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.
The fall air that began to tease us a month ago turned my attention toward further chili refinements. Could I make my mean traditional chili meaner? And then expand to less traditional ones?
As I developed recipes for Korean-inspired Kim Chili , coffee- and chocolate-laced Dark Pot Roast Chili and an Indian-inspired, vegetarian Paneer and Butternut Squash Kashmiri Chili, a modus operandi surfaced: Seek to maximize flavor in the solids (aromatic and center-stage vegetables, meat, legumes), the cooking liquid, the spice blends and the garnish.
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.
Next to the gojuchang was kimchi (the Korean all-purpose condiment made from fermented vegetables and gochugaru, or crushed red pepper flakes) and galbi sauce, a marinade of soy sauce, onion, garlic, sesame oil, sugar and Asian pear used to tenderize and flavor the meat in Korean barbecue.