One of the most commonly repeated assertions made by American home cooks might often be the most untrue: “I make a mean chili.”
Although I, too, used to think that way, I can now say with confidence that I make three mean ones, one of which contains gojuchang and galbi and another with fenugreek and paneer.
Growing up in the North and Southeast, I wasn’t exposed to “authentic” chili. The recipe in our house involved little more than browning ground beef and onions, adding canned tomatoes, water, kidney beans, tomato paste and chili powder.
Today I would find that dish one-dimensional and underseasoned. But I loved it back then, undoubtedly because its real purpose was to serve as a vehicle for big dollops of sour cream, mounds of grated Cheddar cheese and chopped scallions. The goal was to heap as much of it all as you could onto a Saltine and get it to your mouth before the thing crumbled.
My chili-making skills improved over time. Texans informed me I was a rube for adding beans, while others told me it was de rigueur to use beer or coffee. Ground meat was out; whole chunks were in. Tomatoes? Oh no, many tsked.
A method evolved. Browned chunks of beef, pork or lamb — all fine. Chicken doesn’t survive the long cooking time, in my opinion. If you add it late in the game, it’s not connected enough to the whole; plus stock, onions, garlic, a dry spice mix and an ancho chili puree. I may add black beans, disapproving sneers be damned.
There are two ingredients I consider non-negotiable for any chili: onions and garlic. The former for body and sweetness, the latter for punch. These are my starting points for many savory dishes, especially soups. In my chef days, my response to the diner query, “I don’t like onions and garlic. What can I have?” was “A seat in another restaurant.”
When I opened the refrigerator to start my chili spree, I immediately spotted a jar of gojuchang, a Korean spicy red chili paste made with glutinous rice and fermented soybeans. It occurred to me that the only real common denominator in chili is the chili — some amalgam of chili peppers — and that just about every culture has some form of chili paste in its food profile.
Making chili is all about building, layering and melding. Maybe it’s not good news for cooks constrained by the five-ingredients-in-five-minutes formula, but chili requires multiple ingredients and time to cook. I simply see no other way to create body and concentrate flavor. Think of it as herding a gymnasium full of people through a long, narrow hall into a vestibule. It takes a while to bring it all together. At least I make sure to use just one pot.
When I can write with this much passion, knowledge, and charm about MAKING CHILI, then I will be a content human being.
Things like this make me remember all over again why I love writing, and why I love food. And why I love food writing!
Thank you, Washington Post.