Like the Philly cheesesteak, Louisiana gumbo and apple pie, Cincinnati chili is an iconic American dish often overlooked in favour of the “more traditional” Tex-Mex variant. Cincinnati chili should not be confused with chili con carne, however. While the chili popular in Texas has Mexican roots, Cincinnati chili actually has Mediterranean origins, with closer resemblance to Greek pasta sauces.
Typically associated with Greek and Macedonian immigrants, Cincinnati chili is believed to have been invented by brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff, who served a Mediterranean stew as a topping for hot dogs, which they called “coneys”, in 1922. The coneys were served next to the Empress burlesque theatre, after which their business was named. At Empress, the stew was eventually served on a bed of spaghetti – as is most common nowadays – before the addition of grated cheese was introduced. To make ordering more efficient, a “way” system was also created, which has since been copied by countless restaurant proprietors serving Cincinnati chili. Based on a series of ingredients, the number before the “way” of chili corresponds to ingredients included in the order, typically including a mixture of Cincinnati chili, spaghetti, Cheddar cheese, diced onions, and kidney beans.
With an estimated 250 independent and chain vendors specialising in Cincinnati chili in locations such as Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Florida, the Middle East, and beyond, Skyline Chili and Gold Star Chili are, by far, the most popular today, with 130 and 89 locations, respectively. But while Cincinnati is arguably the region’s best loved dish, it has also been widely criticised, often described as a poor example of chili, from those more familiar with chili con carne. In 2013, Deadspin even went so far as to call it “horrifying diarrhea sludge”.
Cincinnatians are often quick to defend the regional favourite, however. In the lead up to the Super Bowl on Sunday (13th February 2022), of which the Cincinnati Bengals have made for the first time since the 1988 season, fans have made headlines by even going so far as ‘shotgunning’ Skyline chili straight from the tin.
More of a meat sauce, Cincinnati chili generally features minced beef boiled in water or stock, then combined with tomato and various seasonings, which typically include cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cumin, and bay leaves. Some recipes also use unsweetened dark chocolate to amplify the dish’s richness. A mountain of Cheddar cheese is also a customary topping, as are onions and beans. An ideal Superbowl recipe to prepare this weekend, whether you’re rooting for the Bengals or not.
- 1 kg minced beef
- 1 large onion finely chopped
- 1 stick celery finely chopped
- ½ green or red pepper finely chopped
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and crushed or finely chopped
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- ½ tsp mustard powder
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 5 whole cloves or 1 tsp ground
- 5 whole allspice berries or 1 tsp ground
- 1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
- 1 litre beef stock
- 50 g dark chocolate
- 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- Olive oil
- Cooked spaghetti
- Grated Cheddar
- 1 white onion diced
- Kidney beans
- Heat a splash of olive oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan until shimmering then add the chopped onion, celery and pepper to the pan. Cook over medium heat for around 5-10 minutes until everything is soft and fragrant.
- Add the garlic, cayenne pepper, cumin, oregano, mustard powder, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg and bay leaves to the pan. Continue to cook, stirring often, for another minute or two.
- Add the chopped tomatoes to the pan alongside the chocolate, beef stock, and the Worcestershire sauce and stir to combine.
- Season the beef with salt and pepper, then crumble into the pan, using the back of a wooden spoon to break up the meat as you stir.
- Bring to the boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Slowly cook for an hour or two (or longer if you prefer), until the sauce reduces and the beef becomes soft. Add more water if necessary.
- Taste for seasoning and add more salt if necessary, then serve over cooked spaghetti, topped with diced white onion, kidney beans, and a mountainous heap of grated Cheddar.
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