Red chile ristras are the strung pods of dried red chiles that you see displayed near arches, doors and windows all over New Mexico. Serving as a symbol of welcome, ristras are an iconic decoration in New Mexico, especially during the harvest months and holidays. Ristras also have their practical uses as the star ingredient of delicious red chile sauce and other New Mexican dishes.
New Mexico’s arid climate and abundant sunshine create ideal conditions for annual chile crops, producing many thousands of tons each year. In late summer and early fall, our unique type of large chile pepper is harvested and frequently picked fresh, roasted and eaten as green chile. When the fruit is left on the plant to ripen a little longer, it turns a vibrant red, completely changing properties. Red chiles must be dried to be eaten. They are often strung up into a chile ristra to dehydrate in the sun.
The traditional method was to sun-dry the fruits by laying them out. However, contamination among birds and rodents prompted people to begin tying them together in strings and hanging them on a wall. As the ristras dry, they become a darker, subtle red color. At this point, they are ready to be used for cooking or displayed as decoration.
Throughout the fall, you will find ristras at farmers markets and roadside stands around the state. Ristras are commonly used for decoration; they are said to bring health and good luck. If you are interested in taking one of these good-luck charms with you to decorate your own home, remember that while they look beautiful and vibrantly red in New Mexico’s arid climate, they might not do so well back home. If you are visiting from a state with humidity, consider having your ristra treated with lacquer. This will help preserve the fruit from the moisture in the air.
Dried chiles are either crushed into chile powder or rehydrated, blended, boiled and strained to make red chile sauce (also just called “red chile”). The sauce, along with green chile, is a staple of New Mexican cuisine. Red chile may be ladled over dishes such as enchiladas and tamales; used as the base for stews, such as posole; or used as a marinade for meat, as with carne adovada. Green chile, however, is most often used in soups and chowders (along with other vegetables or meats), stuffed and fried for rellenos, or used as a garnish on just about everything!