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What is chow chow? This pickled condiment is a Southern staple

This pickled condiment can be eaten by itself or used to top dishes for some added tang, crunch and salt.
For many in the Carolinas, chow chow is as much of a mealtime staple as barbecue sauce.
For many in the Carolinas, chow chow is as much of a mealtime staple as barbecue sauce.TODAY Illustration / Alamy

Ribs, fried chicken, collard greens and cornbread may be quintessential Southern dishes, but have you heard of chow chow (and no, I don’t mean the adorable dog breed by the same name)? I was delighted to try the pickled relish condiment during a Carolina food tour years ago, but what I didn’t realize was that for many in the region, chow chow is as much of a mealtime staple as barbecue sauce. In fact, its use has inspired an entire three-month culinary event series held annually in Asheville, North Carolina.

To break down the delicacy that is as fun to say as it is delicious, I chatted with Asheville chefs Ashleigh Shanti and Brian Crow for their expertise and thoughts on its history, preparation and presentation. Shanti has also graciously provided her drool-worthy lemon pepper pork rinds and green tomato chow chow recipe that showcases the dish in its most decadent form.

What is chow chow?

Chow chow is a pickled relish condiment that's typically made from a variety of vegetables. It can be eaten by itself or used to top dishes for some added tang, crunch and salt.

“There is no ‘traditional’ version and it varies by region and season,” said Shanti, a freelance chef living in Asheville, who said the North has even taken a stab at their own iteration.

Ashleigh Shanti is a freelance chef living in Asheville, North Carolina, popping up in select cities throughout the summer with her Good Hot Fish concept.

“I’d compare it to other pickled items, like sauerkraut,” added Crow, executive chef of Chestnut. “It’s in that family of items that have been chopped up and pickled. (It’s) almost like a mignonette with bigger pieces of vegetables.”

What is the history of chow chow?

“The origin of chow chow in the South was to use up ingredients in your pantry,” said Shanti. “Southern cooking is rooted in cooking with scarcity and making the most out of what you had. There’s such pride in homegrown cooking in the South and people aren’t willing to throw out even the tiniest amount. Chow chow is a way of using up every little piece and highlighting the ingredients that you’ve put so much care into growing."

Brian Crow is the executive chef of Chestnut in Asheville, North Carolina.

The late Southern food historian John Egerton claimed that the canned concoction’s origins can be linked to the flavorful sauces that Chinese railroad workers brought over in the 19th century. "The Food Lover’s Companion" also printed a similar recipe with ginger and orange peels that may have served as the foundation for chow chow’s popularity. But still, due to the dish’s many iterations, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact story or recipe that truly brought this amalgamation of pickled veggies to life.

What makes a chow chow authentic?

Like most dishes that have survived generations, chow chow has evolved over the years.

“There is no one ingredient that makes the dish,” said Shanti, though most modern-day recipes call for cabbage as a way to “bulk it up.”

Ultimately, you’re just going to want to add pickling spices and vinegar to whatever vegetables you have available. This will give the condiment its signature tangy flavor, no matter how you customize it.

What foods does chow chow pair best with?

Because it does an excellent job of cutting through the notoriously rich and heavy foods of the South, chow chow is versatile in its use.

“If I had to pick, I’d say it goes really well with cornbread or fried catfish,” said Crow, but he wouldn’t limit its use. That being said, he is certainly a stickler for authenticity in its taste and texture and wouldn’t recommend any creative or clever spins. “Maybe a puree could be interesting but I think that’d take away from the dish itself.”

The Chow Chow festival

Beyond its role as a humble side, the beloved chow chow has led to a summer-long food series in Asheville. While chow chow isn’t just the primary focus, its preparation, history and diverse ingredients have symbolically inspired the feasts by bringing people together from all walks of life.

“The event series isn’t a series of chow chow focused events, but the concept mimics the creation of a chow chow,” says Jawbreaking Creative’s Jefferson Ellison, the publicist for the event. “It’s different types of people coming together in various ways with a common goal and a greater purpose.”

Chow chow can be made from a variety of vegetables — really, anything you have on hand.Alamy

“Chow chow, the condiment, has such strong roots in this region,” he added. “The point of the Chow Chow event series is to celebrate the specific foodways and cultures of Southern Appalachia. So in this way, it almost becomes an eponym.”

If you’re interested in experiencing an event yourself, a full schedule can be found here. This year’s showcase kicks off June 27 and will go until Sept. 26. In the meantime, why not take a stab at making chow chow yourself? The green tomato base is a nod (whether intentional or not) to classic Southern movie "Fried Green Tomatoes," but I can assure you the secret isn’t in the sauce. The secret is chow chow itself — and it’s likely to become a permanent fixture on your dinner table.