Great Bowls of Chili

Vocabulary Lesson : Chile, Chilli, Chili, Chilly

Chile with an “e” refers to a chile pepper, a plant from the genus Capsicum.  They range from the mildest sweet bell peppers to the hottest ghost peppers from India.  Chile powder is made from individual varieties of dried, ground chiles.  In British-English a hot chile pepper is called a chilli and a mild bell pepper is called a capsicum.

Chile with a capital “C” is a long, narrow coastal country in South America between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Chili with an “i” refers to the stew-like dish we often call chili con carne.  The seasoning blend commonly used to flavour chili is called chili powder and usually contains one or more chile powders, cumin, garlic, and oregano.

Chilly with a “y” refers to winter in the Great White North when a spicy bowl of chili is highly appreciated!

The Birth of Chili con Carne

Chile con carne in Spanish literally means chile with meat and refers to anything from traditional Mexican meat stewed with chiles to five-alarm firehall recipes to bland commercially canned products.  Chile powder was first commercially produced in Texas in 1896, followed by canned chili in 1908.  Chili was famously served by Chili Queens or in Chili Parlors as home spun street food.

Classic Styles

Texas Red Don’t mess with a Texan’s Bowl of Red,  a hearty stick-to-your-ribs stew of cubed red meat with hot chiles - no tomatoes or vegetables and don’t even think of mentioning beans!  Texans claim to have originated chili and it gained popularity as a meal for prison inmates since it relied on slow cooking cheap, tough cuts of meat.  It was also prepared by camp cooks along the cattle trails.  Some recipes call for suet to be added if the meat is too lean to produce the traditional richness.  Sometimes cornmeal or masa harina is used as a thickener.  Southeast Texans have been known to serve chili over rice, as do Hawaiians.

New Mexico Red or Green Chili In a true Southwestern battle, New Mexicans also claim to have originated chili, but their only question to you would be red or green?  That refers to chili rojo or chili verde - chili made with red or green chile peppers.  Indecisive fence-sitters just reply, “Christmas,” for a mixed bowl.  New Mexican chili starts by roasting and cooking chiles, resulting in something the consistency of sals.  It’s a popular topping for enchiladas, burritos, hamburgers, and eggs.  Meat, usually shredded pork, is added to the chili, along with garlic, oregano, and cumin, giving the chili body.  Sometimes pinto beans or diced potatoes are included for thickness.

Cincinnati 5-Way This middle-American version of chili has Old World roots.  The sweet, spiced chili made with finely ground beef was invented by an immigrant chef in Cincinnati who seasoned the dish with traditional Balkan spices such as cinnamon and allspice.  It’s served like a sauce, especially on hot dogs or Coney dogs.  But the best way to have it is your way: Two-way is the chili atop a bed of spaghetti noodles; Three-way adds shredded cheese; Four-way adds chopped onion; and finally, Five-way tops the plate with beans.  It tends to be thinner and milder than Texas chili but is guaranteed to fill your belly none the less!  Just don’t tell the Texans!

Contemporary Styles

California Chili Although traditionalists may balk at this style of chili, it’s a tasty and healthy version.  It often uses chicken or turkey, mild bell peppers, and can be spiced up mild, medium, or hot peppers.  Most recipes call for vegetables such as tomato, onion, and garlic, seasoned with chili powder and cumin.  To be true to the West Coast, fix this one with Anaheim chiles and garnish with Monterey Jack cheese, which are both California originals.

White Chili The perfect chili for the colour blind, this combines chicken or turkey with white kidney, Great Northern, or cannelli beans.  Garlic, onion, green chiles, oregano, and cumin add the flavour components.  It doesn’t contain any red items like tomatoes, red chiles, or red chile powders.  It lends itself to lots of interpretations with the addition of your favourite herbs.

Vegetarian or Vegan Chili Also called Chili sin Carne, there’s nothing sinful about this style of chili since it involves a healthy combination of vegetables, chiles, and spices.  Beans or tempeh provide protein and texture.

Frito Pie If you really want to try an American invention, then have a Frito Pie, also known in the Southwest as a Frito Boat and in the Midwest as a Walking Taco.  It was originally made by opening up a single serving bag of Frito corn chips and pouring a cup of warm chili con carne over top, usually garnished with grated cheese or onions.  Some of the chips soften with the chili and the rest stay salty and crunchy.  Since the corn chip bags used are no longer heat resistant, a bowl is highly recommended!

Variations on a Theme

Shh! Secret Ingredients Some of the secret ingredients that pop-up in chili recipes include coffee, cocoa, beer, tequila, cola or root beer, honey or molasses, soya sauce, pumpkin, sweet potato, pineapple, buffalo, moose, venison, lamb, goat, and ostrich.  Hmmm.

Championship Chili One thing you absolutely will not see in a championship bowl of chili is beans or other ingredients considered to be fillers.  The International Chili Society and the Chili Appreciation Society International forbid such ingredients in their internationally recognized championship cookoffs.

Be Your Own Champion Outside of ICS or CASI qualifying events, the sky’s the limit!  As long as you’ve got slowly stewed chiles involved, you have the potential for a great bowl of chili.  Try some traditional varieties and then invent your own like Pizza Chili, Mexican Mole Chili, or even Great Canadian Chili with peameal bacon and maple.  Have fun!

What goes with a bowl of chili? Cold beer!  Typical toppers include shredded cheese, sour cream, chopped onions, diced fresh chiles, and hot sauce.  Simmered pinto beans or refried beans are sometimes served.  Many folks like to spoon a bit of salsa into the bottom of the bowl, stirring it in as they eat.  Traditional accompaniments are cornbread, warm tortillas, and soda crackers.  Besides beer, root beer or sarsaparilla are excellent beverages as is sweet iced tea.  Try milk or a yogurt drink if a bowl of 5-Alarm chili starts to get you a little too hot under the collar.

Check out our article on Chili Secrets, tips for making a great batch of chili.


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