Comparing Ragu Bolognese and Chili con Carne is unnatural only to those who have never had the good fortune to try these iconic dishes. The modern iterations of both are beefy, rich, flavorful, and enjoyed worldwide. However, they are not the same dish, and their different historical routes can give an insight into what life was like fifty, a hundred, or a hundred and fifty years ago. Each regional cuisine has its own staples, needs, and challenges, and the way different food deals with these challenges can be incredibly insightful. These insights, in turn, can make cooking and enjoying food today a much more meaningful and rewarding experience.
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Ragu Bolognese is one of the essential Italian dishes, the evolution of which had been rather noteworthy. It traces its roots to the French cuisine and a type of dish called “ragout,” which is a slow-cooked meat or fish stew made with stock and vegetables. The earliest recorded Italian “Ragù” is very similar, and its ingredients are indeterminate. The recipe called for taking what meat or fish was available and slow-cooking it with the available stock and vegetables. Eventually, regional preferences crystallized in several types of ragu, which became a sauce served with pasta. Ragu Bolognese, in particular, was a regional style from Bologna, and included veal and pancetta, served with thick, robust pasta. They were made in Italian households, from which they were recorded into the cookbooks that popularized the dish. There are different records of Ragu Bolognese, as each family had its own version and budget. By the XX century, Italian immigrants spread the dish to America, where many versions of traditional family recipes were recreated with cheap local ingredients. It became an affordable pasta dish served in diners and family restaurants all over the world.
Chili con Carne is also a slow-cooked meat stew, but it traces its roots to Texas and the Canary Islands, though accounts vary. The early immigrants from the Canary Islands that founded San Antonio allegedly often cooked a version of some Spanish meat stew that included plenty of chili peppers. Chili peppers and beef were readily available, and Chili con Carne was served in San Antonio streets to the rich and the poor alike or cooked in pots on the trail by travelers. Chili bricks were also invented around that time, which were made from beef, fat, peppers, and seasoning, all dried and pounded into rectangles, resembling pemmican. The dish spread across the United States, and many cooks had their own regional or individual variation. These variations are a subject of heated debate, as each regional variation is a point of pride for each state, and others are considered sacrilege.
The modern version of Ragu Bolognese that most people think of when they hear the name is an amalgamation of the XIX century version made by Italian housewives and the pre-World War II version that was recorded in American and European cookbooks. Minced veal and pancetta are the most common meat to base the dish around, but beef and pork fat are the common cheaper alternatives. First, the minced meat is browned on high heat and removed after fond has developed. Vegetables, which most often include carrots, onions, celery, and aromatic herbs, are sautéed in rendered pancetta fat in a separate skillet, and then added to the pot. Most modern recipes require wine and meat stock, as well as whole fresh or canned tomatoes, to be added at that point. The sauce is then slow-cooked for at least half an hour to let meat cook through, but the longer the sauce is stewed, the better the taste. Many elements of the recipe can be changed to suit a palate or a wallet, but the meat, the stock, and the tomatoes usually remain.
The traditional Texan recipe for Chili con Carne is much more minimalistic. The meat is almost always a steak cut of beef, cut into bite-sized pieces and browned in the pot. After that, onion and garlic are sautéed with the fond until translucent, then the meat is added back into the pot. The most popular way to add chili peppers to the dish is to sear them and puree them with chicken stock in a blender. The same chicken stock serves as the main liquid of the dish along with the chili puree, and the stew is slow-cooked for two or three hours. Several spices can be added according to the cook’s preference. Chili con Carne is served with rice, crackers, or tortillas, but can also be eaten without them. This version of the stew is the most traditional Texan recipe, but almost every culture outside Texas has its own version. Up to the entirety of the recipe can be changed according to available ingredients or preferences, making chili one of the most freeform dishes on the planet.
Chili con Carne had been a street food for the poor and a survival ration for the travelers, unlike Ragu Bolognese, which was mostly enjoyed at homes and in restaurants, which shows how different needs and environments created different dishes. Interestingly, while the traditional recipe for Chili con Carne calls for a minimalistic set of ingredients and a simple process, it can be adapted in various exciting ways. It is the opposite of Ragu Bolognese, where the traditional recipe features a lot of interchangeable ingredients and a more involved process, but variations do not change the result as much. Regardless of these differences, both dishes remain a hearty meal that is easy to make, but endlessly satisfying.