fleshier, more tapering and shoulder-less pod for canning purposes,” according to Garcia himself. These seeds made their way to Hatch, and the rest is history.

In the truest sense of the word, Pueblo green chile is technically the original, with only natural cultivation skill used to create the plants that exist to this day. That means they weren’t developed like the ones that grow here in New Mexico, meaning you can expect them to be naturally smaller and less hot, typically landing around 2,000 to 20,000 Scoville Heat Units, while due to the vast range of strains here, our chile lands anywhere from 500 to 70,000 Scoville. If heat were a contest (which in this case, it is), New Mexico is the cut and dried winner.

When it comes to flavor, well, honestly, that’s a preference thing. New Mexico is known for its high-heat summers with little to no precipitation, helping it keep that dry heat flavor that has a subtle but spicy bite to it. The Colorado chile is missing those environmental factors that add these levels of flavor and intrigue to the chile, giving it a more even and straight taste profile, which is fine for onions, but is a waste on something like chile, which is the revolutionary in the field for interesting digestive discourse. Another round goes to New Mexico.

What the fight seems to be about, in my eyes, is the use and preparation of green chile between regions. For Colorado, it appears that it’s something that requires multiple steps of preparation to be used in a dish, with thickening agents like cornstarch, cooked down, essentially turned into a salsa verde, which may explain why so many Colorado residents I know refer to them as “green chiles,” a plural that sends chills up my spine from the wrongness of its existence every time I hear it spoken. In New Mexico, it’s not that complicated. Sure, we smother our everything in a green chile sauce, but we also use it on its own, near unaltered (sans the roasting process, because I mean, that’s the best part.) Throw it on a burger, mix it in with a sausage before cooking it, chop it up in any dish it can subtly blend with, put it on your pizza, heck, I even had a friend whose uncle ate them raw. He said he liked them with the skin on, which feels a little serial killer-ish to me, but I digress. At the end of the day, New Mexico chile wins on usage, especially in this state, where a restaurant that doesn’t offer it in some capacity should expect to go out of business within months.

It is worth noting that there is one more contender for the chile crown, though you’d never know it. Anaheim, Calif. also grows the “New Mexico No. 9” strain, though due to the soil and climate of the region, the variance is too high for it to qualify as official. The interesting part is the Scoville scale. These peppers, dubbed “Anaheim peppers” by some naming genius, have been growing in that area for over a century, yet they cap out on capsaicin with a Scoville of 500 to 2,500. If proof was ever needed that environment is everything to these plants, this alone is definitive and damning evidence of the fact.

It’s a cop-out to say you should eat the chile that makes you happy, though it is indeed great advice. Why force yourself to chow down on something that is either too hot or too bland for your enjoyment? The trick of choosing between these two chile giants is that they both offer something unique and different based on their growing environments. That said, New Mexico would win in most contest settings, whether for heat, variety, flavor profiles and other arbitrary contest standards regarding peppers. It just has the pedigree to succeed. Will this end the chile war between our two states? That’s doubtful, but in case any Coloradan reads this and doesn’t believe me, let me take you to a farmer’s market in late-September and you tell me if you’ve ever smelled anything like that in your state. I’ve got a feeling your mind might change, even just a little bit.

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