A trip to New Mexico holds many sights unique to the Southwest and its Spanish heritage: adobe buildings and houses; mesa, mountains, and high desert; big sky sunsets; Native American jewelry and crafts; and ristras. What are ristras, you ask? If you've been to the Land of Enchantment, and especially to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, you almost certainly have seen a ristra, but you might not have known the correct name for it.
A ristra is a string of dried chilies, garlic, or other foodstuffs. But in New Mexico, when people talk about a ristra, they're referring to the string of red Hatch chile pods that can be found hanging as decoration on many New Mexican homes, especially those made of adobe.
Ristras as Decor
Ristras of chiles are sold at farmers markets and are seasonally fresh in the late summer or early fall. Ristras are said to bring both good health and good luck to those who hang them at their house.
You'll see red chile ristras throughout New Mexico used as decoration. They're often hung on front porches and portals as a cheerful welcome. They can also be hung in kitchens, where the chiles can be used as needed or kept for many years as a dried decoration. Buy one for yourself to hang on your porch or in your kitchen; they're an iconic souvenir of a trip to New Mexico.
Red chile pods start out as green chile pods, but they are left on the vine a long time, and that allows them to turn red.
Once they were red, they are picked and strung with twine onto a ristra rope to form this iconic decoration.
Chilies are part of the Capsicum genus in the nightshade family of plants. Other nightshades are tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes. Chilies are a type of pepper, hence the term "chili pepper." They are not related to black pepper, but they are related to other peppers, which include sweet bell peppers, jalapenos, and spicy habaneros.
The New Mexican chile, which is grown throughout the state but is most well-known as coming from Hatch, New Mexico, is usually an Anaheim variety. It is often just called a Hatch chile.
Chiles are so important to the state of New Mexico that there is a ubiquitous question across the state: red or green, meaning, would you like red or green chile with your meal. There are many types of hot chili peppers.
There is some controversy over how the word "chili" should be spelled; Webster's New World Dictionary spells it "chili" for all types except the Hatch variety grown in New Mexico, which is spelled "chile." Chile is the Spanish spelling of the word. New Mexicans all spell it in the Spanish way, and that is how you will see it on menus or retail listings there.