Originally created 01/29/97

Chili put dance company on its toes

There's always a food angle, we food journalists like to say. But even in ballet? Among those whippet-thin ascetics in toe shoes?

You bet.

Take the Joffrey Ballet, one of America's most honored dance troupes. You could say it was founded on chili. In the recent biography of the late Robert Joffrey, The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company, (Scribner, 1996), Sasha Anawalt titled the first chapter The Chili Recipe.

This is the story the author uncovered. Robert Joffrey's father was an immigrant of the Pakhtun nationality of Afghanistan, also known as the Pashtuns or Pathans. Though in America he changed his name from Dollha Anver Bey Jaffa Khan to Joseph Joffrey and married an Italian woman, he never gave up his Afghan citizenship.

Dollha/Joseph and his brother, Aurang Shah, moved to the United States in 1916 after the murder of their father in the old country. They settled in Seattle, where they got jobs selling chili out of pushcarts. Though Joseph, at least, spoke only Pakhto and Urdu to begin with, within a year they had become so successful selling their beef and chicken chili that they bought out the chain of chili carts.

At some point, they sold their chili recipe to a canning company (Robert Joffrey's cousins Naim and Pakhtun Shah say they could never find out from their father and uncle exactly to which company). With his share of the money, Aurang Shah went to college and became a prominent attorney.

JOSEPH JOFFREY used his share to open the Rainbow Chili Parlor in Seattle, and it was there that his son, Robert, grew up. As fate would have it, there was a dance studio upstairs from the chili parlor, and that's where the ballet part of the story began.

The immigrant brothers never forgot the importance of chili to their new lives in this country. "My father and uncle used to keep (the recipe) in their wallets," recalls Naim Shah. "Sometimes Dad would take it out and say, `This was how I got my money to go to Tufts and Harvard.'°"

The second generation still has the recipe. "My brother found the recipe in Dad's drawer of personal effects," Naim Shah says. "He and my mother made it several times. Mother knew how to make a smaller quantity, and over the years they made chili based on that."

The challenge of the recipe is that it is not a conventional recipe but a sort of shopping list for commercial use:

  • 2 curry powder

  • 2 pickling spices

  • 2 whole cumin

  • 2 coriander

  • 2 ground cayenne

  • 20 Mexican chili pods

  • 2 bay leaf

  • 2 Mexican sage and ground

  • 2 garlic salt

  • 5 Bakers 1 paprika

  • garlic - onion - kidney suet - chicken - hamburger - 49 baking flower (sic) - ripe olives -

"(MY FATHER) kept that recipe because it was the formula," says Pakhtun Shah. "If you took that list to the market and bought everything, it would make a week's worth of chili. It was the business plan. In a sense, it was more valuable than a recipe, which wouldn't make money for anybody."

As a result, it doesn't list all the ingredients. For instance, it doesn't mention tomatoes or bell peppers because the brothers grew their own. Pakhtun Shah remembers that, while the recipe mentions curry powder, his father and uncle would also grind up cardamom fresh for each batch.

In later life, the immigrant brothers sometimes prepared their chili for big parties at Aurang Shah's Sacramento, Calif., home, to which they invited the staffs of various embassies, including those of India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey.

Though in the chili parlor, Joseph Joffrey had probably served it with crackers in the usual turn-of-the-century fashion, at these parties, and when the brothers cooked for themselves, they served it in a rather Middle Eastern style, on rice pilaf. The recipe doesn't call for beans, but they would sometimes provide cooked beans on the side - kidneys, pintos, even garbanzos - so you could mix them in if you wanted, the same way they served black olives with it.

SO IT WAS an American chili with strong Middle Eastern touches; but as a fluid, folk-type dish, it had no fixed recipe. And that was part of its mystique.

This, of course, gets back to the ballet story. Says Naim Shah, "I think Bob Joffrey learned from the family chili mystique. He learned that if you don't say anything, if you only leak bits of info, you create a mystique. Bob was a master of illusion."

And there you have it: Chili, a secret ingredient in American ballet.


Spice mixture

6 ancho or pasilla chilies

  • 2 cups boiling water

  • 1 teaspoon curry powder

  • 1 teaspoon pickling spices

  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds

  • 1 teaspoon coriander

  • 1 teaspoon cayenne

  • 1 teaspoon cardamom

  • 1 teaspoon sage

  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt

  • 2« teaspoons paprika

  • 2 bay leaves

  • Chili

  • 1 large onion, chopped

  • 2 tablespoons oil

  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic

  • 1« pounds ground beef

  • 1« pounds tomatoes, chopped

  • 1 large green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

  • 1 cup halved, seeded black olives

  • For the spice mixture, toast chilies lightly in skillet. Soak in water 15 minutes. Remove stems and seeds; scrape flesh from skin and puree; makes about 4 teaspoons chili paste. Mix with curry powder, pickling spices, cumin seeds, coriander, cayenne, cardamom, sage, garlic salt, paprika and bay leaves.

    For the chili, fry onion in oil until soft. Add garlic and ground beef and cook, stirring constantly to break up lumps. Add tomatoes, bell pepper and spice mixture and cook 1 hour. Before serving, stir in olives.

    The Los Angeles Times' test kitchen developed this realization of the recipe after consultation with Mr. Joffrey's cousin, Pakhtun Shah. Mr. Shah describes the family chili as flavorful, zesty and smooth, not very hot, with an aroma of onion and garlic that "settles in your nasal cavities." When in a hurry, Pakhtun Shah has made a rough equivalent using a canned mixture of tomatoes and jalapenos and commercial curry powder.

    Makes 6 servings.

    Each serving contains about: 344 calories; 416 milligrams sodium; 64 milligrams cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 18 grams protein; 2.51 grams fiber.


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