Sandia Chile, Capsicum annuum, italicize is another New Mexican grown chile. While it’s generally considered to be a hot New Mexican pod type, its heat level falls in the medium heat range of chiles. Like most chile peppers, they start green and ripen to red. Sandia chiles grow to about 6-7” long and they’re often referred to as NuMex Sandia or NuMex Sandia Select.
The Sandia chile was released by Dr. Roy Harper in 1956 by cross breeding a Numex No.9 type (originally developed by Dr. Fabian Garcia) with a Californian Anaheim-type chile. This hybrid cross was initially named “experimental 46-14” and was commercially grown as Sandia A. In 1967, the New Mexico Crop Improvement Association changed the name to Sandia. Historically, Sandia chile peppers are grown throughout the Mesilla Valley, known as New Mexico’s chile bowl, and up into Hatch.
New Mexico farmers grow the Sandia cultivar and sell them at roadside stands or to chile pepper processors for dehydration to make a savory red chile powder. These first generation Sandia chiles were ideal for dehydration and they featured a medium thick fruit wall, which sped up the dehydration of the chile pods and lowered the cost of commercial dehydration. This is perfect for producing a flavorful, medium heat red chile powder.
Sandia Chiles typically have thinner fruit walls and are shorter than some of their later developed relatives, such as NuMex Heritage Big Jim and NuMex Joe E. Parker. In the early 2000’s, New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute began identifying ideal plant traits to create a new Sandia cultivar that could be used as a green chile. They started with 15 different chile lines, and each was chosen for specific characteristics including taste, yield, disease resistance, pod structure and heat. Each growing season, the best lines were kept to plant the following season. In 2011, a winner emerged -- which was called NuMex Sandia Select. This new variety possesses a long, straight pod and a firm thicker fruit wall which is ideal for use as a green chile.
Native to central Mexico, most New Mexico Chile varieties have been developed over the last 130 years at New Mexico State University.
According to the nonprofit organization Archaeology Southwest, chile peppers were one of the most vital foodstuffs among pre-contact (before European contact) Mesoamerican societies stretching from central Mexico down into Central and South America. Many culinary historians and anthropologists credit the introduction of chile peppers into the New Mexico region to New Spain conquistador Don Juan de Oñate, who, in 1598, became the first colonial governor of Santa Fe de Nuevo México (modern day New Mexico).
It’s believed that many different varieties of chiles were cultivated during this time, most likely Chilacas (known as pasilla when dried), jalapeños, Poblanos (the dried version is ancho) and Serranos. But one variety that adapted exceptionally well to New Mexico’s climate and soil was a long green chile that turned red in the fall. New Mexican chiles were cultivated for hundreds of years in the northern part of the region with such meticulous care that multiple distinct varieties emerged. These varieties became known as “landrace chiles”.
DNA research conducted by the NMSU Chile Breeding Program concluded that many traditional Northern New Mexico landrace chiles contained a distinct genetic similarity to landrace varieties from Mexico. Landrace chiles are descendants of chiles historically taken through the Spanish and Portuguese trading routes between 1492 and 1590. They’re called landraces because the chiles have been collected and cultivated by individual families, and these specific “races” are closely linked to specific land areas where they’ve been grown for hundreds of years. Farmers still grow landrace chiles in Northern New Mexico; typically, in higher elevations (approximately 6,000 feet above sea level) where they have very remote fields and short growing seasons.
Landrace chiles are often named after the community where they're grown (i.e. Chimayo and Espanola are two of the better known), but many family farms maintain their own unique named landrace chiles -- some of the best known of these include Hernandez, Escondida, Alcaldes and Velarde.
Northern New Mexico landrace chiles tend to be smaller, skinnier and have square shoulders and a more twisted shape. The aroma is flowery, the flavor intense and the heat levels range from medium to hot. They also tend to be more difficult to skin than the commercial southern New Mexico varieties.
Archaeological evidence acknowledges that a variety of chiles existed in the Southwestern US region before Oñate’s arrival. According to Archaeology Southwest, “The chiltepín, a wild relative of the domesticated chile, did grow in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Northern Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, and the region’s inhabitants presumably used the plant.”
While the popularity of modern New Mexico chiles is without a doubt tied to Spanish colonization of the area, the real credit for its survival as a vital crop in the state can be traced to Native American populations that adopted them into their own agricultural and culinary repertoires. For the 300 years after Onate’s introduction of chiles to New Mexico, other than with the Native Americans, they were barely recognized in the regional cuisine. Today, chiles are coveted as New Mexico gold.
The commercially known Hatch New Mexico chile took a different path than the landrace chiles. The pioneering horticulturist Fabián Garcia was a member of the first graduating class of New Mexico A&M in 1894 (it became known as New Mexico State University in 1960). Upon graduation, Garcia began improving the local chiles grown by Hispanic gardeners around Las Cruces, and he later received his doctorate and became a professor at the university. In 1913, Dr. Garcia became director of the university’s experiment station, where he set out to improve native chiles through hybridization and selection. His goal was to produce a chile cultivar that if milder would increase chile consumption among the Anglo population, which in turn would create a viable commercial chile agribusiness for area farmers. He selected 14 chile accessions growing in the Las Cruces area that were either red or black in color. By 1921, only one line remained, 'New Mexico No. 9', which he felt was the best and while not quite as hot as some of the non-selected cultivars, was just hot enough for the Anglos.
This cultivar was important historically, not only because it was the first chile cultivar released from New Mexico A & M, but also because it introduced a new pod type --'New Mexican' -- to the world. Today NMSU has the longest continuous program of chile improvement in the world.
The New Mexico Hatch chile has a long family farm heritage that can be traced back to the Franzoy family -- Austrian immigrants who arrived in the Hatch valley about 90 years ago. When the Franzoy family settled there they got into vegetable farming, and chiles were one of the vegetables they really focused on. As the story goes, Joseph and Celestina Franzoy had 10 children, who in turn also produced big families. Many of the valley’s current chile farmers are still Franzoys, either by name or by marriage. The Franzoys became very involved with New Mexico A & M, who worked closely with them in cultivating several successful varieties of chiles. The expanding family members bought up much of the farm land in the valley, and today cultivate New Mexico chiles on thousands of acres of pristine farm land.
Sandia chiles are long, medium-wide pods with medium-thick walls. With rounded shoulders, the pods gradually taper to the blossom end. These chiles are straight with a bit of a taper at the end and sport a slightly roughened surface, but absent of the pronounced folds commonly found with Anaheim chiles. The chiles are typically 6-7” in length and between 1.25”-1.5” wide at the shoulder.
The plants are 24 to 30 inches in height with a spread of 18 inches. The plants produce a single main stem with uniform branching with enough leaf foliage to provide sunscald protection for the growing fruit, and the branches are thick enough for an ideal fruit set. Depending on that season’s climate, the chiles generally mature in 77 to 80 days and each plant produces an average of 20 fruits per plant.
Use anywhere you would use a red chile powder. We’ve used in as a spicier substitute for Hatch New Mexico chile powder in numerous southwest style dishes as well as in chili, soups and stews.
If you're looking for the next step up from the Anaheim or Hatch chile in terms of heat, the Sandia Chile is an excellent choice.
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