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Santa Fe's red rock formations under a sunny, blue sky.
Travel & Culture

Significance of Sustenance: Santa Fe, NM

Santa fe, new mexico

Certain feelings and experiences make me wonder about the concept of reincarnation. For instance, my Scandinavian roots run deep, but I’ve always been drawn to the American Southwest. You’ll find colors of the region throughout my home — from brown and aqua to burnt orange — and items I’ve collected over the years like southwestern-style throw pillows, Spanish Colonial mirrors, and books filled with Pueblo Indian folk tales. 

A few years back in late spring, a friend and I packed our bags on a whim and headed south to Santa Fe, New Mexico. As we walked the winding downtown streets, I found my happy place. I loved the picturesque adobe shops with their red-tile floors and exposed wood beams (or vigas). And each colorful clay pot, hand-woven rug, or desert painting made my heart sing. That said, if I were asked to describe my favorite feature of this city, it would be the food — hands down. As I learned more about the local culture, I gained a whole new appreciation for southwestern flavors.

Santa Fe cuisine is influenced by Spanish, Mexican, and Native American cultures. Arriving in the 1500s, the Spanish brought rice, wheat, pork, beef, and dairy products like butter and cheese to the area. Later, newcomers from Mexico added fish and seafood to the mix, but the heart of New Mexican cuisine lies with its indigenous foods. Go to a Native American festival in Santa Fe, and chances are it will involve planting or growing. In the tradition of the Apache, Navajo, and Pueblo peoples of the region, a good harvest is welcomed with gratitude. Let me share with you a few foods native to the Santa Fe area that I love to cook with.

My Scandinavian roots run deep, but I've always been drawn to the American Southwest.

Beans

Native Americans around Santa Fe call beans, corn, and squash the “Three Sisters” because they are said to thrive when planted together. Types of beans grown in the area are pinto, bolita, and Anasazi beans. New Mexicans like their beans whole — not refried — and many locals swear they taste better when cooked in a micaceous clay pot. Simmered for hours with spices, a little salted pork, some tomato, and onion, beans make a delicious side dish, especially when topped with a little cotija cheese. 

Blue Corn

Celebrated in Native American dances and festivals, it’s easy to tell that corn is sacred in New Mexico. Known for its flavor and health properties, blue corn provides more protein than yellow or white corn, and although it tastes sweeter, it has a lower glycemic index than the other two types of corn. When Native Americans in the area get sick, they skip the chicken soup and turn to atole, a porridge-style drink made from blue cornmeal, boiled water, and a little sugar. Blue corn can also be found in tortillas, tortilla chips, pancakes, and piki bread, a traditional Hopi flatbread.

Yellow Squash

New Mexican gardens, groceries, and farmers’ markets are flooded with yellow squash in high summer, and locals don’t mind. They eat calabacitas — a popular side dish featuring yellow squash, corn, and chiles — by the bowlful. Since it is named for the Spanish word meaning “zucchini,” it’s safe to assume that calabacitas originally featured the greener form of squash. These days, some Santa Fe locals use both types, and others only use zucchini in a pinch. 

Chiles

The chile is so important to New Mexico that it’s been named the state vegetable (although technically it’s a fruit). Also important to New Mexicans is the spelling of this “vegetable,” which is often misspelled as “chili.” Locals are quick to point out that chili is a type of stew, and chile is a pepper that goes into a stew.

The difference between New Mexican red and green chiles is just a matter of time. Chiles start out green and as they ripen, they turn red. In our home, we often follow the Santa Fe tradition and eat our green chiles fresh or roasted. Red chiles are dried into flakes or powders, and both are turned into zesty sauces. For fun, locals have labeled a combination of the two sauces as “Christmas.”

Locals and travelers to northern New Mexico find these ingredients and more in a number of popular dishes. They include posole (hominy stew), adovada (pork marinated in red chile), horno bread, and classics like tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tamales, or quesadillas. To relieve my “homesickness,” I cook these dishes often in my kitchen up north, and I try my best to reproduce the most important ingredient: the spirit of Santa Fe.