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Condiment or Side Dish? The Lowdown on Chow Chow

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Open the pantry door in most any Southern kitchen and you’re likely to spy a few Mason jars labeled “Chow Chow” on the shelf. Spicy, sweet and sometimes packing a little jalapeño heat, this tasty vegetable relish is considered an essential condiment at the dinner table where it serves as the perfect foil for savory pork-studded dishes of beans and greens. Some folks like to pair it with a thick slice of cornbread, while others use it as the crowning touch on burgers, hot dogs, barbecue sandwiches and fried green tomatoes. Some cooks use it as a pickle relish substitute to add pizazz to deviled eggs.

Grits? Biscuits and gravy? English muffins? Jack them up with a generous dollop. Cheesecake? Ice cream? If you’ve got the gumption, give it a go. And, yes, some South Carolinians go hardcore and eat it as a side dish or straight from the bowl. Honestly, everything’s game when it comes to chow chow. The relish is so popular these days, it’s cropping up in kitchens far north and west of us. Is this another example of Southern foods gone wild? Maybe. More likely, it is a classic case of Southerners adopting a dish that came to them through providence.

Chow chow is thought to hail from the East—the Far East, that is. A culinary contribution made by Chinese immigrants who came here in the 19th century to help build railroads, it was commonly spiked with citrus and ginger. The perky flavors appealed to palates of all stripes. Curiously, the name comes from the French word for cabbage: “chou.” (No one is sure what the French connection is all about, but there it is.)

Though just a theory, it seems plausible that Southerners provided the twist that took hold and made chow chow a regional staple. Under the threat of quickly approaching frosts, farmers would head to the fields to harvest what was left of their crops. The gathered cabbages, squash, onions, green tomatoes and peppers were finely chopped, spiced up and simmered in a bath of vinegar and sugar. Once cooled, the concoction was ladled into canning jars and processed for good eating all year round.

Today, family chow chow recipes are a source of secrecy and pride among South Carolinians, who insist their particular version is the “one true” chow chow and, of course, the very best. Some folks use cabbage as the base. Others rely on the tang of green tomatoes. A lot of chow chow aficionados opt for both to make their treasured relish. Some like it mild; some like it hot. Some prefer a vinegar-forward profile, while others treat it like tea and generously hit it with the sugar.

If you’re dining out in South Carolina, you’ll often see it on menus at some of our finest restaurants. HUSK in Charleston and Greenville, Soby’s in Greenville, Blossom in Charleston and others are known to offer piquant house-made interpretations. Widely available at grocery stores and farmers markets across the state, no one need be chow chow deprived. Just look for it next to the pickles or in the local foods section. A common brand is Mac’s Pride, brought to you by McLeod Farms in McBee. (You can also order chow chow online from South Carolina producers like Hyman Vineyards or Abbott Farms, which touts a tempting Vidalia onion version.

A lot of South Carolinians, however, will advise you to go ahead and make your own. It’s not hard. Really. You don’t need to make it in gargantuan batches for canning, though there are plenty of such recipes around that give expert instruction. Here’s a sweet little recipe that requires no canning at all—just chop, simmer, cool and POW!—you’ve got yourself a delicious, taste-bud tingling chow chow worthy of a place of honor on your dinner table.

 

Quick and Easy Southern Chow Chow

Ingredients
1 head of cabbage, shredded
4 sweet peppers, (red, green, yellow, orange or a mix) seeded and finely chopped
2 onions, chopped
2 green tomatoes, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely diced (optional; wear gloves to protect fingers)
½ cup of salt
3 cups distilled white vinegar
2½ cups sugar
1 tbs. celery seeds
1 tsp. ground turmeric
½ tsp. dry mustard
½ tsp. ground ginger

 

Method
In a large, non-reactive pot, combine vegetables. Add salt, cover and allow to stand at room temperature for at least four hours or overnight. Drain well in a colander as the salt will leach fluid from the vegetables. While the vegetables drain, rinse the pot and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil and return chopped vegetables to the pot. Simmer over low heat for one hour, stirring at intervals. You can go ahead and eat it warm or cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for later use.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.