Chile Ristras

Bright red strings of chile peppers, called ristras, hanging along a fence to dry out before they can be prepared for red chile sauce.
A colorful New Mexican tradition.


Chile Ristras of New Mexico

Ristras are the strings of chile you see hanging along fences, on patios and on portals all over New Mexico. In the Fall, you can buy ristras at farmer's markets and roadside stands. Ristras are sometimes used for decoration, and are said to bring good health and good luck. More often, they are hung up to dry for later cooking and eating.

What is a chile?

Chiles are in the genus Capsicum, and the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes other New World plants, such as the tomato, potato, eggplant, tobacco and the petunia. While we sometimes refer to chiles as "peppers," they are not related to Piper nigrum, the source of black pepper.

Chiles range from the sweet bell pepper to the fiery hot habenero. They are considered a vegetable when green, and a spice when dried. Botanically, chile fruits are considered berries.

The word "chile" is a variation of "chil" derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec) dialect. The "e" ending is the correct Hispanic spelling of the word. English speakers have changed the "e" to an "i" and made the word refer most often to the state dish of Texas, a combination of meat, beans, and chile pepper, called "chili."

Where did chiles originate?

Originally, chile was found only in the Americas where it has been domesticated for 7,000 years. The wild ancestral form probably originated in the area of Bolivia and Peru. When Columbus landed in the New World, while searching for a shorter route to the East Indies and its prized spices, he found a variety of small red chile which was similar in pungency to the black pepper with which he was familiar. He called this variety "red pepper" and took it home to Europe.

Prehistorically, distribution of Capsicum extended from the southernmost border of the United States to the temperate area of South America. Spanish explorers in the late 1500s reported that the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico were growing a mild variant form of chile. Chile is often considered an annual, however, in suitable climates it becomes a small perennial shrub that can live for a decade or more.

Since the introduction of chile to Europe by Columbus, it has spread rapidly along the spice trade routes to Africa and Asia, where it has become a major crop. Today, a quarter of the population of the world eats hot chile every day.

Why does New Mexico grow so much chile?

New Mexicans consume more chile per capita than any other group in the United States. It is an essential ingredient of "Mexican or Southwestern food," the fastest growing food sector in the United States.

New Mexico has an optimum climate for growing pungent chile with low annual precipitation, irrigation is essential and increases pungency. Too much water, however, can encourage diseases and the fruit will be less pungent. The high desert climate provides a high intensity of sunlight, warm days, cool nights and daily breezes, which help to dry the plants after a rain or morning dew. Several hundred varieties of chiles are grown in New Mexico, including New Mexican (green and red), cayenne, and jalapeño.

Why is chile spicy hot?

It is believed that the Chile evolved pungency to discourage mammals from eating the fruits because their digestive systems destroy the seeds, preventing the spread of the plant. Birds, the natural agents of dispersal of chiles, do not feel the heat, and thus disseminate the seeds.

Chile seeds are not the source of the pungency. The "heat" is produced by alkaloid compounds call capsaicinoids, which are located in glands along the fruit's inner wall, or placenta. If you cut the fruit open you can tell how hot a chile will be. If the placenta is a bright orange, the fruit will be hot. If the color is very pale, the fruit will be on the mild side.

The pungency is affected by the genetic makeup of the variety, the weather, growing conditions, and age of the fruit. Plant breeders can select for desired ranges of pungency, but any stress to the plant such as a few hot days or less precipitation, can increase the capsaicinoid content and cause the pungency to increase.

Chile spiciness is measured in terms of Scoville Heat Units. Heat is felt as a result of the irritation of the pain and temperature receptors in the mouth, nose, and stomach by the capsaicinoids. The physical reactions of vasodilatation, sweating and flushing, result , and the brain causes the release of endorphins which give the body a sense of pleasure. This can cause people to become "addicted" to chiles.

How do you extinguish the fire once you have eaten a hot chile?

Some claim that plain water is best, while others claim that sugar, beer, bread, citrus fruits, tomato juice and oil can also help. Scientific research says that milk or milk based products which contain casein are the most helpful. Casein is a protein that unbinds the capsaicin from the nerve receptors on the taste buds, and puts out the fire!

What is the difference between red and green chile fruit?

Red and green fruit represent two developmental stages of the same chile fruit. The plant produces green fruit, which turns red if the pods are left on the plant. The red fruit is usually dried and ground into chile powder. Green chile is roasted and peeled for fresh consumption, canning or freezing.

Chiles are an important source of vitamins and many essential nutrients. A green chile pod can contain six times as much vitamin C as a Florida orange. The content diminishes about 30% with cooking and is almost completely absent in dried chile. As pods turn red, the vitamin A content increases until they contain twice the vitamin A of a carrot. Chile pods also contain high concentrations of vitamins E, P (bioflavonoids), B1 (thiamin) B2 (riboflavin) and B3 (niacin).

How is chile used today?

Chile is eaten today as a fresh vegetable or in its dried form as a spice. It is often used in combination with tomatoes in salsas, and hot sauces, but it can also be found in many ethnic foods, meats, salad dressings, dairy products, beverages, candies, baked goods, snack foods, breading and batters. Paprika (the Hungarian words for chile), is used as coloring in sausages, cheeses, drugs and cosmetics. Cayenne (named for a city in French Guiana) is used in hot sauce, and jalapeños (named for Jalapa, Mexico), are preserved by canning or pickling. Chiles have antimicrobial effects, and help to retard food spoilage, an important benefit in warm climates.

Today, chiles are widely used as a natural remedy. Pharmaceutical companies use the capsaicin as a topical agent in creams and liniments for sore muscles or for chronic pain as with shingles, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

Capsaicin is the active ingredient in anti-mugger (pepper spray) aerosols used by many police departments.

Ornamental chiles (which are edible) are grown in colors of the rainbow by many nursery greenhouses.

Red chile, when fed to pink flamingos, improves their feather color.

What are the methods of drying chile?

Traditionally, chile was sun-dried, the fruits being spread on roofs or on the ground. However, because of contamination by birds and rodents, people began to tie them together in strings or ristras and hang them on a wall. Commercial processors now use controlled artificial drying.

So, what do I do with those dried red chile pods?

To make chile sauce, select 12 to 14 large pods to make one pint. Pick those without any mold, disease, insect infestation, or decay, and be sure that they have not been sprayed with a plastic or shellac for decorative purposes. Remove stems, seeds, and yellow veins from the pods (leave the veins if you want a sauce which is more pungent). Wash the pods in warm water, changing the water several times.

Place the washed pods in a warm water for 30 minutes to one hour to rehydrate them. Add water as needed. Then, simmer for 10 minutes. The pulp will become soft and thick and separate from the skin. Place the pods and some water in a blender and blend until smooth puree is obtained. Run the puree through a colander or sieve to remove bits of peeling.

In a sauce pan mix one cup of the chile puree, one cup of water, one minced garlic clove (optional), ½ teaspoon salt, two tablespoons vegetable oil, and simmer for ten minutes. Add ½ teaspoon crushed oregano leaves (optional) and simmer another five to seven minutes.

Store leftover puree in freezer.

What is the official state question for New Mexico?

Answer: Red or Green?

Last updated: February 17, 2019

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