The flavors of American Southwestern cooking are as unique and varied as the landscape itself. Imbued with native, earthy ingredients, cosmopolitan Spanish savor and the distinctive heat from south of the border, this rustic cuisine is an iconic symbol of the cultures and geography from which it is derived.
Simple yet diverse, it’s a distinctive compilation of foods that would have been eaten by Native American Indians, with additional contributions from the Aztec and other peoples of Mesoamerica, Spanish colonial settlers, cowboys and Western settlers.
Back to the Beginning
For millennia, Native Americans established the basis for this remarkable cuisine with flavorful dishes gleaned from the desert and mountains. With very little rainfall, the landscape looks harsh and arid, yet it offers a surprisingly abundant variety of vegetation in wild edibles.
Some of the common food sources used by the Yavapai, Apache, Hopi and Navajo peoples were (and are):
- Roasted agave heart.
- Arizona walnuts.
- Berries of the Netleaf Hackberry.
- The fruit of the Catclaw Acacia –the green pods were eaten fresh, and also ground into a flour to make porridge and breads. And bees that feed on the blossoms produce a delicious honey.
- The leaves, young shoots, seeds and fruit of the Four Wing Saltbush are all edible, while the ashes from the burnt leaves where used as a baking soda in Hopi piki bread.
- The pads of the Prickly Pear Cactus can be roasted, steamed, pickled or fried. Its fruits are cleaned, boiled and mashed to make a jelly, or can simply be sliced and eaten.
- The Desert Christmas Cactus yields berry-sized fruit that are crushed and made into a jam, as well as a beverage with an intoxicating effect.
- Velvet Mesquite provided a flour by grinding its seeds and pods into meal and baking it into cakes, while the sap was eaten like a candy. And the wood, used in cooking fires, lends a very distinctive layering of flavor.
- Pine nuts were also a favorite – the shelled nuts were ground to make cakes and a porridge-like gruel.
- Ground acorns were used for thickening stews.
The indigenous peoples of the Southwest also cultivated some crops such as corn, beans and squash. Wild game like rabbits, deer, antelope, wild turkey and quail were plentiful and used in many native recipes, and along streams and rivers, fish were also caught.
Interestingly, tomatoes grew wild in the Andes region of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador and were cultivated in southern Mexico as early 500 B.C. But, they didn’t become popular as a food in America until after they had been introduced to Europe by Spanish conquistadors – although some Pueblo people believed that watching someone ingest tomato seeds would result in the gift of divination.
Foodal recommends the Southwest Table: Traditional Cuisine From Texas, New Mexico, And Arizona
The Mexican flavors contributing to this regional cooking style come from the legacy of the Aztecs, who were dining on beans, corn, chiles, avocados, onions and chocolate long before the arrival of Spanish expeditions in the New World.
The conquistadors brought their own regional ingredients and methods of cooking: sheep, goats and cattle were introduced to the area, as well as new cooking and preservation techniques such as salting pork, smoke-curing meats and sun-drying strips of jerky, which could be eaten as is or reconstituted by stewing.
The gastronomy of the Southwest was further refined by Mexican and Spanish settlers with the addition of flour from ground wheat, a particular variety of melons, bell peppers, summer squashes and zucchini, artichokes and tomatoes, as well as peaches and apricots.
European grape cultivars were also imported, as native species were highly acidic and sour, and considered unsuitable for wine making.
Any fruits that could be adequately stored over the winter months were highly regarded, and eventually these were used to create pastry fillings of dried fruits and nuts, primarily made with apples, raisins, apricots and almonds.
And the Spaniards also brought rice and cheese, still hugely popular in the Tex Mex and New Mex styles of cooking today.
Today, New Mexican cuisine is one of the favorite flavors of the American Southwest food culture, as is Arizona’s Sonoran style, a unique blend of flavors and dietary preferences.
The Basic Ingredients Used in Southwestern Cooking
Here’s a basic rundown on the ingredients you’ll commonly find used in this style of cooking.
Corn: Southwestern corn is grown in six colors, including red, white and blue. It has always been one of the primary crops cultivated by the American Indians.
In the dishes of today’s Southwestern style, corn is used in many different ways: corn husks are used to wrap tamales, the kernels are ground and pressed for oil, and they’re also dried and milled into flour. Mexican masa, or ground corn meal prepared with lime, was a dietary staple for centuries.
The tortilla today is pretty much as it has been for last several centuries, while posole – a thick soup made of lime-treated hominy corn with onions, garlic, cilantro and chilies – is enjoyed year round.
Beans: Beans were another dietary staple of the old Southwest, and they star in a number of dishes popular today in New Mexican cooking. The customary dish of black beans now has a distinctive flavor with the addition of mesquite-smoked chipotle chilies. It’s often served with avocado and a topping of crumbled cheese, then cooled with lime wedges.
Beans are used in tortillas and as a basic ingredient in soups, salsas, and a variety of entrees, as a dip, and of course, refried for a side dish.
Chilies: Southwestern cooking gets a big boost to its distinctive flavor from the Aztec influence, as it borrows heavily from Mexican cuisine with its generous use of spices, particularly the chili pepper.
Regardless of their color or heat level, which ranges from mild to inferno hot, whether smoked or raw, chilies are the spice of choice that captures the identity of Southwestern cooking.
This is notable in the green chili with its sweet and earthy flavor, and the fleshy red chili, hot and sweet – and, these chilies are often fire roasted to intensify their flavors even more. The most common type used today is the cayenne.
If you’re exploring Southwestern cooking for the first time, too much heat can happen. Learn how to turn down the heat on excessive spiciness here to bring out the full desert flavors of a truly balanced, authentic, and above-all edible dish!
Not only do chili peppers add their distinctive flavor to cooking, along with tomatoes and tomatillos, they add a dramatic dash of color to Southwestern dishes. Another source of color in these dishes comes from mole sauce, the most well-known type of which is a chocolate-based sauce that’s reddish-brown in hue, and often served with grilled poultry, pork chops and beef tips.
A popular version in New Mex cooking includes red chili flakes, tomatoes, onion, cloves, sesame seeds, almonds, raisins, cinnamon, coriander and fresh cilantro. Sweet and savory, it’s a taste that can’t be missed.
Distinctive Cooking Techniques – Unique Fusion of Flame Roasting, Adobo, Cast Iron & BBQ
One of the traditional cooking techniques that remains with us today is the layering of flavors through roasting. Chilies and tomatoes are flame roasted to let the skin char, which results in a rich, smoky flavor, adding distinctive depth.
Another method is marinating foods in a paste or sauce such as adobo, which is a combination of chilies, vinegar, spices and herbs.
Cast iron skillet roasting is part of the cowboy heritage, a method employed by chuck wagon cooks. Garlic, skillet roasted over medium heat, creates a sweet, nutty flavor – a key ingredient in Southwestern barbecue glazes.
Cast iron grilling also lends its unique flavors to dishes such as skillet corn bread, where the ingredients are all combined and cooked with a little oil to intensify the heat and savory flavors.
Clay pottery used for baking and stewing is another heritage type of cookware, which allows for flavorful food prep without any metallic overtones.
And, of course, grilling or barbecuing is a standard method for cooking beef, pork and poultry, all infused with the spicy, sweet flavors of tomato-based glazes and sauces.
Today, we can easily incorporate the roasted, smoked and spicy flavor ingredients so popular in Southwestern foods into our own everyday cuisine. A trip to your favorite grocer will supply the necessary ingredients for an adventurous exploration of this remarkable cooking style.
Check out this cookbook for a modern take on the Southwest style: Cooking with Cafe Pasqual’s: Recipes from Santa Fe’s Renowned Corner Cafe
Try the chipotle chili flavored bases, adobo sauces, roasted garlic pastes and mesquite flavored grilling chips to mimic many of the New Mex flavors. And if you need to temper the heat a little, just add a hint of molasses to smooth out the intensity.
Whip up some skillet cornbread biscuits, or create tortillas or tamales with fire roasted red and green chilies. Or create your own salsa fresca with tomatillos, tomatoes, chilies, garlic, onion, cilantro, and lime juice seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Try out some of the big Southwestern flavors in new combinations, using it to flavor pasta, seafood or vegetable medleys. The results will create a new flavor sensation, further evolving the rich multicultural heritage and tastes of Southwestern cuisine.
A Couple of Southwest Inspired Recipes to Get You Started
Blazing Baby Back Ribs
This recipe was inspired by a trip to the Southwest many years ago, and created by my friend Kathy. A professional cook, she started her career working in logging camps cooking for hungry men who put in long days of intense physical labor. Legend has it that not even the bones remained after serving these ribs, they were that popular!
They are initially baked in a large roasting pan in the oven. This allows for a long and slow cooking time, to ensure that they end up tender and that you aren’t diluting the meaty flavors by parboiling (an awful, awful practice that should be banned under international law!).
After they’ve been tenderized, the ribs are grilled with a touch of direct heat on a barbecue grill, for some added smoky flavor and for a little caramelization of the sugars in the barbecue sauce. This allows the sauce to stick to the meat rather than dripping off. Be careful though – too much caramelization is the same thing as burning the sauce, and you don’t want that.
Also, don’t forget to read Foodal’s 5 Simple Steps to Great Tasting BBQ Ribs for some more great ideas.
Mango and Black Bean Quesadillas
One of the great features of New Mex cooking is its “lightness” – all meals are not meat based, and the highly popular beans make a superb protein source.
These quesadillas have a slightly sweet flavor from the mango, which pairs very nicely with the mildly spicy poblanos and other savory ingredients.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.