Throwback Thursday: Chilli con carne

Throwback Thursday: Chilli con carne
Tony Jackman’s chilli con carne served in a bowl by Mervyn Gers. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

It’s so simple: ground meat and chilli. But, cooked slowly and with care, chilli con carne soon shows why it’s a hot favourite for millions of fans.

Chilli con carne – literally “chilli with meat” – has four main ingredients: meat, chilli, tomatoes and beans, in recent versions at least. Older recipes for it did not include beans, which only began to be added in the early 20th century.

The language is Spanish, but the origins of the dish are disputed. You’d think it was Mexican, obviously, but don’t tell that to Texans, for whom it is a national dish and source of giant pride. Wars have been fought over less. While its origins have been traced to Tenochtitlan, the predecessor of Mexico City, in the 16th century, in much more recent times it became the dish that launched Tex-Mex cuisine, now a worldwide favourite.

But give Texans some ownership, if not all. It is designated the national dish of that massive state in a resolution of the Texas legislature dating to 1977. Chilli con carne, records Wikipedia, had come to southern Texas from northern Mexico via a chilli stand in San Antonio during an expo in 1893, and the city soon became known for the “chilli joints” where the city’s “chilli queens” would sell affordable portions of the dish. Wikipedia expands on this to describe chilli parlours springing up beyond Texas from 1904, and by the 1930s chilli parlour franchises were opening throughout the Midwest.

I cannot imagine chilli con carne without beans, usually red kidney beans today, although black, pinto, great northern and navy beans, and even back-eyed peas, have been found in recipes for it. The meat is usually beef but doesn’t have to be. And many modern recipes call for chilli powder, whether in pure form, paprika or Cayenne pepper. It often includes ground cumin, and fresh or dried herbs.

But perhaps avoid Texas Red: the take-no-prisoners recipe also known as a “bowl ’o red” is not for sissies. Food Repllc reports: “Chilli con carne was dubbed the Lone Star’s state food in 1977, and they reckon a real bowl o’ red hasn’t left the state since. Texas Red is a potent, pungent concoction that touts a no-frills approach to chilli: just meat, spices and as many chillies as you can stand. To Texans, anything else isn’t even called chili.”

The wildest theories about the origin of the dish include 16th century versions having been made with cannibalised human flesh, and it’s been a staple food for cowboys, prison inmates and Prohibition bootleggers.

My mere two red chillies are no doubt sad by comparison, but at least you’ll taste the other ingredients. Here it is…


2 Tbsp olive oil 

1 green bell pepper, chopped 

2 medium onions, chopped 

700 g lean beef mince

½ cup beef stock

½ cup dry red wine 

2 x 400 g cans chopped tomatoes

3 garlic cloves, crushed 

100 g tomato paste 

1  tsp paprika 

2  red chillies, finely chopped

1 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp ground cumin

2 Tbsp fresh basil

2 Tbsp fresh oregano leaves

2 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

1 tsp ground black pepper 

Salt to taste

1 x 400 g can red kidney beans, drained 

3 Tbsp cornflour dissolved in a little cold water


Sauté the onions and green bell pepper in a little olive oil until softened. Add the garlic and beef mince and work it into the sauce with a wooden spoon to ensure that the mince does not clump. Cook gently for 10 minutes, stirring.

Add the wine, beef stock, chopped tomatoes and tomato paste, stir, then add the spices and herbs. Season with salt and pepper, cover, and simmer for about an hour and a half on the lowest possible heat. Stir occasionally to prevent it sticking.

Add the drained red kidney beans and stir.

Dissolve the cornflour in cold water and stir into the chilli, simmering for about 10 minutes while it thickens. Serve with rice, garnished with chopped parsley. Grated cheese and a dollop of sour cream would render it even more Mexican in style. DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer of the Year 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.

SUBSCRIBE: There’s much more from Tony Jackman and his food writing colleagues in his weekly TGIFood newsletter, delivered to your inbox every Saturday. Subscribe here. Also visit the TGIFood platform, a repository of all of our food writing.

Mervyn Gers Ceramics supplies dinnerware for the styling of some TGIFood shoots. For more information, click here.


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