What is Chili?

A Kaminsky

A favorite for cook-offs and fundraisers, chili is a type of stew often made with some combination of peppers, beans, meat, tomatoes, and spices. Exactly what ingredients go into it is often hotly debated, but the name comes from the chili peppers used in nearly all versions. There are many regional recipes and traditions, and many people have their own favorite recipe.

Paprika is often used to season chili.
Paprika is often used to season chili.

Chili — also called chili con carne or "chili with meat" — may have its roots in Spanish cuisine. This spicy stew has been known in America since the early 1800s, and possibly before then. It was originally a food for those who couldn't afford good cuts of meat, or for the pioneers going west. They used dried beef, fat, salt, and peppers together to form "chili bricks," which were then cooked out on the trail.

A bowl of chili with beans and ground beef.
A bowl of chili with beans and ground beef.

Since then, chuckwagon cooks, cafe owners and chefs all over the United States have worked to make a "perfect" bowl of chili. Even the basic ingredients differ, depending on where one is standing in the U.S. Some basic ingredients include ground beef, tomatoes, chili powder, salt, pepper, and paprika. In Texas, however, stew meat is frequently used for a "bowl of red" and plenty of cayenne pepper goes in the mix, as well. Texans also frown on including beans.

Great Northern beans, which are often used to make white chili.
Great Northern beans, which are often used to make white chili.

In Cincinnati, the famous 5-way chili features chili on top of spaghetti, with beans, chopped onions, and cheese. This is served in restaurants all over the city. The dish changes with the region, becoming hotter in some places and featuring more tomato in other cities.

Pink beans are commonly called chili beans.
Pink beans are commonly called chili beans.

Since chili peppers, onions, and garlic are the basis of many recipes, it can easily be made as a vegetarian dish. Many recipes include a variety of vegetables, including tomatoes, red and green peppers, and corn, and nearly all vegetarian varieites contain beans. Kidney beans and pinto beans are common in many recipes, but great northern beans are also used.

Chili peppers are a key ingredient in most chili dishes.
Chili peppers are a key ingredient in most chili dishes.

There is great debate about the "correct" way to make it. Many people argue that it should not include beans or tomatoes, as these are not considered part of the "traditional" recipe. Others argue that chili peppers are the only required ingredient, and include a huge variety of other additions, such as whiskey and chocolate.

Many chili recipes feature garlic.
Many chili recipes feature garlic.

Chili has become a gourmet feature in many restaurants, but it once kept people in the West alive during the Great Depression. It was cheap and crackers came with every bowl. This kept the cafes open and led to a rise in popularity in the 1950s. The first recorded chili cook-off in 1952 at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. Since then, the competitions have been held nationwide every year.

Many chefs use all kinds of peppers and spices to try to create the perfect bowl of chili.
Many chefs use all kinds of peppers and spices to try to create the perfect bowl of chili.

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Discussion Comments

brinthegeek

Is Chili powder as good as Red Pepper for improving circulation?

somerset

There are also some very good vegetarian chili recipes.

Tofu or lentils can be added for a tasty, filling and delicious meal.

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