Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

“Real” chili cannot contain beans or tomatoes

You hear this on a regular basis, mostly from Texans. The fact is that many delicious traditional (and non-traditional) chilis are made with beans and/or tomatoes. There is in fact some basis for this myth. Traditional Texas-style chili is usually made without beans or tomatoes, and it can be great, but that’s just one regional variant.

What about “Cincinnati” chili? I used to think it was meant as a variant on southwestern chili, and a very poor one at that. I learned  later that Cincinnati chili is actually a dish invented by Greek immigrants in Cincinnati and meant as a spaghetti sauce or hot dog topping. It has some chili powder in it, but also more traditional Mediterranean spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon. Learn more on Google.

23 responses to ““Real” chili cannot contain beans or tomatoes

  1. Michelle Samspon April 7, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Let me respectfully disagree. ‘Cincinnati chili’ is actually not chili at all in the Texas sense, it developed from a dish popular at Greek restaurants, so it has a different origin completely. I don’t even consider it part of the ‘chili’ family. And I do like it. If you really wanted to taste horrid chili you should have been around in the 70’s to eat my mother’s concoctions, which resembled neither type and included both beans and overcooked spaghetti.

  2. fluffywarthog April 8, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    This myth has a lot to do with demographics and ethnic tensions in Texas and the South in general. Chili has been a staple of Mexican, Tex-Mex, and American cuisine from decades to centuries. At its most basic, it’s chiles, water, and meat or beans.

    Traditional Mexican dishes and stews typically use meat cooked in chiles with little water, or bean soups. The migration of chili into Tex-Mex cooking created this ‘artificial’ standard of chili as a matter of separating Anglo diners from Mexican or Tejano ones, even though the food was much the same. Up until the middle of the 20th century, beef was still expensive for most Americans, and the generally wealthier Anglos used the presence of meat in dishes to discern Tex-Mex food from Mexican food. Beans were far cheaper (but usually healthier), and were considered the food of African- and Mexican-Americans, unfit for consumption by whites.

    When beef cultivation exploded in the 40s and 50s, far more people across different ethnic boundaries could afford to include meat in meals, but they also tended to stick to their traditional recipes. With the growing popularity of Mexican-leaning food in America, white Texans sought to restrict the definition of their food by adopting the “no beans” standard, and used it to preserve the social restrictions they had enjoyed previously.

    The standard of “real” chili is primarily a localized ethnic one, rather than a general rule about food. I grew up in the North and had never had chili *without* beans before coming to Texas; it’s just a matter of culture.

  3. Vanessa August 15, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    I’m from Texas and I’ve always had chili with beans, so go figure. I’ve seen chili without beans, but have always thought that was kinda strange…

    • Michael J Carter April 22, 2016 at 5:33 pm

      Chili without beans is CHILI CON CARNE. I read some where there was a chili cook off master that didn’t put beans in his and was beat by some one that did. So he had a fit and had the rules change that said no beans in the chli. He said it was a filler and masked the taste of the meat and seasoning. To me and I live in Texas it has beans in it too.

  4. badge August 20, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Greetings from San Antonio! I have never heard of this Myth. All of my chili recipes include beans, and I have never had chili in Texas without tomatoes or beans! Now I’m somewhat interested in varying one of my recipes to see what happens! Yummmmmmm chili!

    • Ronald Sandidge August 16, 2016 at 1:05 pm

      You have never had chili in San Antonio without beans? My, I lived in SA in the 50’s and remember chili with NO BEANS. And now been living South of SA for the rest of time and most, MOST chili is with NO BEANS. Maybe a side dish. But yes tomato’s.

      • Ken October 3, 2018 at 2:55 pm

        If you’re in San Antonio, you gotta try the chili at Phoenix Saloon in New Braunfels. Oh, and no beans or tomatoes. Mind you, I’m no purist. I just wanna know “is it good?”

  5. CaliOak September 20, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Does this go all the way back to mole?

  6. Mikewood November 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    The whole beans and chili thing is quite simple and I think everyone is missing the point. It’s called chili because of the dried and powdered chilies that give the dish its distinctive color and its name. This is afer all a dish made for poor peoples. It’s spicy and flavorful to hide the fact the chili meat is older poorer cuts from an animal that may have been slaughtered several days ago and has begun to turn sour. Chili con carnie is quite simply chili with meat and little else. “Borrachos” or borracho beans are likewise powdered chili with some meat and beans. So put yourself in the wilds of Texas some 200 years ago. What’s for dinner? All we have is some old meat that is going bad, some dried spices to hide the taste and some dried beans. They might all go into the pot together with some flour to thicken the grease or the beans might be made on the side. Either way it’s not worth arguing over. As for tomatoes, can you imagine those poor starving farmers stewing a tomato? Fresh tomatoes would have been a treat and eaten fresh like apples.

  7. R. September 22, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    Cincinnati Chili is quite good. It’s based on Greek recipes and spices and has a long history. The fact that it is different than Texas-style chili doesn’t mean it’s bad or not chili.

  8. Pingback: So I'm going to use some beans in chili. What kind? - Page 2 | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page 2

  9. My name March 12, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    Anyone that claims “real chili has no bean or tomato” is brain washed; Texas chili is not real chili.

  10. Carlos "chili" de la Huerta June 21, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    IF you think that chili has tomatoes and/or beans, then you have NEVER eaten chili, … it’s that simple.

  11. Redbeard November 12, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    Texan here. We aren’t saying that ALL chili is not true chili if it has beans but true Texas chili..does not have beans. Regardless of what some of these knuckleheads are saying, it has nothing to do with ethnicity and being close to Mexico. It has to do more with the origin of chili competitions and using beans to cheat judging by being able to recognize a particular person’s chili over another. As well as using beans to mask other flavors or change the overall flavor of the chili when that’s not what the competition is about.

  12. bruce February 21, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    What we leaned way back in school was that chili was popular for real cowboys. They didn’t bring meat ready to eat with them or kill a cow when it was dinner time. Chili was cooked with dry beans and spices. Easy to carry foods when traveling out west for days on horseback. high protien and minerals, can carry a lot of food in a sack. There was no refrigeration so no way to keep meat.

  13. Pingback: Forest Lamb Mushroom Chili / Lampaankääpä-chilikeitto - Eat Simply, Eat Well

  14. laura May 5, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    How funny the article mentions that Cincinnati does horrible things to their chili. I lived in Cincinnati for 5 years, they have the worst chili, from skyline to gold star. One was made with spaghetti sauce the other with chocolate. So I’ve been told. What ever is in it….they are both terrible. I’m from Michigan, they have the best chili, American coney island and Layfayette coney island, both great. In Texas now, haven’t tried the chili yet. As for my chili, I don’t know how to make chili without beans or tomatoes.

  15. Travis Fisk August 31, 2016 at 8:03 am

    It is in fact true that the original Mexican chili queens didn’t use tomatoes or beans in their recipes. The dish itself is called “chili con carne,” but we call it “chili” for short. The dish itself was intended to be rather simple: meat, suet, dried chilies, onions, water, and spices. Using cubed meat (meat grinders weren’t really available back then), chili con carne was often served with tortillas. The thing to keep in mind when considering what “authentic Texas chili” is is why the original dish was so simple: the majority of these core ingredients could last for a good while and were readily available. While some people started incorporating beans over time to make chili a more complete/standalone meal, tomatoes were never used as a core ingredient.

    • Douglas Palmer December 21, 2020 at 3:57 pm

      Adding beans makes it into a ragout, not chili con carne. Meat, water, salt, onions, suet, chiles. That’s all you need.

  16. j pav. May 31, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    Cincinnati chili is a Greek dish. Not to be confused with southwest chili.

    • MsPony65 January 3, 2019 at 1:03 pm

      Cincinnati “chili” is particularly nasty, no matter what it is called. My daughter was stationed at Wrigth-Patt, and we went to Skyline en route to visit her.

      I love Greek food. I love Mexican food.

      I hate Cincinnati chili.

  17. Dennis Holcomb May 25, 2022 at 12:43 am

    As far as South Carolina and North Carolina we love some beans in our chili

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