The Starkside

Chili and Peppers

“Chili” means different things to different people. This popular dish has so many variations that debates about which version is best can get as heated as the chili peppers themselves.

The origins of chili are unclear, but the story I’ve heard is that before refrigeration, Texans used hot chili peppers to help preserve their beef. One day a Texas dude was eating chili (beef with chili peppers) along with a side dish of beans. For some reason he had the idea to combine both dishes. It obviously caught on and many of us now think of beans as integral element of chili.

Authentic chili almost always contains chili peppers—members of the capsicum family of plants native to the Americas. The heat of the pepper fruit comes from capsaicin which is concentrated in the white rib tissue and the pith around the seeds.

When selecting chili peppers, you can normally assume that smaller varieties are hotter than larger ones, and as they ripen from green to yellow to red, the heat usually increases. It is strongly recommended that when handling hot peppers you use disposable gloves and never touch your hands to your eyes.

Pepper heat is measured in Scoville units. Bell peppers are mild, jalapeños are hotter, habaneros are hotter still and ghost peppers are really, really hot. Habaneros and ghost peppers have a nice combination of heat and a fruity flavor and are used in a variety of products, usually in hot sauce and salsa. Habeneros have a Scoville heat rating of 100,000 to 350,000. Ghost peppers, on the other hand, are so hot, with a rating of 855,000 to 1,041,427 Scoville heat units, they aren’t carried by conventional grocery stores. You should have no trouble obtaining them in some specialty stores and online. Incidentally, chili peppers and common black pepper are not related botanically.

Even in a relatively small area as Central New York there are myriad variations of chili—some with beans and some without: some with meat and some without. Incidentally, chili con carne is a Mexican-American dish which simply means chili with meat.

Several years ago, I had the unique experience of being the only person selected to judge both the chili contest in downtown Ithaca and at the contest at Standing Stone Vineyards in Hector on the east shore of Seneca Lake. Interestingly, the wind played a role in both events: it was so strong that the Ithaca contest was postponed a day, and a sudden and violent thunderstorm flattened many of the tents at the Hector contest. It made me wonder if there were chili gods that frowned upon chili competitions.

I mention the two contests to point out some of the differences in chilies offered just in our own local area. In Ithaca I was presented with about 30 samples to taste, all prepared by local restaurants and professional organizations. Any ingredients were permitted and some chilis featured apples, turkey, duck, shark or beef. There were also a number of vegetarian entries. Most of the offerings contained beans of varying varieties. In Hector, only Original Texas Red Chili was permitted and this meant that no beans were allowed and the only meat permitted was beef.

When I make chili at home I incorporate several types of beans such as pintos and black beans. I usually use a somewhat basic recipe but tweak it (e.g. mix in some chopped cashews and grate some cheddar cheese on top) to my taste. I’m sure, that with so many varieties of chilies around the world, the particular concoction you choose to make at home will be a winner with your family and friends!


In addition to the variety of chilies, there are various ways to spell the dish in different countries. In America we usually spell the singular pepper, chili, and the plural, chilies. The British spell the singular chilli, and the plural, chillies. In Spanish the singular is chile and the plural is chiles. When my daughter was a lot younger she spelled it chilly but she’s the only one I’ve ever seen do this.

No matter how you spell the dish, enjoy!


Henry Stark has been a food and wine columnist, writer, and restaurant reviewer for the Ithaca Journal, the Ithaca Times, and The Good Life magazine. A teacher, advocate, and enthusiast, Henry shares his always well-considered—sometimes contrarian—views in inimitable style, opening the door to a robust conversation with fellow members.
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