Chow Chow

Published June 7, 2018 | By ashley english


I am an equal-opportunity lover of seasons. Which is to say, I’m capable of finding redeeming qualities about all 4 seasons that visit the mountains of western North Carolina in which I live. Once upon a time, though, not too long ago, in fact, I loathed summer. You’d find me grumpy pretty much from June until late September. When the mercury soared and the humidity blanketed everything, I became all kinds of malcontent. It’s true, just ask Glenn.

But then something happened. Something beautiful! I nearly died from complications surrounding Alistair’s birth in April 2017 and then, poof, just like that, I didn’t find myself bothered so much by summer anymore. I don’t know if it was a shift in biochemistry, or a shift in perspective (a quite literal internalizing of “don’t sweat the small stuff”), but whatever the case, I can now appreciate the time of watermelon, and frozen drinks, and pool dips, and al fresco dining with the best of them.

However, all of that said, it’s still the “bump up against” seasons that I love the most. You know, the spring into summer season (“sprummer”?). Summer into fall (“summall”? I’m getting ridiculous, I know, but then really, when am I not?). Those seasons where one is merging and meshing into the other, and the produce is all kinds of wonderful and the weather is balanced? Yeah, those seasons. Those are where I thrive.

We’re in a bump-up-against season right this very minute. From my garden to the farmer’s markets, the foods of spring are co-mingling and saying “Howdy do?” to those of summer. Cabbages and beets and pretty little lettuces are sharing space with tomatoes and eggplant and peaches. It’s high time to make all the things, indeed!

A favorite pickle for making this time of year is chow chow. It’s got cabbage and cucumbers, bumping right up against each other with profound happiness. Are you familiar with chow chow? If not, let’s get you acquainted. Here’s an excerpt about chow chow from Southern From Scratch:

A type of pickled relish, chow chow has about as many permutations for making it as there are vegetables to fashion it out of, though cabbage does appear rather consistently. It has been a part of the southern Appalachian culinary canon since the early 1800’s, its multi-purpose “soup pot” nature making it a popular means of using up any available vegetable. Alongside variation in ingredients used, chow chows also differ in their relative levels of sweetness, some being considerably sweeter than others. The one I’m offering here is neither too sweet nor too sour, but very “Goldilocks” in its right-in-the-middle level of sweetness.

The etymology of the term “chow chow” is itself in dispute. Some believe it hails from the Chinese word “cha”, meaning mixed. Others argue chow chow stems from the Indian word for chayote squash, a common ingredient in a popular Indian pickle. Another viewpoint claims an association between the French and their word for cabbage, “chou” as having ties to chow chow. Wherever the word stems from, the condiment of finely chopped vegetables mixed with vinegar, sugar and spices has been associated with southern cooking for over 200 years.

Those maintaining the Chinese origin of the word believe it made its way to the U.S. via Chinese immigrant laborers in California. The European lineage claim links chow chow to the Acadians of Nova Scotia, who brought it with them during their migration south to Louisiana. However it ended up in the south, it stuck once it appeared on the culinary scene and can now be found in kitchens, pantries, and restaurants across the region.

We 4 Englishes love chow chow, even Alistair, who was just eating little pinches of it about 2 hours ago when Glenn served it to us atop a heavenly stack of our garden lettuces and nasturtium leaves and flowers, some heirloom tomato slices slathered with Duke’s mayo, black pepper shrimp, and parmesan crisps he’d made. Like most pickles and relishes, it does best with some aging time once jarred. I’d hold out two weeks at the very least before sampling, ideally 1 month. I hope this bump-up-against dish brings you as much happiness in your kitchen and at your table as it does me at mine. Chow down, friends!


Chow Chow (reprinted with permission from Southern From Scratch, Ashley English, Roost Books 2018).
Makes about 3 pints

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

1. Combine the cabbage, cucumber, onion, bell pepper, and pickling salt in a large nonreactive mixing bowl, such as glass or ceramic. Using clean hands, toss the vegetables with the salt to fully combine. Cover loosely with a kitchen cloth and leave at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.
2. 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.
3. Combine the vinegar, brown sugar, water, mustard powder, turmeric, and celery seeds in a medium pot. Stir over medium heat until the sugar has fully dissolved. Add the vegetable mixture, stir to combine, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
4. While the chow chow cooks, fill a canner or large stockpot with water, place three or four pint jars inside, and set over medium-high heat. Bring just to the boiling point.
5. Using a jar lifter, remove the hot jars from the canner and place on top of a kitchen cloth on the counter. With the help of a canning funnel, pack the chow chow into the jars, reserving ½ inch headspace.
6. Use a spatula or wooden chopstick to remove any trapped air bubbles around the interior circumference of the jars. Wipe the rims clean with a damp cloth. Place the lids and screw bands on the jars, tightening only until fingertip-tight.
7. Again using a jar lifter, slowly place the filled jars in the canner. Be sure that the jars are covered by at least 1 inch of water. 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.

Ashley English