Tom’s 10-Alarm Chili


Chili. One word, one million different ways with meat and spice. Forget those insipid, second-rate British versions, which are little more than mince with a sombrero and delusions of greatness. In southwestern USA, chili (note the single ‘l’) is less dish and more cult, art and religion all rolled into one. The perfect ‘bowl of red’, as it’s affectionately known, is a very serious subject, with endless books devoted to its creation, and cook-offs raging non-stop. In Texas, it’s a capital offence to add beans; in New Mexico, they like it pure; just meat and chilli purée mixed together, no vegetables.

‘When speaking of a bowl of red, I refer to chili con carne,’ wrote the late chili maestro Frank X Tolbert in his seminal A Bowl of Red, ‘honest-to-God chili, and not the dreadful stuff masquerading as chili that is served in nine out of ten cafés.’ Texas chili is my favourite, chunks of beef (or coarse ground if you must) slow-cooked with onions, garlic, Mexican oregano, freshly ground cumin seeds and chillies, fresh and dried. And remember, no beans.

Although chili sounds Mexican, and often tastes it, too, this is most certainly American. Some claim it’s descended from a dish eaten by Texas pioneers on the road to California gold fields. Dried beef, chillies, suet and salt would be pounded together into a rather stodgy brick. Once on the trail, strips could be ripped off and boiled up to provide a decent dinner. Others argue that chili was a cowboy dish, using a surfeit of beef jazzed up with wild chillies picked on the open plains.

Whatever the truth, it’s a poor man’s dish at heart, but one best cooked in big vats. There are few finer sights than a great pot of the stuff, bubbling atop the stove. My friend James used to have a chili cook-off at his house in the week before Christmas. He favours a tomato-based, minced meat version with beans. It is pretty damned good, though, and his recipe follows mine. Just don’t make it in Texas.

The key here is the cumin and mix of fresh, dried and powdered chillies. You want spice, warmth and richness. Serve with tortillas, or a huge mound of plain white rice. Grated cheese and saltine crackers are traditional, too, and a big bowl of soured cream.

‘Chili eaters is some of Your chosen people,’ goes a famous chili prayer. ‘We don’t know why You so doggone good to us. But, Lord God, don’t never think we ain’t grateful for this chili we about to eat. Amen.’

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  • 2–4 tablespoons groundnut oil
  • 3.6 kg/8 lb shin of beef, chopped into about 10 big chunks
  • 4 red onions, finely chopped
  • 6 dried chipotle chillies, soaked in water for 30 minutes, then finely chopped
  • 6 dried ancho chillies, soaked in water for 30 minutes, then finely chopped
  • 4 habanero chillies, finely chopped
  • 5 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons cumin seeds, roasted in a hot dry pan until the oils are released, then ground to a fine powder
  • 2 big pinches of Mexican oregano (from, or use European oregano if you must)
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon hot chilli powder
  • 4 tablespoons tomato purée


  • Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 litre/ pints fresh beef stock (a decent cube will do)
  • grated Cheddar cheese, soured cream, crushed crackers, chopped red onion, fresh coriander leaves and tortillas or boiled white rice, to serve


Preheat the oven to 140°C/275°F/Gas 1.

Heat 2 tablespoons groundnut oil in a very large casserole over a high heat and brown the meat, in batches, then set aside.

In the same pan, add a little more oil and soften the onions over a low–medium heat for about 10 minutes, then add all the chopped chillies and garlic and cook gently for 5 minutes. Open the windows, as the fumes released are pretty eye-watering. Add more oil as you go if needed.

Add the cumin, oregano, cayenne and chilli powder and cook for a minute or so more. Then add the tomato purée and a big glug each of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce and cook for a further 2 minutes.

Return the browned meat to the pan, stir, then add the stock. Bring just to the boil, then cover and cook in the oven for about 4–5 hours, until the meat is meltingly tender. Serve with grated cheese, soured cream, crushed crackers, chopped red onion, fresh coriander leaves and either tortillas or boiled rice.