The 1959 edition of Diccionario de Mejicanismo, the authoritative Mexican dictionary, makes clear its opinion of what Americans call chili. It’s described as “detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the U.S. from Texas to New York.”
Chili truly is an American tradition, not a Mexican one, as many might believe. But it’s equally clear that Americans would find fault with it being called ‘detestable’. For canned and prepared varieties alone, over 125 million Americans are projected to consume chili by the close of 2017.
Chili: An American Story
For Virgina Ali and her husband Ben, chili is more than an American stew: it’s a nod to history. Ben’s Chili Bowl opened first in 1958, when the couple invested about $5,000 to redesign a building in Washington D.C. Located on Union Street, what was known as “Black Broadway”, for its hub of African-American owned businesses, nightlife, and music, Ben and his wife served meals during the contentious race riots and Civil Rights movements of the 60’s and 70’s.
And all the while, Virginia and Ben Ali persisted in serving what would become nationally famous chili: the couple was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002 for the business’s impact on Washington D.C. political life. In 2009, President Elect Barack Obama ate there.
And it all began with a simple recipe for chili con carne, and a desire to make an impact on American cuisine and culture.
What Exactly is American Chili, Though?
But if personal and private chefs want to offer chili during as the weather cools, it’s also important to ask a deceivingly simple question: what exactly is chili?
It seems there is no easy answer. Serious Eats went so far as to call our nation “The Divided States of Chili”. “ It seems like everyone knows exactly what they think chili should be, and everyone knows that everyone else is wrong,” Sho Spaeth writes.
The difference of opinion in a national dish is not uncommon, but the disagreement is especially prevalent in chili in the United States, simply put because there are so many varieties and regional twists to the dish.
Spaeth insists that there are three basic kinds of chili: chili con carne, perhaps the most common rendition, which consists of tomatoes, beans, peppers and beef; Springfield “Chilli”, which originates from Illinois and adds beer, sirloin, and turkey; and Cincinnati Chili, (popularized by the Skyline Chili franchise), which is a Mediterranean and sweeter take, using cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and unsweetened chocolate for an unique twist.
Chili, American FreeStyle: Seven Other Takes
But like so many iconic American dishes, there are many more ways to prepare chili. These dishes are perfect for personal and private chefs who want to continue the tradition but with signature flavors and preparation methods that meet their client’s needs and leave a memorable taste.
Vegetarian or Vegan
While chili is revered for its hearty and savory beef, both vegetarian and vegan chili can prove just as satisfying. They key is to building flavor by bulking portions of black, pinto, and chili beans and adding savory-sweet root vegetables. In this vegetarian rendition, carrots, celery, and red bell peppers are highlighted with smoky paprika and herbs like oregano. Tomato paste, cumin, and sea salt, with a splash of hot sauce, packs both heat and heartiness in a vegan version. Top with the suggested cashew sour cream and garnishes.
While it’s likely still Americanized, chili can takes notes from Asian cuisine in a New York Times featured Chinese Chili. This is for the brave: heat is at its zenith with habanero peppers, garlic, ginger, and jalapenos. The base is made with pale ale, five spice, and hoisin and soy sauce. Thai Chili, on the other hand, is mild, sweet and nutty in this take: sweet potatoes and coconut milk serve as the base for ground turkey and diced tomatoes.
Texas Beef ChiliThey say everything’s bigger in Texas, and it might be heartier, too. Texas chili skips the beans altogether and relies on beef to fill the bulk. Five different types of dried chilis, masa harina, brown sugar, cumin and honey add lighter notes to beef chuck.
Don’t forget that any good chili deserves company: more traditional chili, like chili con carne or Texas Chili, is delicious with warm cornbread (prep a fresh corn version for more flavor). Asian chilis pair well with jasmine rice. Garnish with sour cream or greek yogurt, chives, parsley and cilantro. Always have hot sauce, salt, and cheese on hand for customization.