What are common foods of the U.S. Southwest?

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Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The U.S. Southwest is defined as an area that spreads southward from southern Colorado, along the San Luis Valley, the southwest along the Rio Grande River to Arizona in an east-west direction along the Gila River. The Texas Southwest is the area south and west of San Antonio. These areas, Southern Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Southwestern Texas, were settled by Spanish colonists with growing force and presence between 1540 and 1598. The pattern of the conquistadors, acquired during the Reconquest, of impressed labor, concubinage for women, and tributes of food, introduced indigenous American foods of the farming Pueblos and the nomadic Apaches and Navajos into the Spanish kitchens and diets (Pauls, "The Southwest Indians").

Indigenous native American foods were:

  • corn
  • tomatoes
  • beans
  • avocados,
  • squash ("American Southwest Food")

Spanish colonists contributed from their European traditions:

  • chile
  • cheese
  • lard
  • rice ("American Southwest Food")

Chiles are at the heart of the Southwest food tradition of spice laden dishes. Spices have two important gastronomic effects in hot climates like the Southwest: (1) they help deter spoilage, (2) they stimulate appetite when the heat makes eating unappetizing. Chiles in Southwestern cuisine are either green or red. Both are the same species of chile with the one difference being that green chiles are picked early whole red chiles are picked fully ripe. These are often dried and hung; they can be seen decorating restaurants, markets and kitchens. Note that "chili" is a stew of beef, tomatoes, spices and chiles, while "chiles" are the fruit of the chile plant.

While the interest is in Southwestern foods, it is important to note that foods in areas outside the described area may reflect the foods of the East or the Midwest, from where the original settlers came. Near Colorado, food may reflect the mountain ranch style cooking of Colorado and Utah. Cities in the Southwest, like all other large cities of America, now have populations that reflect the foods of the many immigrant cultures in the cities, cultures such as Middle Eastern, Asian, Central European, African and Latin American. Each cultural group has its own enclave, markets and restaurants and its own influence on the cuisine of the city and surrounding area. To illustrate this diversity, Tuscon, Arizona, hosts a food festival in October that has fifty or more ethno-cultural food booths every year. Families in large cities with thriving ethnic diversity continue to cook in their own ethnic traditions while incorporating other ethnic traditions into the diets and festivities.

What is commonly thought of as the core of Southwestern cuisine--tacos, enchiladas, burritos, tostadas and tamales--are, in the Southwest culinary repertoire, actually antojitos, or snacks. Traditional entrees are slow-cooked stews--like chili con carne or bean chili, one a beef stew and the other a bean stew--and slow-roasted meats, like pork, mutton, beef and fowl. An example of a slow-roasted meat is carne asada, which is a slow-roasted meat that has been marinaded. Vegetables are an important part of Southwestern food and are often served diced and mixed together in salsa; Southwestern salsa does not use vinegar though salsa picante does. A typical salsa is the cold, chopped salsa called pico de gallo that contains raw chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro. Other typical vegetables are:

  • squashes
  • nopales (prickly pear cactus)
  • jicamas (spherical tubers)
  • purslane
  • tomatillos (resembling tomatoes, tart fruit related to cape gooseberry)
  • avocados
  • cilantro/coriander, cumin, oregano (important herbs rather than vegetables)
  • chiles

There is archeological that chiles were cultivated in South America during their earliest agricultural period but whether or not the chile had reached North America and the hands of the Pueblo and other indigenous farmers before the arrival of the Spanish is not certain: there is no archeological evidence to confirm or disprove it. It is know that the variety species of chile commonly used today in spicy Southwestern foods is a variety that was brought to America by the Spanish. Some Southwestern specialties that depend upon the chile and that vary from region to region are represented by:

  • burrito (a soft flour tortilla wrapped around a hot, savory filling): in the north of the Mexican state Sonora where flour tortillas were more recently added original food traditions
  • stacked enchiladas (corn tortillas layered flat with savory fillings): New Mexico
  • salpicon (shredded-beef salad with vegetables): southwest Texas

The chili dishes that are the gems of Southwestern food are red chili con carne and green chili con carne (con carne: with meat). Beef, pork, goat, or chicken may be used, though beef is used most often. Red chili meat is simmered in a sauce of dried red chilies, cumin, coriander and oregano while green chili meat is simmered in fresh green chilies, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Beans are not stewed but rather served as a side dish with rice and/or tortillas. Grilling for slow-roasted meats is done with marinades though fish and shellfish may be quick-roasted. Carne asada, or roasted meat, is steak that has been marinaded in a chili sauce then quick-roasted while chicken is marinaded in the spiced juice of an orange and slow-roasted. Pit-cooked meats are called barbacoa, or barbecued, meats. Authentic Mexican cheeses add flavor, texture, nutrition and allure to Southwestern foods:

  • Queso Panela: soft cheese
  • Queso de Oaxaca: firm, mozerella like cheese
  • Queso Fresco: soft, crumbly salty cheese popular on antojitos
  • Cotija: aged, dry, salty parmesean like cheese
  • Chihuahua, mild and aged: a cheddar like cheese getting sharper with aging
  • Asadero: chewy cheese, meltable; good on chili rellenos
  • Añejo: dry, salty, used grated for enchiladas and refried beans (Diana Kennedy qtd Esther Sung)

Desserts often include breads, like honey drenched sopaipillas or buñuelos, but also feature almendrado custard, flans (caramelized custard), bizcochito and other cookies. Drinks of the Southwest include:

  • Margarita
  • Tequila
  • Mexican beers
  • tamarinda, sweetened tamarind pulp drink
  • horchata, rice drink
  • aguas frescas, a drink made from various fresh fruits

Native Americans adopted much of the Spanish-Mexican Southwest cuisine into their own diets with unfortunate effects. The health problems that they had previously managed to escape by eating the foods native to their lands began to come upon them in ever increasing rates as they prepare and eat more sopaipillas and fry bread (very similar fried sweet breads. When the Pueblos engage in agriculture, it is still a religious, ceremonial event that develops a reverence for the life in the food that is grown. Even today, Pueblo farmers abide by the ceremonies connected with planting corn and beans. Posole is a soup-like stew popular for Southwestern Native Americans used everyday and for feast days; daily posole may be meatless while feast posole may have meat. The main ingredient is yellow, white, red, or blue corn seasoned with chilies.


Elizabeth Prine Pauls. "The Southwest Indians." Encyclopædia Britannica

"American Southwest Food." MapsofWorld.com

Esther Sung. "Get to Know Your Basic Mexican Cheeses." Epicurious.com

"The Southwest." Encyclopedia of Food & Culture. Ed. Solomon H. Katz. Vol. 3. Gale Cengage, 2003.

kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The long border with Mexico along the southwestern United States has had a profound influence on the cuisine native to that region.  That, combined with the state of Texas' historical connection to the cattle industry, has made Mexican food and beef the two main staples associated with the southwest.  From San Diego, California to El Paso, Texas, Mexican and its Texas derivative, Tex-Mex, is the most popular type of food across that stretch of the United States.  Chlili peppers are a common ingredient, along with cilantro, beans, cheese, avacado, and variants of sour cream.  

The southwestern United States, as noted, includes Texas, which prides itself on its cattle industry and meals built around cuts of beef, much of which is also used in the preparation of the above discussed Tex-Mex and Mexican foods.  

The migration of millions of Americans over the past 60 years to the southwest -- mainly people escaping the colder climates of the northeast - has gradually changed the native cuisine of the region by incorporating more outside influences, especially with respect the greater diversity of ethnic foods available.  In addition, migrations from Central America have increased the availability of Guatemalan and Salvadoran cuisines.  If one is going to focus on those foods more native to the region, however, the emphasis is definitely on Mexican food and steak.

laurto | Student
  • black beans 
  • corn 
  • sunflower seed
  • blueberry
  • okra
  • pecan
  • pumpkin

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