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No, not the exceedingly adorable dog breed. Chow chow is a relish-like condiment so good that a certain North Carolina city named their food festival after it. It’s also the perfect way to use up the last of your summer produce, but what exactly is chow chow? And how did it become an icon of Asheville?

It’s an undisputed fact—in my head, anyway—that pickles make any savory summer food better. Certainly sandwiches. BBQ? Check. Hot dogs and hamburgers? Obviously. But what if there were a kind of spreadable, pickle-y, relish-y condiment that we northerners were totally missing out on? There is, and on a recent visit to Asheville, North Carolina I discovered the almighty chow chow.

Condiment CrushPeruvian Aji Verde Sauce Is Good on EverythingAshley English lives, works, cooks, and writes (cookbooks mostly) in Asheville and knows chow chow about as well as anyone. During last year’s first annual Chow Chow Asheville food festival—which is named after the regional relish but celebrates the city’s vast and vibrant food scene and is set to return in the fall of 2021—English gave a demo on how to make this local favorite.

As a chef and cookbook author who toils in southern and Appalachian cuisine, English jokes that chow chow—sometimes written “chow-chow”—represents “the hope of humanity all in one jar” since it combines vegetables and flavorings and spices from across the globe, commingling, interacting, and making each other better in the long run. While that might be a slightly ethereal take for some folks, once you’ve had a spoonful of good chow chow heaped over a mound of fatty brisket it’s truly hard to deny its greatness.

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What Is Chow Chow?

Chow chow is (loosely) a seasoned, pickled slaw made from cabbage, peppers, tomatoes, onions, and really whatever else your garden or farmer’s market gives forth; meaning two recipes are seldom the same. English defines it as “a type of pickled relish with about as many permutations for making it as there are vegetables to fashion it out of.” Cabbage seems to appear most consistently, especially in the southeast U.S. but you’re like to find anything from carrots to peppers, zucchini, onions, cucumbers, mushrooms, cauliflower, and a whole lot more.

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Where Did Chow Chow Come From?

It’s been a part of the southern Appalachian culinary canon since the early 1800s, according to English. And its multi-purpose “soup pot” nature makes it a popular means of using up available vegetables, so it’s also long been known as an “end-of-season, end-of-the-garden” dish, using up tender produce that might otherwise be ruined by the first frost. Alongside variation in the vegetal ingredients used, chow chows also differ in their relative levels of sweetness and spice, much like barbecue sauces found in various pockets of the American south.

Related Reading: Watermelon Rinds Are Delicious (And Not Just for Pickles)

Is Chow Chow Just an Appalachia Thing?

Nope. Chow chow has something of a global presence, in addition to the southern United States. A friend of English’s has mentioned her Scottish mother grew up making a cauliflower-based chow chow, and the Brits also have a version usually referred to as “picalilli.”

Oh, and What Should You Put Chow Chow On?

Everything. Just kidding, but like other pickled foods or relishes, there are a lot of options. Wherever rich fatty meats are found, chow chow is there to give respite to your tongue with a bright, tangy vinegar crunch. Sandwiches, of course, make perfect sense but also fatty burgers and steaks, meaty grilled fish like swordfish or mahi-mahi. Or even to add zest to a salad or summer hot dog.

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Chow Chow Recipe

A good chow chow should have a balance of briny vinegar, subtle spice, and lingering sweetness. It can have an overpowering flavor—like any pickled food—but you can also adjust its potency by limiting fermentation (though English suggests a minimum of two weeks in brine).

Chow Chow

Makes: 3 pint jars
Ingredients
  • 1 small head green cabbage, grated
  • 1 medium cucumber, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • ¼ cup pickling salt
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2/3 cup light brown sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 teaspoons mustard powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon celery seeds
Instructions
  1. Combine the cabbage, cucumbers, onion, bell pepper, and sea salt in a large non-reactive mixing bowl, such as glass or ceramic.
  2. Using clean hands, toss the vegetables with the salt to fully combine. Cover loosely with a kitchen cloth and leave at room temperature overnight.
  3. The next day, drain the mixture in a colander, pressing on the vegetables with a wooden or metal spoon. Don’t rinse with water, though, just press out and discard any juices.
  4. Combine the vinegar, brown sugar, water, mustard powder, turmeric, and celery seeds in a medium size pot. Stir over medium heat until the sugar has fully dissolved.
  5. Add the vegetable mixture, stir to combine, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, and cook gently 15 minutes.
  6. While the chow chow cooks, fill a canner or large stockpot with water, place 3-4 pint jars inside, and set over medium-high heat. Bring just to the boiling point.
  7. Using a jar lifter, remove the hot jars from the canner and place on top of a kitchen cloth on the counter.
  8. With the help of a canning funnel, pack the chow chow into the jars, reserving ½ -inch headspace.
  9. Use a spatula or wooden chopstick to remove any trapped air bubbles around the interior circumference of the jar. Wipe the rims clean with a damp cloth. Place on the lids and screw bands, tightening only until fingertip-tight.
  10. Again using a jar lifter, slowly place the filled jars into the canner. Be sure that there’s at least 1 inch of water above the top of the jars.
  11. Bring to a boil, and then process for 10 minutes, starting the timer once the water is at a full, rolling boil. Adjust for altitude as needed.

This recipe was printed with permission from SOUTHERN FROM SCRATCH: Pantry Essentials And Down-Home Recipes, Ashley English, Roost Books 2018. 

Header image courtesy of Explore Asheville.

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