What Makes Cincinnati Chili So Unique

The debate on where to find the best bowl of chili is a contested argument that makes folks hotter under the collar than a five-alarm bowl o' red. From spices to toppings, everyone has their own secret ingredient or preferred preparation that they feel deserves a blue ribbon at the cook-off.

The lore behind chili's origins is as rich and varied as the dish itself. One tall tale is that Sister Mary of Agreda, a Spanish Nun, acquired a chili recipe, which consisted of deer meat, chili peppers, tomatoes, and onions, while appearing, supernaturally, to Native Americans in the 1600s (via Wonderopolis). One has to wonder if magic mushrooms were one of the ingredients in Sister Mary's chili. Another myth is that the first chili recipe was brought to San Antonio, Texas by immigrants from the Canary Islands in the early 1700s. Wherever this dish originated, it quickly became a signature dish in the American West.

Chili stands began popping up around San Antonio in the 1880s, and 10 cents could get you a "bowl o' red" served by women dubbed "chili queens." At the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, the San Antonio Chili Stand brought their "chili con carne" to the masses, and chili became an all-American favorite dish.

The history of Cincinnati chili

After chili made its official debut at the Chicago World's Fair, its popularity spread across the United States. Chili stands started popping up and serving their own regional variations of the Texas dish (via Allrecipes). The unique chili that Ohioans have come to know and love is credited to Tom and John Kiradjieff, Greek immigrant brothers from Macedonia who settled in Cincinnati in the early 1920s.

The brothers opened a Greek food restaurant called the Empress Chili Parlor, which struggled to be successful until they started serving a familiar American dish with their own Greek twist (per What's Cooking America). They created a variation of chili that harkened back to their Mediterranean and Slavic roots that featured Middle Eastern spices and resembled traditional Greek layered dishes like moussaka and pastitsio. Kiradjieff called it "spaghetti chili" and served the spiced chili over a pile of spaghetti noodles with five optional toppings.

Today, Cincinnati battles it out with the Lone Star State for the title of chili capital, boasting over 180 chili parlors as of 2017 and variations on the original recipe that sends Texans into a tizzy. Cincinnati chili, sometimes referred to as Skyline Chili after the restaurant that serves the Buckeye-preferred dish with a view, brought their variation to Indiana, Kentucky, and Florida.

Cincinnati chili has a flavor all its own

The unique spice blend, texture, and toppings are the three elements that set Cincinnati chili apart from the rest.

According to Simply Recipes, many soup and stew dishes get their flavor from the caramelization that occurs when you sear the protein featured in the dish. In Cincinnati chili, browning the beef is a major no-no as Buckeyes prefer their chili meat finely chopped and brought to a slow boil. Commenters on What's Cooking America say that they even go so far as to put their ground beef in a food processor before boiling it in a little extra liquid to achieve the finer texture and thinner sauce that are key elements of Cincinnati chili.

The spice blend used in this regional favorite also varies from the norm. Other chilis usually feature eye-watering spices, but Cincinnati chili has a sweeter flavor derived from cinnamon, allspice, sweet paprika, cloves, and oregano. Cocoa powder is sometimes used, but it isn't one of the original seasonings, and its occasional inclusion is up for debate. Worcestershire sauce is also a key ingredient that gives this chili its unmistakable flavor.

The final ingredients that make Cincinnati chili so unique are the toppings, but the options are so specific and intense that they get a section all to themselves.

How do you eat Cincinnati chili?

If you're in Cincinnati and you think there's no wrong way to eat your chili, you'd be mistaken. Although Buckeyes get specific when it comes to their chili toppings, they allow various garnishes within some parameters.

Before we get to the five ways you can enjoy Cincinnati chili like a local, we need to discuss beans. And onions. If you want beans and onions in your chili, you can escort yourself out of Ohio, but if you want them on top of your plate of chili, you can stay (per Simply Recipes). Other acceptable toppings include mounds of shredded cheddar cheese and oyster crackers. The chili and your choice of topping can be enjoyed in a bowl, on top of spaghetti, or poured over a hot dog.

There are five ways to order Cincinnati chili like a pro. You can devour a bowl of chili all by itself, or you can opt for "2-Way," which is chili served over spaghetti. Ordering your meal "3-Way" will get you a plate of spaghetti topped with chili and cheddar cheese, and "4-Way" adds diced onions to the mix. If you want the works, go "5-Way" and challenge yourself to clear a plate with spaghetti, chili, shredded cheese, onions, and red kidney beans if you dare.

What makes Cincinnati chili special

It's sing-along time; "On top of spaghetti, all covered with...chili?" Seeing a plate of noodles covered in chili, cheddar cheese, onions, and beans evokes strong feelings that range from hungry to no thank you. Cincinnati chili is an acquired taste that has developed a cult following around its unique flavor and serving options.

The sauce-like consistency, sweet spices, delicately textured beef, and inclusion of spaghetti are the elements that set Cincinnati chili apart from the spicy "bowl o' red" served in other areas. Many Americans have come to enjoy and prefer their chili served Skyline-style, and for Buckeyes, opting to eat chili one of five ways is the only way. City Beat says Cincinnati Bengals fans love their chili so much that when their team started winning games, supporters called "Cincy Chili Chuggers" started chugging Skyline Chili straight from the can.

Whether it appeals to your taste or not, Cincinnati chili is a unique dish that has made its culinary mark in the chili world. Its sweeter flavor profile, soft textures, uncommon pairing with pasta, and devoted fan base make it a stand-alone dish that can't be knocked until it's tried.