Chilli con carne, commonly known in American English as simply “chilli”, is a spicy stew containing chilli peppers, meat (usually beef), and often tomatoes and beans. Other seasonings may include garlic, onions, and cumin. Variations, both geographic and personal, involve different types of meat and ingredients. Recipes provoke disputes among aficionados, some of whom insist that the word “chilli” applies only to the basic dish, without beans and tomatoes.
Origins and History
In Spanish, the word chile from the Nahuatl “chīlli” refers to a “chilli pepper”, and carne is Spanish for “meat”.
The original recipe consisted of dried beef, suet, dried chilli peppers and salt, which were pounded together, formed into bricks and left to dry, which could then be boiled in pots on the trail.
The San Antonio Chilli Stand, in operation at the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago, helped people taste and appreciate chilli. San Antonio was a tourist destination and helped Texas-style chilli con carne spread throughout the South and West. Chilli con carne is the official dish of the U.S. state of Texas as designated by the House Concurrent Resolution Number 18 of the 65th Texas Legislature during its regular session in 1977.
Before World War II, hundreds of small, family-run chilli parlours (also known as “chilli joints”) could be found throughout Texas and other states, particularly those in which émigré Texans had made new homes. Each establishment usually had a claim to some kind of secret recipe.
As early as 1904, chilli parlours were opening outside of Texas. After working at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Charles Taylor opened a chilli parlour in Carlinville, Illinois, serving “Mexican Chilli”. In the 1920s and 1930s chains of diner-style “chilli parlours” grew up in the Midwest.
Cincinnati-style chilli arguably represents the most vibrant continuation of the chilli parlour tradition, with dozens of restaurants offering this style throughout the Cincinnati area. It can be traced back to at least 1922, when the original Empress Chilli location opened.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, the chilli parlour Chilli John’s has existed since 1913. As with Cincinnati chilli, it is most commonly served over spaghetti with oyster crackers, but the recipe is less sweet with a higher proportion of fat. The original proprietor’s son opened a second location in Burbank in 1946, which is also still in existence.
Until the late 2000s, a chilli parlour dating to 1904, O.T. Hodge, continued to operate in St. Louis. It featured a chilli-topped dish called a “slinger”: two cheeseburger patties, hash browns, and two eggs, and smothered in chilli. As of 2014 no O.T. Hodge-branded locations remain, though one still exists under the name Chilli Mac’s.
One of the best-known Texas chilli parlours, in part because of its downtown location and socially connected clientele, was Bob Pool’s “joint” in Dallas, across the street from the headquarters of the elite department store Neiman Marcus. Stanley Marcus, president of the store, frequently ate there. He also bought Pool’s chilli to send by air express to friends and customers across the country. Several members of General Dwight Eisenhower’s SHAPE staff during the early 1950s were reported to have arranged regular shipments of chilli from Pool’s to their Paris quarters.
Controversy Over Ingredients
Beans, a staple of Tex-Mex cuisine, have been associated with chilli as far back as the early 20th century. The question of whether beans “belong” in chilli has been a matter of contention among chilli cooks for a long time. While it is generally accepted that the earliest chillies did not include beans, proponents of their inclusion contend that chilli with beans has a long enough history so as to not be considered “inauthentic.” The Chilli Appreciation Society International specified in 1999 that, among other things, cooks are forbidden to include beans in the preparation of chilli for official competition—nor are they allowed to marinate any meats.
“Texas-style chilli” may or may not contain beans and may even be made without other vegetables whatsoever besides chilli peppers. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s favourite chilli recipe became known as “Pedernales River chilli” after the location of his Texas Hill Country ranch. It calls for eliminating the traditional beef suet (on Johnson’s doctor’s orders, after Johnson suffered a heart attack while he was Senate Majority Leader) and adds tomatoes and onions. Johnson preferred venison, when available, to beef, as Hill Country deer are leaner than most beef. Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady, had the recipe printed on cards to be mailed out because of the many thousands of requests the White House received for it.
In some areas, specifically the American South, versions with beans are referred to as “chilli beans” while the term “chilli” is reserved for the all-meat dish. Small red beans are commonly used for chilli, as are black-eyed peas, kidney beans, great northern beans, or navy beans. Chilli bean can refer to a small red variety of common bean also known as the pink bean. The name may have arisen from that bean’s resemblance to small chilli peppers, or it may be a reference to that bean’s inclusion in chilli recipes.
Most commercially prepared canned chilli includes beans. Commercial chilli prepared without beans is usually called “chilli no beans” in the United States. Some U.S. manufacturers, notably Bush Brothers and Company and Eden Organic, also sell canned precooked beans (without meat) that are labeled “chilli beans”; these beans are intended for consumers to add to a chilli recipe and are often sold with spices added.
Tomatoes are another ingredient on which opinions differ. Wick Fowler, north Texas newspaperman and inventor of “Two-Alarm Chilli” (which he later marketed as a “kit” of spices), insisted on adding tomato sauce to his chilli — one 15-oz. can per three pounds of meat. He also believed that chilli should never be eaten freshly cooked but refrigerated overnight to seal in the flavour. Matt Weinstock, a Los Angeles newspaper columnist, once remarked that Fowler’s chilli “was reputed to open eighteen sinus cavities unknown to the medical profession.”
Vegetarian Chilli (also known as chilli sin carne, chilli without meat, chilli non carne, and chilli sans carne) acquired wide popularity in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of vegetarianism. It is also popular with those on a diet restricting the use of red meat. To make the chilli vegetarian, the cook leaves out the meat or replaces it with a meat analogue, such as textured vegetable protein or tofu, or a starchy vegetable, such as potatoes. These chillies nearly always include beans. Variants may contain corn, squash, mushrooms, or beets.
Chilli Verde (green chilli) is a moderately to extremely spicy New Mexican cuisine stew or sauce usually made from chunks of pork that have been slow-cooked in chicken broth, garlic, tomatillos, and roasted green chillies. Tomatoes are rarely used. The spiciness of the chilli is adjusted with poblano, jalapeño, serrano, and occasionally habanero peppers. Chilli verde is a common filling for the Mission burrito.
White Chilli is made using white beans and turkey meat or chicken breast instead of a tomato-based sauce and red meat (beef). The resulting dish appears white when cooked.
Chilli Con Carne Recipe
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 4 whole red chillies, finely sliced (or 2 teaspoons chilli powder) (adjust to taste)
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoons ground coriander
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tablespoons plain flour
- 500 g chuck steak, cut into 1 cm cubes
- 500 g ripe tomatoes, peeled, chopped ( or 400 g can diced tomatoes)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 400 g can red kidney beans, drained, rinsed
- 2 cups beef stock
- 1 bunch coriander, leaves and stems chopped, plus extra leaves to serve
- avocado and tomato, to serve
- Heat oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook for 3 minutes or until softened.
- Add chilli, paprika, cocoa powder, cumin, coriander, bay leaf, flour and beef and cook, stirring, for 4 minutes or until steak cubes have browned.
- Add tomatoes, tomato paste, kidney beans and beef stock and stir until combined.
- Bring to the boil then reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour or until meat is tender.
- Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
- Serve with chopped avocado and tomato and a garnish of the extra coriander leaves.