Team Dan

When is a Chili a Chili?

Black bean Chili with chocolate and coconut. Really? Coconut? Caribbean Chili maybe?

Ok, so let me get this right. Chillies, spices and vegetables make a Chilli. But, chillies, spices and vegetables also make a Curry! Hmmm…. What is the difference, in principle? To a seasoned south Indian tongue, the Mexican taste is likable, which is partly where Chilli comes from…I suppose. So a chilli is not very far from a curry?

What it is is that a dish ‘made of any kind of combination of vegetables, cooked with chilli, spices and other ingredients’ can turn out to be something I can readily associate with but one that the judges at the cook-off might not count/feel is a Chili, even if it satisfies the rules per se!

Oh no, this is a crisis! When is a Chili a Chili?

So let’s take away all the labels for a moment, no chili or curry. Perhaps I can identify some broad distinguishing features for a Chili.


When I brought up the subject of blender for making a Chili, the comment was, whatever do you need a blender for?

Tut – tut.. Wrong thing to say to a south Indian! What can a south Indian cook think of without a mixie and a grinder?


My ever reliable Preethi Blue Leaf spice grinder!


The blades are what make these tiny grinders so useful!

Here’s what Dan from Team Dan had to say –

If you need a blender get the students to do it the old way – mortar and pestle! Get them to sport t-shirts, one with mortar and another with pestle!

Enough said then about mortar, pestle and mixie! Might actually use Dan’s idea as a sign of protest against stifling my creativity in this Chili contest 🙂

So the first distinguishing feature that makes a Chili stand out from, say, sambhar – No grinding of spices! Certainly haven’t seen mention of grinding in any of the Chili recipes so far. Talking of appliances, here’s one that Chilli cooks seem to use – a slow cooker, came across it in this recipe.

What about creaminess? Haven’t seen this either, in recipes. I was thinking of a South Indian favourite – majigha pulusu (more kolambhu), this will have veggies, lentils, I can add beans, and sure thing – spices. But it’s mainstay – soured yogurt makes it creamy, and certainly doesn’t pass the colour test.

Right, time to try out some ‘real’ Chilli! Time to go in search of the soul of Chili…

Surely if there are restaurants making anything close to ‘authentic’ chilli, they should be in London. I’ll ferret them out!

The first search throws up nothing but Indian restaurants! Then looking for tex-mex restaurants – coming up with Mexican restaurants, but apparently (I have now discovered) Mexicans disown chilli saying it as a “despicable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the US from Texas to New York” – a 1959 Mexican dictionary!

Ok, look for American restaurants. Oh no, am I going to survive this? Dark clouds gathering…

Set in an imposing stone building just off Trafalgar Square, the Embassy is for those who like their American nosh with a dash of Southern flair. It serves hearty Tex-Mex tucker and is decorated like a Texan saloon bar.

Can’t do that one, further search….found it!

Vegetarian bean chili at Chimichanga on Haverstock Hill in northwest London. Surprise, surprise – it tasted a bit like sambhar, had rice in it, and was covered in cheese!

A Mexican dish with a Sambhar soul 😉

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I come from a land where dishes have names which are not identical to their ingredients. My average day in the UK is spent eating Sambhar, rasam, idli, dosa, chutney, oothappam, upma, – not chilli, jacket potato or boiled vegetables! So, when I was press ganged by my colleagues at work into a chilli cook-off, my first thoughts were – what the hell is a chilli? An image of a chilli slow-cooked for four hours rose in my mind! Then the thought of horrendously hot dishes of Bhutan welled up, ‘cos they literally contain kilos of chilli in them! Later, a better suggestion came up, Mulaga – bhajji. This is the closest we can think of for a ‘chilli’ which can enter a competition!

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The milagha bhajji


A ‘vegetarian only’ bhajji stall on Besant Nagar beach in Tamilnadu

None of their infectious excitement rubbed off on me until Charles (of Team Charles) imparted some chilli-gyan. He spoke eloquently about its South-American Spanish-Brazilian origin. Oho! Appadiya! Achcha! Respect! Although it will be respect with two fingers pressing my nostrils down and eyes shut – to cut out the smell and the sight – no prejudice but reflex action to anything non-vegetarian.

I am beginning to have an inkling about chilli. So there is a chilli in the ‘West’, just as there is ‘curry’ in the ‘West’! Perhaps I have got it completely wrong.. but hey, I will soon find out. Well, a chilli cook-off is popular, going by the zeal of the contestants and partakers at the first ever UH edition in Feb 2014.


Dan Berger surrounded by Team Dan! © Pete Stevens


Dan the DJ! © Pete Stevens


John Gunner trying to explain his chilli! © Pete Stevens


Team Steve with impressive chilli accessories © Pete Stevens


Team Lukasz © Pete Stevens


The five chilli cooks – Charles, John, Dan, Steve and Lukasz, and a fan! © Pete Stevens


The crowd at the NSS chilli cook-off © Pete Stevens


An estatic team Charles, after being unofficially chosen as the best chilli, sorry Dan! © Pete Stevens


Team Dan wins the cook-off! © Pete Stevens

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Currently I have no ideas, only the will to take on the challenge. I might end up doing a version of sambhar – the rules will okay a sambhar – maybe add kesari powder to make it ‘reddish-brown’! But how the hell do you have sambhar on its own?!! Madness! It isn’t mulligatawny soup!

On the subject of M-T soup, guess what I found – there is a Hertfordshire speciality of mulagutawny!

160. MULLIGATAWNY SOUP (Hertfordshire)

Fry some onion and carrot in butter till they become a light brown, then add a small piece of apple, some sultanas, coconut, chutney, Harvey’s sauce, a pinch of salt and pepper, a tablespoonful of curry powder, a little curry paste, and about a quarter of a pint of strong stock, and let simmer for about an hour.
And these are other colourful versions of மிளகு தண்ணீர் – ‘pepper-water’! – mulagatoney, mullaghee-tanny, malaca-tawney, malachatauni, malagatany, malakatanni, mulkatany, mullagatawney, mullagatawny, mulligatawney, mullikatauny, mulligatawny, malagatawny

But let’s stick to Mulligatawny, Jeeves old chap!

Chamu Kuppuswamy