Explore the Unique Flavors of American Southwest Cuisine

American Southwest Cuisine

American Southwest cuisine is influenced by Indigenous American and Mexican cultures, as well as later settlers that came in the 19th century. In Texas, Tex-Mex cuisine was created in the early 20th century by Tejanos (Americans of Mexican descent). It is a uniquely American cuisine that developed from the fusion of Mexican dishes with ingredients and cooking styles native to Texas. A similar fusion of Mexican, indigenous peoples, and immigrant food cultures has molded the cuisines of New Mexico and Arizona. Eater has a great overview in their “A Cheat Sheet to Southwestern Food”.

Southwest cuisine includes the cuisines of New Mexico, Arizona, and southern Texas. It is dominated by the use of chile peppers, (fresh, dried, and powdered), as well as corn, squash, and pinto beans. Cumin is used liberally to provide earthy undertones, as it is in many Mexican dishes. Cheese is also used often, with Tex-Mex dishes using it much more than in New Mexican and “Sonoran” (Arizona) dishes. All share an environment defined by hot and arid temperatures that dictates what can be grown.


Although Arizona is the 48th and final state in the continental US, it is one of the oldest inhabited lands in the country. Native Americans roamed the land before 2,000 BC. 21 native tribes call Arizona home today. Navajo Fry bread, cornbread (yes, Arizona, not the American south), and blue corn tacos are all important First Nation foods. Beans, when combined with nixtamalized corn, produce a protein that sustained early indigenous peoples both in Arizona and Mexico. The Spanish introduced cattle to the region in the mid 1500s and after Mexico won independence from the Spanish in 1821, Mexican foods and dishes were integrated with indigenous foods to create the Arizonian cuisine known as “Sonoran Cuisine“, named after the massive Sonoran desert.

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New Mexico

The history of New Mexican cuisine is a long and complex one, dating back to the arrival of the first Indigenous American people in the region thousands of years ago. Over time, the cuisine has evolved through the influence of different cultures, including Spanish, Mexican, and American. The earliest inhabitants of New Mexico were the Pueblo peoples, who cultivated corn, beans, and squash as their staple crops. They also used chile peppers, which were native to the Americas. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they brought with them new ingredients and cooking techniques, such as wheat flour, beef, and pork. In the 19th century, New Mexico became part of the United States. This brought even more influences to the cuisine, as American settlers brought their own recipes and ingredients. Today, New Mexican cuisine is a unique blend of Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and American flavors.

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A relatively new addition to American cuisine, Tex-Mex goes back to the 1870s when railroads brought American ingredients and cooking techniques to the south Texas to “Tejanos”, an early term for Mexican Americans. Tex-Mex cuisine was fundamentally Mexican dishes made with available American ingredients. Tex-Mex differs from its Mexican neighbor in it’s heavy use of shredded cheese, and white tortillas (flour not corn). Nachos, chile con queso, and chile con carne are some of the cuisine’s signature dishes.

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American Southwest Cuisine Ingredients

Specialty ingredients may be ordered online from:

Hatch Green Chile – Hatch Chile from Hatch New Mexico – The Hatch Chile Store (hatch-green-chile.com)

Amazon.com : tex mex spice | Amazon.com: Sonoran Spice | Mexican food and Mexican recipes at MexGrocer.com

American Southwest Cuisine Mexican dried chile peppers

Chili Peppers – If any one ingredient defines the cuisine of the Southwest, it’s the chile pepper (or “chili” pepper). The cuisine is most known for green Hatch chiles, named after the New Mexican region they’re grown in. Dried, powdered, and fresh chiles are the backbone of American Southwest cuisine.

Calabacitas Con Queso - New Mexico Summer Squash American Southwest Cuisine

“Three Sisters” corn, squash, and beans – The arid environment of the region has made the ability to grow and consume corn, squash, and beans essential for thousands of years of survival. Squash is one of the few vegetables that could not only survive the heat, but also hold water.

Mexican Corn Tortillas American Southwest Cuisine

White and Blue Tortillas
New Mexico blue corn tortillas are made from blue corn, which is a type of corn that is native to the southwestern United States and Mexico. The blue corn is ground into a fine meal and then used to make the tortillas. The tortillas have a slightly sweet and nutty flavor, and they are a bit darker than regular corn tortillas.

The first flour tortillas were made in northern Mexico, where the climate is more suited to growing the wheat introduced by the Spanish than corn. In the 1800s, Mexican immigrants brought flour tortillas to Texas, where they began to adapt the recipe to suit their own tastes, adding baking powder to the dough, which made the tortillas lighter and fluffier and using shortening, which gave the tortillas a richer flavor.

Cattle– Looking to replicate the cattle ranches of their home country, the Spanish conquistadors introduced, among other things, cattle, flour, cheese making, cumin, and the cowboy culture to northern Mexico and Texas. Beef became an important part of the cuisine and culture.

Cheese – The one differentiator from Mexican and New Mexican cuisines is the abundance of melted cheese used in Tex-Mex dishes. Gobs of molten cheeses drip from the foods of Tex-Mex, such as chile con queso, enchiladas, and quesadillas.

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