A large bowl of roasted green chilli at a market in Hatch, New Mexico.
A large bowl of roasted green chilli at a market in Hatch, New Mexico. Image Credit: AP

Albuquerque, New Mexico: The sweet smell of green chilli roasting on an open flame permeates New Mexico every fall, wafting from roadside stands and grocery store parking lots and inducing mouth-watering visions of culinary wonders.

Now one state lawmaker says it's time for everyone to wake up and smell the chilli.

Sen. Bill Soules' visit with fifth grade students in his southern district sparked a conversation about the savoury hot peppers and the potential for New Mexico to become the first state in the nation to proudly have an official state aroma, a proposal now being considered by lawmakers.

“It’s very unique to our state,” the Las Cruces Democrat said of roasting chilli. “I have tried to think of any other state that has a smell or aroma that is that distinctive statewide, and I can’t think of any.”

For New Mexico, chilli is more than a key ingredient for every meal. It's life. It's at the center of the official state question — “Red or green?” — and is one of the state's official vegetables.

New Mexico produced more than 60% of the U.S. chilli pepper crop in 2021 and is home to Hatch, an agricultural village known as the chilli capital of the world for the unique red and green peppers it has turned out for generations. The famous crop also is used in powders, sauces and salsas that are shipped worldwide.

Legislation recognizing roasted chilli as the official aroma passed its first committee on Tuesday, and supporters say it's not likely to fire up much debate — other than lawmakers sharing their own stories about how they can't go a day without eating it, from red chilli lattes to smothered breakfast burritos to plates of enchiladas and tamales infused with the peppers.

“chilli is in the hearts and on the plates of all New Mexicans, and the smell of fresh roasting green chilli allows us to reminisce on a memory eating or enjoying our beloved signature crop. We like to call that memory a person’s ‘chilli story,’ and each of us as New Mexicans have a chilli story," said Travis Day, executive director of the New Mexico chilli Association.

Officially recognizing the aroma could also pay off as another way to market New Mexico to visitors.

A legislative analysis of the bill noted that peak tourist season typically begins in March and tapers down toward the end of October, meaning it overlaps with the time for chilli roasting. The analysis also noted that New Mexico has consistently lower visitation rates than neighboring Colorado, which reported 84.2 million visitors in 2021 compared with about 40 million in New Mexico.

“The new state aroma could help draw visitors away from Colorado, which, for some reason, thinks it has green chilli comparable to that of New Mexico,” the analysis quipped, in a nod to an ongoing feud between the two states.

Soules, a former teacher and elementary school principal, has been using the aroma legislation as an opportunity to teach the fifth-graders about the legislative process. The students have been researching state symbols in New Mexico and elsewhere as part of preparing to testify on behalf of the bill.

“They’re learning how to lobby, how to write letters to legislators to support this bill, they’re practicing their public speaking," Soules said. "They’re learning lots about other things as part of their curriculum around this as a topic, so it's a good education too.”