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Traditionally, the word chile with an E at the end signifies the fruit of the plant, whereas chili with an I at the end is the dish that features it. But as chili has ascended from lowly lunch-counter grub to a national passion, those distinctions have blurred.
When most people hear the word chili, it is chili con carne they envision. Literally meaning chili (er, chile) with meat, that is just about all it is in its purest form: beef that is chunked or coarsely ground saturated with the flavor of chile either in the form of pureed roasted pods or chile powder and a liquid medium. Some spices, such as cumin, salt, and pepper, may be welcome in the Texas paradigm, known as a “bowl of red”; but beans and any other vegetables are taboo.
Chili is Texas’ official state dish; and yet, in neighboring New Mexico, where chile is the state’s official co-vegetable (with beans), a bowl of chili con carne is a rarity. On the other hand, chile is a fundamental ingredient in countless favorite New Mexico specialties, from carne adovada to green chile cheeseburgers to pizza with chile-infused crust.
As for the dish called chili, die-hard chiliheads remain true to the Lone Star original, but cooks around the country have re-imagined it with abandon. In much of the Midwest, chili includes pasta, in dishes such as chili mac or the infamous Cincinnati 5-way chili, built on a bed of thick spaghetti noodles. Vegetarians enjoy meat-free chili, and countless variations of the chili dog reign throughout the land.
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