Here's What Makes Cincinnati Chili Unique

If you're anything like us, you know that a city's namesake food is a mark of its character. From a Philly cheesesteak to a Chicago deep-dish pizza, tales have been spun and battles have been waged over the "right" way to make a regional claim to food fame. Cincinnati chili is one such dish that's straight from the regional food bible: like a Detroit coney dog or a Mission burrito, it's not the right chili unless it's made with a few key ingredients. Although some will think it's slightly wild to classify this take on a classic as chili at all — or do a full-on takedown of it (via the Takeout and the Chicago Tribune).

Some have argued that Cincinnati chili is so different that it isn't even really chili (via Chicago Tribune). They'd be barking up the wrong tree, though, because how this soupy classic is defined isn't the point. By most accounts, Cincinnati chili was born when Tom and John Kiradjieff, recent immigrants from Greece, opened their first "chili parlor" downtown in 1922 (via "The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili"). They called it "the Empress" for the burlesque theater next store and served two items — coney dogs and spaghetti with chili — out of a shop with only five tables and a sit-down counter. In a smart business move that catered to their likely clientele, the Kiradjieff brothers also carried cigars, according to "The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili."

Cincinnati chili makes for an unlikely combo

No matter what kind of chili you grew up with, we can all agree on a few requisite classic ingredients: some kind of soupy base, maybe with tomato, sometimes ground meat, beans, and a blend of spices to amp up the flavor (via Kitchn). Cincinnati chili takes that formula and upends it. Beans are a topping, not an ingredient, and chili is served over pasta, specifically spaghetti in this case. But Cincinnati chili is also seasoned with a unique blend of ingredients that can include cinnamon, allspice, and Worcestershire sauce (via What's Cooking America). And as any chili lover knows, toppings are what make the chili, and there's no shortage of these in Cincy's take. Cheddar cheese comes in a huge shredded pile, with chopped onion, kidney beans, and oyster crackers (via The New York Times).

True devotees will know that there's a system when it comes to ordering Cincinnati chili. Whether you're eating it at favorite local chains Skyline or Gold Star, both debatably descendants of the Empress, there are rules. According to Food & Wine, Three way means chili, cheese, and spaghetti, a four-way adds in onions or beans and a five way? You guessed it, all five. Oyster crackers are a must. Others may go for a cheese coney, or a hot dog topped with chili and cheese, with mustard and onion optional (via Food & Wine). Love it or hate it, it is inherently Ohio's — and no one can take that away from them.