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The Southwest

The Southwest

The Southwest encompasses New Mexico, southwestern Texas, Arizona and the southern part of Colorado that was settled by the Spanish. Although all of Texas is sometimes considered part of the Southwest, much of east Texas is more closely related to the Southeast and much of north Texas is more related to the Midwest and the West.

Southwestern foods in the United States are a product of the foods of the Native Americans and the foods of Spanish and Spanish-Indian settlers from Mexico. This tradition appears in the areas that have been settled the longest. Its distribution follows a roughly northsouth line starting in southern Colorado, especially along the San Luis Valley, and proceeding southeast along the Rio Grande River, including the cities of Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Las Cruces, New Mexico. In Arizona, the line is roughly an eastwest one, marked by the Gila River, below which are long-established Spanish-Mexican settlements. In Texas the Southwest can be described as being south and west of San Antonio. Traditional food is also found in other communities in the region, as individual families have moved to establish new homes.

Outside of the traditional areas, communities of the Southwest reflect a food tradition that is more Eastern or Midwestern than Southwestern. In some cases it may also represent the simple ranch cooking of the Mountain States of Colorado and Utah. Inhabitants of larger cities in the Southwest represent many different cultures, as is the case with cities elsewhere in the United States. Asians, Africans, Europeans, Latin Americans, and people from many countries in the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent all have their own enclaves, giving rise to a broad variety of markets and restaurants. Tucson, Arizona, far from the largest of the cities in the Southwest, boasts a cultural and food festival each October that regularly has more than fifty different ethnic food booths. While some families cling to their ethnic food traditions, especially in isolated communities, others are more likely to celebrate their inherited food culture on special holidays. It is not unusual in the Southwest to find a family enjoying its own native cooking one evening, while exploring flavors from another on the next.

Traditional Foods in the Southwest

Traditional Southwestern food is commonly viewed by persons living outside the Southwest as consisting of tamales, tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, and burritos. While these dishes are extremely popular in many restaurants, they are referred to in the culinary repertoire as antojitos (snacks).

Traditional to the old Southwest are slow-cooked stews and slow-grilled foods, served with beans, rice, and corn tortillas. Vegetables used include squashes, nopales (pared and trimmed pads from the prickly pear cactus), jicamas (spherical tubers that, when pared, have a crisp texture and a faint taste of apple or water chestnut), purslane, and tomatillos (tart fruit that resemble tomatoes with husks but are related to the cape gooseberry). Avocados are used to make guacamole (a thick sauce of crushed avocado with seasonings). Fresh cilantro (also known as coriander), is used frequently to season fresh, quick-cooked dishes. Many of these foods existed in the diet of the Native American before the arrival of the Spanish. Opinions differ on whether chilies were grown in the Southwest before the arrival of the Spanish from Mexico, but the variety of spices that create the chili-based dishes today, both within the Native American culture and outside, arrived with the Spanish.

Food specialties of the Southwest differ from region to region. The burrito (a soft flour tortilla wrapped around a hot, savory filling) originated in the area north of the state of Sonora, where the flour tortilla originated. Stacked enchiladas (corn tortillas prepared as for rolled enchiladas but layered flat with savory fillings) are a specialty of New Mexico, although their popularity has spread throughout the region. Salpicon (a shredded-beef salad with vegetables) is a hallmark of southwest Texas.

Elements of Traditional Southwestern Cooking

Tortillas, beans, rice, vegetables, and some meat and cheese are the mainstays of traditional Southwestern cooking. In areas within driving distance of the Gulf of California, fish and shellfish increase the choices. Apart from the well-known antijitos mentioned earlier lie the true gems of Southwestern cuisine: red chili con carne (chili with meat) made with meat simmered in a sauce of reconstituted dried red chilies, cumin, dried coriander and oregano; and green chili con carne made from meat simmered in fresh green chilies, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Beef, pork, lamb, and goat are all used, although beef is the most common in restaurants. Chicken is also cooked with sauces made from either red chilies or green chilies. These dishes vary from town to town and family to family. Beans are usually served separately, not as a part of the chili stews. While chili stews are slow-cooked, fish and shellfish may be quickly grilled. Chicken is marinated in a mixture of orange juice and spices before being grilled, and steak is often marinated, then grilled for carne asada (literally translated as "roasted meat"). The cheese used in many popular Southwestern restaurants is either Longhorn cheddar or Monterey Jack, with sour cream used as a garnish. In the barrios (the Hispanic-Mexican neighborhoods) and in the homes of serious Southwestern cooks, Mexican queso fresco (literally "fresh cheese") and commercially made Mexican crema (similar to sour cream) are used instead.

Chili. The dish known as "chili," much beloved in the region, is a creation of U.S. cooks. True aficionados eschew tomatoes or beans in their chili, preferring to have their meat, either cubed or coarsely ground, simmered only in a sauce made from reconstituted dried red chilies, spices, and other flavorings. Contests are held throughout the region to determine the best chili. Private cooks and restaurants often take liberties with this tradition, producing their own variations.

Tortillas. Tortillas in the Southwest were traditionally made with either yellow or white corn, and sometimes with the more exotic red or blue corn. These corn tortillas are made from corn that has been soaked in slaked lime and then ground. They require no fat of any kind and are cooked on an ungreased comal (griddle). The tortilla acts as a wrapper or as bread. Occasionally, wedges of tortilla are crisped as a snack. Nachos (crisp wedges of corn tortilla topped with cheese and other garnishes) are a recent invention. While crisp, folded corn tortillas are served with fillings as tacos, the more authentic style for a taco is simply a soft, warm tortilla.

The flour tortilla native to the Mexican state of Sonora, sometimes as much as eighteen inches in diameter, is a more recent addition to traditional foods. The traditional flour tortilla of northern Sonora is a thin disc made from flour, water, and lard patted into shape by hand, than cooked quickly on a large hot griddle. These large tortillas are used to wrap foods, but they also are spread with butter and crisped before cheese and occasionally other toppings are added to form a crisp snack that resembles pizza. Flour tortillas are also made into quesadillas (tortillas folded over cheese and other fillings and grilled or fried). Small flour tortillas used in place of corn tortillas are an addition of the twentieth century, as is the inclusion of baking powder in the dough to give the flour tortilla a puffy quality.

Tamales. A tamal (plural, tamales ) is a packet of corn-based dough that is stuffed, wrapped in softened corn husks, and steamed. The corn husks are removed at the table before the tamales are eaten. While tamales are served throughout the year in restaurants in the Southwest, beef and red chili tamales are traditional for Christmas when families and friends gather to assemble dozens of tamales. A traditional Christmas tamal is made from masa (a dough of corn treated with slaked lime, which is whipped with lard or shortening to make it fluffy), with a filling of shredded beef that has been stewed with red chilies and spices. Fillings used throughout the year may be made from slow-cooked chicken, beef, pork, lamb, or goat, which have been seasoned with reconstituted dried chilies and with spices.

The green corn tamal is a specialty of midsummer and best known in southern Arizona, although green corn tamales are also made in New Mexico. Although the green corn tamal is now available frozen year round, it is best fresh when corn is in season. The best green corn tamales are made from field corn, the kind given to animals for fodder. The fresh corn dough is filled with cooked green chilies and cheese, and the tamales are traditionally prepared as above.

Chilies. Many chilies, both red (which is the ripe form) and green, are grown in the Southwest, but the variety of chilies available, however, is not as diverse as it is in Mexico. Each variety of chili has its own special use, alone or in combination. Green chilies appear in fresh salsas (sauces) but also appear in stewed dishes, depending on the flavor desired. Red chilies are dried for use throughout the year and are reconstituted for use in cooked salsas and slow-cooked dishes. The combination of different red chilies with spices and herbs such as ground coriander seed, ground cumin seed, and oregano or fresh coriander leaves (cilantro) gives each dish its special character. Chilies, even those from the same plant, can vary in piquancy. Traditionally, the piquancy has been rated in Scoville units, where higher readings indicate a higher degree of piquancy. Some experts now question the value of that practice as different humans react somewhat differently to levels of piquancy.

Beans. Simmered dried beans, the mainstay of traditional Southwestern cooking, are usually charro beans (cowboy beans), but beans may be simmered or baked with various flavorings. "Refried" beans are not fried twice but are cooked beans mashed into shortening and seasoned with onion, garlic, and other seasonings.

Barbacoa and grilled foods. While not as widespread as the ubiquitous red or green chili-flavored stews, pitcooked meats and grilled meats, chicken, and fish are also elements of Southwestern cooking. Slow pit barbecuing traditionally was done using the head of the animal, although today other cuts are used. Grilled meats include carne asada and chicken marinated in orange juice and spices and then grilled.

Fried breads and sweets. Sopaipillas (made from quick dough of wheat flour and baking powder, rolled out, cut, and deep-fried so that they puff up) are served as a savory bread with meals in parts of New Mexico. In Arizona, these are occasionally served with savory seasonings, but are more likely to be served as a dessert with honey. Southwestern desserts are fairly simple, serving as a soothing and cooling finish to a meal. A favorite is flan (a molded baked custard). Another is almendrado (an almond-seasoned mixture of egg white and gelatin served with a custard sauce). Bizcochitos (anise cookies) and buñuelos (deep-fried wheat-flour pastries) are popular as well.

Drinks. While the Margarita (a mixture of Tequila, lime juice, and orange liqueur) is popular in Southwestern restaurants, Mexican beers are more often drunk with foods in the Southwest if an alcoholic beverage is desired. Many nonalcoholic drinks are available in Hispanic-Mexican neighborhoods shops and restaurants, including tamarinda (a sweetened drink made from tamarind pulp), horchata (sweetened rice drink), and aguas frescas (literally "fresh waters") made from various fresh fruits.

The Food and Culture of the Southwestern Native American

The importance of corn in the food life of Native Americans cannot be overemphasized. Corn is essential and sacred; corn is life itself. In many pueblos the day begins with a sacrifice of corn. Corn originated in Mexico in about 2500 b.c.e., but required hybridization before it was useful as a food. Contemporary Pueblo Indians plant corn with great ceremony and care. Corn appears in the Native-American diet today in the form of tortillas. It also appears as hominy and posole (corn kernels that have been treated with slaked lime so that they swell and release nutrients bound inside). Posole, sold dried and made of yellow, white, red, or blue corn, refers to a soupy stew that is made with simple ingredients, including seasoning of chilies for everyday fare and with meat for festival occasions. Another significant part of the diet of the Southwestern Native American, beans are planted with the same kinds of sacred observances as corn. While the most common bean in the Southwest today is the pinto bean, a wide variety of beans, some extremely flavorful, were a part of the Native American diet in the past. As seed savers work to isolate some of these "heirloom" beans and grow them, some of the old varieties are again becoming available not only to the Native American but also to the general public.

While the hunting, gathering, or growing of food take on a sacred aspect, the act of preparing food is an important and time-consuming activity. Among the Pueblo Indians and other nations, the act of stringing red chilies to dry each autumn takes on a special significance, for there must be a string of chilies equal to the height of each person in a family to sustain the demand for the coming year.

The popularity of foods such as Indian fry bread, (dough cooked on a hot stone) came with the increased availability of refined flour and commercially prepared shortening or lard. From a culinary standpoint, fry bread and sopaipillas, mentioned earlier, are essentially the same. The "Navajo taco" employs fry bread rather than a tortilla as its wrapper. While this increased used of fat and flour has provided flavorful alternatives to the corn tortilla, the consumption of significant quantities of these ingredients has altered the diet of the Southwestern Native American to the extent that obesity and diabetes are rampant. Efforts of such organizations as Native Seeds Search to preserve the original foods of these peoples are intended to at least partially encourage a return to a more healthy diet.

See also American Indians; Central America; Chili Peppers; Combination of Foods; Legumes; Maize; Mexico; Squash and Gourds; Stew.


Dent, Huntley. The Feast of Santa Fe. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Frank, Lois Ellen, with Cynthia J. Frank. Native American Cooking. New York: Potter, 1991.

Hughes, Stella. Chuck Wagon Cookin'. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1974.

Johnson, Ronald. The Aficionado's Southwestern Cooking. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1968.

Newsom, Lynn. Authentic Southwestern Cooking. Tucson, Ariz.: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1999.

Niethammer, Carolyn J. American Indian Food and Lore. New York: Collier and Macmillan, 1974.

Madge Griswold

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