What does it take to make a really fabulous chili in Georgia?
1. Cumin. You can buy taco spice packets in Goodwill or Ozzy’s, and they contain cumin and whatever else you need to make chili taste like chili. Or you can do what I did, and bring a giant plastic bottle of cumin with you to Georgia. You could have your friends or your parents or your friend’s parents (thanks, Jon’s Mom!) mail you cumin and whatever other spices you can’t find, or you could have people bring some when they come visit you. In any case, cumin’s the only real step in the chili process that involves significant planning and preparation.
2. Ground Beef. This isn’t necessarily hard to find but the ground beef they sell in supermarkets – Populi, Goodwill, etc. – tends to be really, really terrible. Pro tip: go to your host family’s butcher, point at the cut of beef you want, and have him grind it for you. In my case, my mother-in-law calls her butcher and has him set aside a few kilos of good boneless meat for us, and we can go pick it up and then bring it home and grind it using our neighbor’s hand grinder. This is not actually as hard as it sounds.
3. Local Produce and Spices. Onions, garlic, peppers, hot peppers, beans, whatever else suits your fancy. Hot red pepper, coriander, crushed red pepper, paprika. This stuff is all available at the bazaar and probably at the market on your corner. Learning the Georgian names for them helps.
4. Brown your onions with baking soda. Many chili recipes do not call for browned onions. This is a mistake. Glazing the onions makes a decent chili. Browning them in baking soda and oil or butter makes the base for an amazing chili. I recommend browning two or more onions for your base. Baking soda is called “soda” in Russian so this is probably the single easiest ingredient to get your hands on.
5. Tomato Paste? Or not. If you can’t get tomato paste, grate a tomato or two with a cheese grater. It will be more liquidy than paste but the liquid will boil off.
6. Georgian Beer. We all know good chili is made with beer. I recommend Mtieli. Kazbegi is crap.
7. Georgian Cheese. We all know Georgian cheese is odd and salty. Here’s something you probably don’t know: grate it and sprinkle it liberally over your finished chili, stir it in, and cook it for 3-5 more minutes; the result is very hard to distinguish from an American chili with an American cheese sprinkled on top. The consistency of Georgian cheese is perfect for chili and, unlike cheddar, it won’t emit a cheesy oil that will float to the top of your chili bowl.
8. ???. I don’t know-what do you guys put in your chili? There are more chili recipes than there are chili cooks. Almost everything can be had in Georgia with little difficulty. Hell, in Tbilisi you can even buy tortilla chips to dip in your chili. Drop a comment if there’s an ingredient you can’t find; odds are decent I can tell you if they have it here and where to get it.
In case you were wondering, here’s my approximate (I cook with heavy improv) recipe:
Neal’s Beanless Beef Chili
– Chop 2 onions. Put them in a stew pot. Cover them with oil. Add a half teaspoon of baking soda. Cook until they turn soft, brown, and OMGDelicious.
– While the onions brown, prepare the other ingredients. Peel and dice a whole head of garlic. Chop two more onions, two hot peppers, two carrots, and two or three bell peppers. Grate two tomatoes.
– Add spices to the browned onions. I recommend: 1 teaspoon hot red pepper, 2 teaspoons cumin, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon coriander, 1/2 teaspoon cardamom.
– Add enough beer to the browned onions that you can easily stir in the spices.
– Add ground beef to the pot. About half a kilo (one pound) will do. Stir.
– Add carrots, peppers, garlic, onions, tomatoes. Stir. Push down the solid chunky bits so they’re covered in liquid. Add more beer if needed to supplement this process.
– Stew this mixture, covered, until the chopped carrots become soft.
– Reduce the chili – you can probably boil it for a good 20-30 minutes. It should start getting a little thick.
– Add grated cheese – enough to liberally coat the surface of the chili. Let this simmer for 2 minutes; stir; simmer for two more minutes.
– Disclaimer: you can probably get this to taste better. In Tbilisi you can get cans of “Mexican” corn; one of these makes a worthwhile addition to the chili. During the cooking process I tend to taste what I’m making and decide if it needs something else (which is how I realized today that I had forgotten the tomatoes, just in time to rectify my mistake). Any input, suggestions, modifications, etc. would be appreciated in comments.
– I served this with rice boiled with turmeric. Turmeric is healthy, delicious, and available for sale at Ozzy’s.
– Overall, I thought this chili came out rather good. My Georgian family enjoyed it, which is a huge milestone if you’ve ever tried to cook foreign food for your Georgian family. I halved the cumin and hot pepper for them because they’re not quite used to the flavor profile of chilies and curries and other spicy foreign dishes.