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Feb 27, 2008 12:40 PM

Chili by any other name

In several threads recently, there have been some almost vitriolic exchanges of opinion about what constitutes real chili, whether it is proper to call it "Bowl of Red," and whether Cincinnati style chili has a right to be called chili.

If we remember that the spread of the dish owes a lot to the depression era where people in Texas and outside of it were desparately hungry and desparately poor, then we might be willing to accept that other versions of the dish aren't entirely without merit. (see John Thorne's discussion in "Serious Pig." Greek cooking uses cinnamon often with beef. And the idea of using chili as a spaghetti sauce isn't all that bad. Would an Italian recognize it? And, glory be to God, almost everything that passes for barbecue isn't barbecue at all. It is simply slathered with a spicy sweet-sour sauce.

My point is that culinary fusion is part of American life. It happens whether we like it or not. I've had stir fried beef and tomatoes in Chinatown, San Francisco (in a back hole restaurant where I was taken by a Chinese friend--dinner was 75 cents in 1965).

And so we have so many different versions of Pizza, that purists would call down the wrath of God on the perpetrators. And what they did to classic casseroles and quiches in the fifties and sixties was mostly unspeakable. But we've survived it and got a few interesting dishes out of all that. And it looks like Cincinnati style chili will be around for a long time. So I don't mind seeing it on the menu of the Hard Times Cafe, though I go for the Texas version, without beans. But since we all have our pet peaves, mine is what passes for cornbread. It is really a sweetened cake. Give me something that is 100% freshly milled corn any day of the week.

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  1. F K, I think you're actually referring to several phenomena:

    1. Adaptation: Chinese cooks making beef and tomatoes
    2. Accepted alternatives (other than by partisan fanatics): chili with or without beans
    3. Accepted bastardization (other than by...): California rolls, Hawaiian pizza
    4. Fusion: like pornographay--hard to define, but we recogninze it when we see it.
    5. Exclusionist revisionism: BBQ is ONLY meat cooked long and slow using indirect heat.
    6. Personal gag inducers: modern cornbread for you, cream cheese in sushi for me.

    By the way, the American Age of Quiche was the 70s.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

      Sam, I should have thanked you weeks ago for your insightful answer and clear thinking. The U.K. and Ireland must have anticipated the quiche craze slightly. I had a quiche in Dubin in 1969 baked on a full sheet with a topping of custard, onions, grated cheddar cheese, and leftover baked beans. It was actually palatable. Our brother cook was Scot and had been a professional chef. Alas, he went back to the kitchens of Scotland. As for gag inducers, just reading about cream cheese in sushi does it for me. In fact, any cream cheese doctored with gums and similar additive is hard to get down. Oh for some of those delicious soft Italian cheeses we used to spread on breakfast rolls!

    2. I long ago gave up trying to argue what constitutes "authentic" pizza/chili/cheesesteaks/whatever. Although one relevant point is the semantics of "chili." When you see it on the menu, you think "meat, in a sauce, with spices, served over some kinda starch." I've had some really bad chili that was basically ground beef with tomatoes and little more than salt (kinda beefaroni/American chop suey minus the pasta). This has no business calling itself chili, yet I doubt people would be lining up to buy "ground beef with tomatoes and salt." So they call it "chili." Then there's the whole "burger" arguement: at what point does grilled chicken on a bun become a "burger?" Or seared ahi tuna? Can that be "a burger?" I recently ordered an oyster po' boy, expecting something resembling what you'd get in Louisiana. Instead, I got a split lobster roll with 4 fried oysters in it, with a remoulade sauce. Now, it tasted pretty good, but it was by no means a "po' boy." Wrong roll, not dressed, no catsup, pickles, etc. It was basically an "oyster roll," which I would have no problem buying. Again, I doubt an "oyster roll" would sell, but an "oyster po' boy" particularly for someone who's never been to New Orleans, would definitely sell.

      As American cuisine continues to be exported, I'm more interested in what passes for "chili" overseas. Will Cincinatti chili be re-exported to Greece, only to be re-interpreted with lamb instead of beef? Will I be able to get waterbuffalo chili in Laos? How about an njera chili rollup in Ethiopia? And will immigrants bring these re-interpretations back to the U.S.?

      3 Replies
      1. re: monkeyrotica

        Bring'em on! I've had (and made) chili with meats other than beef, including a big pot of turkey chili whose goodness was validated by one of the guests, a Texan born and bred, helping himself to a third bowl. I've also used a mixture of pork and beef, and had it made with ostrich, bison, and venison. Lamb, now...h'mmm.

        My mom's chili was hamburger and tomato soup with beans, and the chili powder was added late in the process, and more (if desired) later at the table, a complete misuse of the condiment, but I ate it willingly. Cincinnati-style chili did not really enchant me, since I'm not a big fan of cinnamon, but it was interesting. My own chili is made to emulate the better canned varieties, successfully so I like to think, and I'll eat it any number of different ways: alone, with cornbread, with cheese, over a chile-and-cheese omelet (yum!) or with an egg poached in it, or with macaroni or noodles. It's both a stew and a sauce, as far as I'm concerned, with or without beans.

        This question of authenticity pops up on this and other boards regularly, and of course it's always good for some entertaining discussion. My attitude is that whatever people like to eat is de facto authentic to those people in that place, as food is after all about nourishment and enjoyment (not necessarily in that order!), and in no way about observing some strict canon.

        1. re: monkeyrotica

          I have a lamb burger and black bean chili recipe from my Aunt that is really good. And quite tasty.

          I have not eaten Cincinatti chili, even though I do live close to hard times and could... but something about it just doesn't appeal to me. Not that I don't think it is chili, it is sort of.

          The burger kind of baffles me too, I would think they are sandwiches since the burger part of hamburg refers to pounded meat (don't go pounding my tuna now I will order it is a sandwich).

          But yes the evolution of food is quite interesting. Does anyone know if other countries eat chili? Does Wendy's around the world sell chili? Do other people like chili?

          1. re: ktmoomau

            I don't know whether they do chili, but if Asia can do to chili what it's doing to pizza crust, we're in for a wild ride.


        2. I have a high tolerance for passionate chowhound opinions, but the chili thing makes me roll my eyes. Here in Canada we don't have either Texas-style or Cincinnatti chili (no spaghetti, no cinnamon). Although some may consider our many variations of bean & meat stew (also in vegetarian versions, of course!) a version of Cincinnatti, I never heard of such a thing before frequenting this board. And I highly doubt we ever had either, so it's not like we have the reference point. It'd be like arguing that North American pizza is NOT PIZZA because it doesn't resemble the original Italian version. So while I fully get that Canada is not a place for "authentic" Chili, we have a dish that we all know as Chili. Period. Crazy meat bingers way down south don't own the name, and I think they know what we are talking about anyway.

          5 Replies
          1. re: julesrules

            Chili. A bowl of spicy food. Stew. A bowl of non-spicy food.

            1. re: Servorg

              So is etouffe a chili or a stew? There are plenty of spicy Indian dishes that seem to be on both sides of the chili/stew line.

              1. re: monkeyrotica

                Or MD Crab Soup (not Cream of) is it spicy but probably would be what most people would consider stew.

                1. re: monkeyrotica

                  My response was tongue, if not firmly then at least semi firmly in cheek. Your question of lineage / taxonomy can best be summed up calling etouffe a "Chew" or perhaps a "Sili" (Silly?). I not only drive a hybrid, I eat one too! My main point must be that if it tastes good it really doesn't matter what you want to call it, and the subject of taste is up for endless, and delicious debate.

                  1. re: Servorg

                    Agree completely. My simple rule: when I eat it, do I like it? If so, it's good chow to me; if not, not. California rolls? Inauthentic, but if well made (fresh avocado, real crab instead of surimi), I like them. Hawaiian pizza? Same thing - make it well (decent bacon, good tomato sauce, a generous serving of cheese), and I enjoy it.

                    My dad's version of baked beans was unique, but after having it a few times, I found the combo of beans, pork belly, tomato sauce, molasses, onions, and spice quite tasty. Some people think the addition of tomato or meat adulterates the beans; fine, that's their opinion. It just leaves more for me!

            2. The only real Chili is the way its cooked in Northern Mexico... everythign else bastardized North of the Border is well a bastardized piece of crap. Actually, I don't really feel like that but if but its nice to give the snobs a taste of their own medicince, no?

              13 Replies
              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                In my opinion, words are important and Chili describes a fairly particular dish. I would define it as a braise seasoned with chili peppers. Can you make it with meat other than beef - sure venison is quite popular. Can you make it with tomatos and onions - I suppose if LBJ made it that way it is still chili. Beans - yep. But at some point, you can't call it chili and still be descriptive. That's the whole point of having a rich vocabulary. Etouffee, while certainly delicious, is definitely not a chili; more of a soup or sauce with seafood or meat added later; a type of stew; a derivative of a veloute; or to be completely descriptive, an etouffee.

                EN may correct me but authentic Texas chili is a more specific term. No beans, no tomatos, no chili powder (but rather actual chili peppers), no onions, no corn, no bell peppers, no celery. I favor beef, anchos, serranos, cayenne, kidney suet, water used to cook reconstitute the anchos, a shiner bock and some masa.

                1. re: Phil W

                  Around these parts (SF Bay Area) if we want "... No beans, no tomatoes, no chili powder (but rather actual chili peppers), no onions, no corn, no bell peppers, no celery ... " we will order chile colorado.

                  1. re: Phil W

                    The mods have no sense of humor do they? It seems to me there more than 1 dish that go by the name Chili. What you describe is a very close descendant of Chile Colorado (as Sharuf has rightly pointed out)... whereas other styles of Chili (also found in Texas... I know because I've had Chili with Tomatoes etc., in Dallas & Houston... and no it was not labeled as a bowl of Red)... seem like descendants of Chilorio... in either case its easy to see how the name Chili could have been the Anglo adaptation for both of those names.

                    1. re: Phil W

                      EN may not, but I will correct you. "Authentic" is the only word I am getting hung up on. What I say is what I have ever known and what I have always fixed and eaten as a Texan who lived in Texas for over 50 years.
                      "Texas" chili must have well-cooked yellow onion (sauteed in the meat drippings, before you combine anything else) and tomato sauce (but only 16 or so ounces per gallon). "Chili powder" is usually used, but for more specific flavors and heat, it is often several types (or a custom blend) of ground chile peppers, not generic chili powder. Chili powder is mostly ancho chiles, which are not so hot. Most "chili powders" don't contain enough cumin and other spices to suit most Texas chili cooks. Shiner Bock is good to get the moisture content correct. I personally, don't care for the coarse texture of masa. Masa may be a way of "stretching" chili and making it go further, besides just thickening it.
                      I'm mostly responding to what you said Texas chili is NOT. There are things like garlic, cumin and oregano that it must have to taste "Texan".

                      1. re: Scargod

                        But see that is what I am cautioning about when getting overly zealous. If I excercise my Mexican Snob Card... then I would have to shoot you down for using Chili Powder instead of starting with whole Guajillos as most Chile Colorado recipes in Sonora & Chihuahua would require.

                        Even then I am hesitant to claim there is a single Authentic Mexico Chili recipe... as it is a dish that was inherently built on variations. An early reference - back when Hermosillo was still known as Villa de Pitic (in the 1700s) - talks about Chile Colorado as being a Market food that reminds me more of Pho in form, than of Contemporary Chilis.... where the indigenous lady would make up a big pot of the thick broth... and then would have a variety of Main ingredient choices available for last minute cooking including Carne Seca (Sun Dried Beef), Pre-Cooked Beans or Dried Field Corn, Seasonal Produce (Greens, Mushrooms, Squash, Fresh Chiles etc.,)... in addition you bring in your own Main ingredients purchased from a different vendor... ultimately you choose what you want she would ladle some of the Broth into a ceramic, fire proof bowl... add the fresh ingredients... and set on the fire until cooked to desired doneness.

                        So originally people with order Chile Colorado con Carne, or Chile Colorado con Frijoles etc..... and that is where those terms come from.

                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                          Thanks for a very informative post.

                        2. re: Scargod

                          I stand corrected on the onions and completely agree with the addition of the spices - never meant to imply they were forbidden. But I still don't think tomatos belong in Texas chili no matter what LBJ used to do. I suppose however Texas chili has evolved over the past century to where most add them. I hope y'all know this is somewhat tongue and cheek, being that there are about a billion "Texas" chili recipes around. Check out this link for a few, including an "original" texas chili recipe.

                          1. re: Phil W

                            The recipe titled "True Texas Red" is hillarious.

                            1. re: Phil W

                              I comment in good fun. I'm not itchin for a fight. My perspective is of a Texan whose has spent the majority of their years in the Dallas area. The "Wolf" brand chili that I ate about fifty years ago, as a child was not that far removed from the chili I first made, 10 years later, from Wick Fowler's 2 Alarm Chili kit, which was dried ingredients in packets. I then found that to be very similar to the winning chili recipes in sanctioned chili cookoffs. This is my perspective.
                              This is the ultimate tongue-in-cheek article about chili I think I have read. It is from a humorist who challenged Frank X. (Francis) Tolbert to a chili cookoff, long ago. This started the Terlingua Chili Cookoff and the CASI group.

                              1. re: Scargod

                                Thanks for the link to Smith's article. I don't think I'd ever seen that. I read all about it in Frank X's book, which is a great one.

                                1. re: Scargod

                                  I don't think anything more need be said about the spicy mana; Frank said it all.

                          2. re: Eat_Nopal

                            Whoa, pard! I cook N. New Mexican and I love it. I admit I am a New Mexico food snob. I truly believe that true chile as God created on the 7th day for recreation is only Chimayo chile, meat (pork preferred), salt. garlic and water. If you want beans, ask for 'em!
                            On the other hand, I believe in the truth in labeling law. If it's Texas Chile, say so. If it's Cincinnati Chili, say so. If it's Yankee kidney bean and "hamberg" chili say so. Etc. Etc. ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Just as long as one knows what one is getting and there are no surprises. Isn't this true Chowhounding? Lighten up, dudes!

                          3. I seemed to remember some quote about chili from Will Rogers - looked it up
                            called chili "bowl of blessedness." It is said that Will Rogers judge a town by the quality of its chili. He sampled chili in hundreds of towns, especially in Texas and Oklahoma and kept a box score. He concluded that the finest chili (in his judgment), was from a small cafe in Coleman, Texas.
                            I would keep with the " small bowl of blessedness " evryone does something different, but it does inspire passion.
                            Some Spanish priests during the 19th century were said to be wary of the passion inspired by chile peppers, assuming they were aphrodisiacs. A few preached sermons against indulgence in a food which they said was almost as "hot as hell's brimstone." "Soup of the Devil," one called it. The priest's warning probably contributed to the dish's popularity.