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Is It Chili or Chile? A Burning Question

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with Stephanie Bullen
Chief Flavor Advisor
March 1, 2020
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Is It Chili or Chile? A Burning Question

Chile. Chili. Chilli? In the words of Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Technically he was right. It doesn’t matter how you spell it, if you bite into a ghost pepper, that capsicum is going to be HOT!

Where does Chili come from?

Let’s start at the beginning… or at least way back in the late 1400s and early 1500s, before the Columbian exchange, in the Aztec empire. Important agricultural crops among the Aztec culture included maize, squash, and chiles. At the time these indiginous staples were unfamiliar to the Spanish, who brought the crops back to the so-called Old World. Because chiles were new to the Spaniards, they took the name directly from Nahuatl (the language spoken by the Aztecs). Spaniards decided the word “chili” would mean “hot pepper,” because it reminded them of the spicy flavor of black pepper, which they were familiar with.

Chili vs. Chile

From my research, the original Spanish transcription of the word may have been spelled “chilli.” In the early days of printing, many words were spelled many ways in many countries. The Brits stuck with the ‘original’ spelling of “chilli” (two “l’s” and an “i”), while Latin and Spanish areas modified the spelling to better suit their language, so it became “chile” (one “l” and an “e”). Americans tend to adopt and then shorten British English, so most of the country opted for “chili” (one “l” and an “i”). The Spanish-influenced American Southwest, however, has stuck with “chile.”.

To further complicate the matter, along came the spicy stew “chili con carne” — literally, “chile with meat” — which is often generally referred to as simply “chili.” Eventually foodies decided that there should be an easy way to distinguish between the pepper and the dish.

Thus, “chile” and “chili.”

Chile with an “e” refers to a hot pepper. The easy way to remember this is that the shape of the lowercase “e” resembles a curvy pepper (with some artistic liberty). Chili with an “i” is a dish (or spice blend) that mixes chile peppers with other ingredients. Chili is often eaten or prepared with a spoon, which resembles the letter “i”!

Chile or Chili

Maybe it’s that Southwestern stubbornness but we like distinguishing between a chile powder (say, Ancho or Habanero) and chili powder (Medium Chile Powder is my favorite).

What is in Chili Powder?

Our chili powder includes chiles – but also includes many of the other ingredients you’d typically find in a chili con carne.

  • Ancho Chile Powder: The base of our chili powder has a sweet, mild flavor with notes of raisin and tobacco.
  • Garlic and Cumin: These staples get added for balance and layered flavoring essential to any good chili powder.
  • More Chiles!: Other chiles are added in varying degrees to modify the heat. Paprika, which comes from a mild, sweet chile (think about red bell peppers and you’ll get the idea) adds a sweetness. Cayenne and other hot red chile powders add heat.
  • Mexican Oregano: This slightly minty, earthy herb adds the perfect finishing touch.

What's in Chili Powder?

Helpful Hint: If chili powder doesn’t have the kick that you’re looking for, add an extra pinch of cayenne (or your hot chile of choice) to your chili powder. That way, you’ll have the base ingredients to round out the flavors of your dish.

How to Use Chili Powder (or chile powder)

Almost everyone I know has their own tried and true chili recipe (personally, my dad’s chili is the stuff of family legend). If you’re the kind of person who likes to experiment, here are some of our favorite chile/chili recipes:

  • Quick Chili Recipe: Southwestern Chili con Carne — This quick and easy version of chili requires only a handful of ingredients and is perfect for a weeknight dinner.
  • Healthy Turkey Chili: Pumpkin Pie Spice Chili — It sounds crazy but this pumpkin, turkey, quinoa combination is actually delicious!
  • Pork Green Chili: Colorado Green Chili — In Colorado, Green Chili has an almost cult-like following. Is it a sauce? Is it a meal? Yes.
  • Easy Hot Sauce Recipe: Hot Wing Chile Glaze — Choose your own chile adventure for varying degrees of heat in this delicious sticky wing sauce.

Hot Takeaways

  1. Whether it’s chili or chile really depends on where you are…or what’s in it.
  2. When you see chile spelled with an ‘e’, think of a chile pepper.
  3. When you see chili spelled with an ‘i’, at least around here, think of a delicious blend or a finished dish.

The right answer to the debate of chile vs. chili vs. chilli is that there actually isn’t a right answer!


Comments on this Article


(guest), on March 01, 2020

I love this!! I always struggle with this question! Thanks for clearing it up!

(guest), on March 04, 2020

My sister, who lives in Golden, gave me this quick lesson on the differences. She also spent about 5 years in Las Cruces, so has the southwestern take on the finer points. Unfortunately, when the Spanish transliterated the native tongue into their version, they did mess with the terminology -- and then there's us! We continue to fool with indigenous languages, don't we! Whatever, however the words are spelled, thanks for the lesson! Too bad this Northwesterner (by birth) can't appreciate the finer points -- burnt mouth means no food!

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