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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 18, 2009

TASTE
TASTE
Chili supreme

 •  It's not Zippy's, but some say it's close
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By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

An Island favorite and a bowl of memories, nothing says comfort food like Zippy's secret recipe.

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CHILI ENHANCERS

  • In addition to or in place of ground beef or ground turkey, add a pound of cut-up hot dogs, fried chopped bacon, browned chopped Portuguese sausage, seasoned pork sausage or flavored tofu crumbles.

  • Top with grated cheddar, chopped fresh tomatoes, minced raw onions and/or sour cream.

  • Add canned or fresh mushrooms. Zippy's vegetarian chili is said to make ample use of mushrooms to add texture and depth of flavor.

  • Top with crushed corn chips or tortilla chips.

  • Add minced carrots to chili for nutrition and slightly sweet flavor.

  • Add a can of corn, with liquid.

  • Use minced sirloin steak instead of ground beef.

  • For serious heat, add sauce from chipotle en adobo (found canned in Mexican foods section of supermarket).

  • Garnish with cilantro and lime.

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    MONEY-SAVING TIPS FOR CHILI

  • Use dried instead of canned beans: Soak 1 pound (2 cups) dried pinto or kidney beans in cold water overnight. Drain, simmer in 6 cups cold water until tender, about 2 hours. Drain and prepare chili as desired.

  • Eliminate meat; beans are cheaper.

  • Buy ingredients in bulk when on sale; make large batch and portion out into heavy-duty freezer-safe zippered plastic bags, label and freeze.

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    It comes like a cry from the heart: the call from an exiled Islander for the recipe for Zippy's chili.

    I get such pleas every couple of months, it seems. The latest was in November from Tony Ramos: "Living here in Las Vegas, but can't get good chili. Have been searching for Zippy's or Rainbow Drive-In chili recipes."

    Folks who grew up elsewhere generally find nothing special about Zippy's chili a thickish, mildly spiced melange of ground meat and beans in a brick-colored stew.

    But to Islanders, especially O'ahuans, Zippy's chili like shave ice, saimin and plate lunch is the taste of home.

    Honolulu City Councilman Donovan Dela Cruz, whose "Puka Guide" books introduce treasured, tiny restaurants, enthuses: "Zippy's chili is the definition of comfort food. That's what you find a picture of in the dictionary next to the word 'comfort.' It's consistent, a great value and it's always satisfying. You can add hot dogs, hamburger, eat it with or without rice. You can't go wrong with Zippy's chili."

    Tina Silva, who lives in Chicago, said in a telephone interview that Zippy's is a must first-stop when she comes home to visit her parents in Mililani.

    "We go right from the airport to the one on Nimitz, even if it's the wrong direction for going home. Unless I get my mom to buy a tub, then I can go home and have chili with homemade rice. And we always put Portuguese sausage inside. You're making me hungry."

    When he overheard me working on this story, my colleague Mike Gordon called over the pod wall to praise Zippy's chili as "the fundraising king."

    "You come to my house and try to sell a fundraiser to me and I have to know you. But if it's Zippy's, I'll buy it," he said.

    And when I asked co-worker Paula Rath if she knew anyone who really loved Zippy's chili, she couldn't think of anyone who craves this Island staple more than her son, Duncan Scott Graham, who lives in San Francisco. She has sent him chili for every major holiday and his birthday and occasionally "just because." When she goes to visit in April, she said, they'll take some packed in dry ice.

    But what IS it about Zippy's?

    Said Silva: "Well, it's not authentic, you know, not like those chilies they make in the competitions or in a restaurant like Rick Bayless' restaurants here in Chicago. It's just ... it brings back memories of after the football game, after the prom, sitting down with the folks to watch a movie at home on a night when Mom didn't feel like cooking. It's more than just what it is, or what it tastes like."

    One measure of how popular Zippy's chili is is the number of responses I got from readers when I asked for a copycat recipe, since Zippy's doesn't share theirs. I received at least a dozen different approaches.

    Another measure is how much chili Zippy's makes: 110 tons a month, to serve in restaurants, for sales to fundraising organizations, and for twin packs sold in the freezer cases of some local supermarkets. Zippy's no longer operates a mail-order site on the Internet, which might explain why requests for a recipe have picked up. (There are, however, some Mainland distributors who sell Zippy's chili to grocery stores there some Marukai stores, some Costcos, in communities with larger populations of Islanders.)

    Zippy's marketing executive Jeanine Mamiya-Kalahiki said the chili was on the menu when Zippy's opened in 1966 and has never left. They offer no-bean and vegetarian versions and have tried spicy, Texas-style and lowfat turkey chili in the past, but those didn't sell.

    What's the attraction? She fumbled for words: "I think it's just the taste, the flavor, the ingredients," she said.

    And the familiarity. Other dishes may come and go, but Zippy's chili lives on a bowl of memories.

    Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.