Brightly colored ristras look especially nice against adobe walls. Photo by Douglas Merriam.
RISTRAS OF RED CHILES provide a unique aesthetic in New Mexico. Strung into bunches (ristra is Spanish for “string”), they hang from rounded archways and covered portals throughout the state. Originally, this was an easy way to dry and thereby preserve a bounty of chiles so the fruit could be plucked and added to the stew pot the rest of the year. These days, ristras might include dried flowers and bulbs of garlic or be sprayed with lacquer to ornament a home for years. (Don’t try to eat those ones.)
John Sichler of Sichler Farms is a pro at ristra tying. He’s sold thousands of them annually for 34 years, many from his family’s seasonal shops in Albuquerque. He recommends starting with chiles that are still fleshy and not yet dry; that way, the stems are more pliable. Hold the chiles in your non-dominant hand and use your more dexterous hand to tie the knots. Check your progress as you add chiles to make sure they’re evenly spaced.
FOR THE RISTRA
Fresh red chile (about a bushel)
FOR THE HAT
A bowl of water
MAKE THE RISTRA
Prep materials for the hat—the little puff at the top of the ristra. Place three to four corn husks in water. Let them soak while you make the rest of your ristra.
For a two-foot ristra, you will need about five feet of twine. Measure and cut.
Fold twine in half and make a knot where the two ends now meet.
Hang twine from a nail or hook at the knotted end, so the loop is at the bottom.
Cut three to four strands of cotton string, about 2½ feet long apiece.
Create a slipknot at the end of one of your pieces of cotton string; don’t tighten it yet.
Place three chiles into the slipknot, with the stems’ hooks facing out to hold on to the string. Tighten the slipknot.
Wrap the string around the stems three times.
Secure the chiles with a half hitch knot. (Make a loop around the string, then pull the end of it through the loop. Tighten.)
Move about two to three inches up the string.
Repeat the process until your cotton string is full. Move to the next cotton string. Repeat steps 5–10.
When all the strings are filled, you can wrap your ristra. Take one of the strings of chile. Beginning with the bottom bunch of three chiles, place one chile on one side of the hanging twine loop, and two on the other, so the bunch straddles the loop as an anchor.
Wrap the stems of the next bunch of chiles around the twine, somewhat like braiding them over it. Then push that bunch down until it meets the first one. Continue this until all of your cotton strings of chile are wrapped around the twine, leaving a few inches between the final chile and the knot at the top. This is where you will tie the hat.
MAKE THE HAT
To make the hat, start by removing the corn husks from the water.
Place them on a cutting board.
Run the tines of a fork over them, separating the husk into thin strips.
Cut a small (about 3 inches) piece of cotton string.
Bunch the corn-husk strips around the twine, like a little broom.
Tie a string around the bunch and attach to the twine.
Hang the ristra in a sunny spot with good air flow for several days or weeks until it’s fully dried. You can leave it outside or bring it indoors—recommended if using the chiles for cooking. Snip them off by their stems, working from the top down.
Read more from our "Ultimate Guide to New Mexico Chile"
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José Gonzalez: The Allure of Chile Farming
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The Ultimate New Mexico Chile Tasting Guide
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The Making of Chile U
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Matt Romero: The Chile Roaster
Rooted in family history, Matt Romero brings that heavenly scent and his special flair to the Santa Fe Farmers' Market.
Rooted in Native Soil
Chile holds a very special place in the traditional foods of Southwest tribes.
Nick Maryol: Feeding the Soul
The owner of Santa Fe's Tia Sophia's, Nick Maryol understands how food creates ties to our families, our history and our culture.
Mix and Hatch
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Take Your Pick
At Big Jim Farms, in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, you can hand pick your chiles right from the field.
Danise Coon: Researching New Varieties
With roots on the farm, Danise Coon helps develop new varieties at the Chile Pepper Institute.
Preston Mitchell: Bringing New Mexico Chile to the World
The entrepreneur behind Hatch Chile Store has taken his great-great grandfather's legacy and grown it into a global craze.