Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cumin and Chili Con Carne

Cumin plant and seeds
from Wikipedia
A friend of mine is allergic to cumin and recently claimed that cumin is a recent American ("Tex-Mex") addition to chili con carne. Further, he claimed that most chili did not contain cumin. I had to look into this, because I know food history can be confusing at best, and this was likely not the whole story. After some investigation, I found out a lot about chili powder, chili con carne and Texas culinary history that I didn't now. Here's the highlights:

So, Chili Con Carne doesn't always have cumin listed as an ingredient, but this is misleading.

Most, like this one:
call for "chili powder". Chili powder (known by many names, such as "chili powder seasoning blend" or "chili seasoning") is a mix of chili peppers and spices. Usually these spices include:
  • paprika
  • cumin
  • oregano
  • garlic
and, depending on the region, some of:
  • onion
  • coriander
  • allspice
  • cloves
Some recipes include both chili powder and extra cumin just to make the point:
As to the Mexican vs. Tex-Mex chili idea... Chili con carne is the quintessential Tex-Mex dish. It's not of Mexican origin at all. See:
Around the turn of the 20th century, chili powder was invented by one or more of a handful of folks. Regional debates argue one over the other, but it's clear it was in Texas, and it was probably the culmination of local tradition. Chili powder then rapidly became the standard basis for the time-honored dish: chili con carne, which had been popular at "chili stands" and with "chili queens" for some time during the 19th century, and was likely introduced sometime prior to 1800.

Regarding cumin itself, I found an interesting quote on

Yet another theory is that Canary Islanders who were transplanted into San Antonio as early as 1731 used peppers and onions combined with various meats to make early chili dishes. This theory also gives credit to Canary Islanders for first bringing cumin, an essential chili recipe spice, to the United States. 
Chili con carne
from Wikimedia Commons

Ideas about what chili con carne was, however, varied radically outside of Texas. One recipe bears special notice. Appearing in The American Kitchen magazine in 1897, a recipe for chili paste to be used in dishes such as chili con carne included cornmeal, olives and cheese!

Here are some more examples of chili recipes from all around the Web. Only the one marked with "**" lacks cumin (either on its own or in chili powder), and it's clearly the least "authentic" of the lot, as it's a modern, low-fat variant.

Circa the early 20th century, you could find recipes for extremely bland beef stews with chilies like the one published in the Boston Cooking-School Magazine, but these are obviously not the rich dishes that tourists to San Antonio had been raving about since the 1800s.

The problem with the idea of trying to determine the "authenticity" of any recipe is that every household has its own traditions and history (at least that was true prior to the end of the nuclear family). When you try to determine what "authentic" is, you're really just averaging individual household traditions over a region. That said, however, it's pretty clear that cumin and chili con carne have been close friends for well over a century, and that there's no real "Mexican authentic chili con carne" because it's not a Mexican dish.