Sunday, September 4, 2011

Eating Chiles in Hatch

Hatch Chile Festival 2011.
Hatch, NM, is the chile capital of the world.

Every Labor day weekend for the past 40 years, thousands of visitors descend on the usually sleepy town to celebrate chiles. New Mexico green chiles.

This year was no exception. To understand what this fuss is all about it helps to understand something about chiles. Chiles are the fourth great food group from the New World—behind potatoes, tomatoes and corn—to make its mark on global cuisine.

Chiles are rich in vitamins. A good green New Mexico chile has six times as much vitamin C as an orange. For more information about chiles see Chile Facts. They are also flavorful

But what really makes a chile a chile—and why Columbus called them peppers—is a chemical called capsaichin. Capsaichinoids do two things. They fool receptors in the mouth, nose and throat into thinking you have just eaten something fiery hot. The body responds by elevating the heart rate and dousing itself with water, which is why some people break out in a sweat. Capsaichinoids also release endorphins, giving a sense of well-being.

Dried chiles festoon the town.
Not all chiles are created equal. The common garden variety bell pepper is a chile with virtually no capsaichinoids. The succulent green New Mexico variety grown and celebrated here is a mild chile with just enough punch to please the palate, making it ideal for eating, sauces and flavoring foods.The green chile cheeseburger is a New Mexico staple.

At the upper end of the heat range are piquins, cayennes, tabascos and rocotos. And at the top end there are some so hot you don't want to touch them.

By universal consensus the best of the succulent New Mexico chiles are  grown in the fertile valley of the Rio Grande in and around Hatch. Visitors come to the festival from around the world. The BBC sent a camera crew to film the event.

During the festival chiles are roasted along sidewalks, suffusing the air with a savory piquant scent. Bunches of bright red and yellow chiles hang from store fronts, posts, beams and rooftops like holiday decorations. Vendors sell raw chiles, roasted chiles, foods prepared with chiles, chile sauces and chile souvenirs.

For two glorious days the whole town of Hatch chiles out.
Carried in 40 pound sacks.

A few miles outside of town is the festival itself—a giant county fair dedicated to honoring the genus Capiscum. It sprawls over several acres of open field. Admission is $10 the car.

We are just in time for the chile eating contest. Green chiles are piled high on paper plates. All the chiles must be eaten except the stems. It takes about three minutes for the winner to pack in two pounds of greens washed down with water.

Mostly there is music, vendors and a carnival feel. Besides chiles, vendors sell slices of fruits and melons sprinkled with chile powder. The combination is surprisingly good.
Music is part of the festival.

There are also souvenirs from Mexico, Ecuador and beyond. The festival is known to draw as many as 30,000 visitors, though this year there were fewer.  It has been going on for 40 years.

There is international interest. Indians may have discovered the chile more than 6000 years ago, but the discovery has gone global.

Today Thailand consumes more chiles per capita than any other country in the world. Chiles are grown and eaten around the globe.

But the best chiles—the best succulent green New Mexico chiles—are produced right here in fertile, sun-drenched Dona Ana county, New Mexico. Worth a drive.

Dried chiles—beautiful to behold.


  1. Great pictures and story, John. I did not do the Chile Festival this weekend--headed to the Cuchillo Cafe instead and had an amazing lunch of enchiladas made with homemade blue corn tortillas. I had it "Christmas style" with both green and red chiles. Wonderful place, open only on weekends. We were the only customers--I think everyone else was in Hatch!

  2. I agree, they're beautiful to behold, but my taste buds lean toward the bland side. :(

  3. Wonderful post and pictures. I like the chiles stuffed with cheese and roasted.

  4. Wonderful Chiles-Post. I wish we could experience all those summer events, but then we would be more than 6 months in the States, which we are not allowed to. So we have to go during our Canadian winter.