Relish America’s Oldest Condiment



My first entry discussed a relish stolen and adapted from German cuisine – sauerkraut.   An even older and perhaps more important condiment across American convenience cuisine is pickle relish. While today it’s not as popular as ketchup or even salsa, it was the first true American condiment, even though borrowed from Indian chutneys, and still ranks as top 5 in most used condiments.


It’s funny to think that our oldest American condiment is an adaptation from Asian Indian cuisine.   It wasn’t until perhaps the 90s that we started becoming familiar with curries and vindaloo.   But we had stolen a version of the Indian chutney and had been using it steadfastly in America since before the Revolution.


Relishes go back to the late 1700s, but gained popularity in the 1850s in America.   H. J. Heinz company had been producing a relish called Chow-chow since the 1870s.    Chow-Chow is a southern born catch-all relish. Recipes for Chow-chow from South Carolina date back to 1770.   Chow-chow is a relish made from chopped green tomatoes, cabbage, mustard seed, onions, hot and sweet peppers in vinegar. Variations can contain cucumbers, celery, carrots, beans, asparagus, corn and cauliflower.   It has always been a chunky, non-pureed relish that is popular as a condiment on black eyed peas.


Over the summer I had the opportunity to visit Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, which has the original brick house of German immigrant H.J. Heinz.   While the house was the boyhood home of Heinrich Johann Heinz it was also the site of innovation for many of Heinz’s pickled products.   After Heinz had become one of the large packaged food companies in the world, he donated it to the company in 1904, and it was floated down the Allegheny River to the company headquarters where it became a museum.   Heinz donated it to Greenfield Village in 1957, when it was moved for the second time.  It’s filled with all sorts of relics of Heinz’s relish products throughout the 20th century.   It’s interesting to see what kind of relishes and pickles Americans consumed.


The H. J. Heinz house in Greenfield Village.


Most believe relishes originated from the need to preserve vegetables for winter, and that its roots extend back to India, where chutney, India’s relish like condiment, goes back to the 1600s.


In 1888, Heinz introduced a sour pickle relish known as Piccalilli.   Legend had it that the recipe originated with Napoleon’s chef.   It was a mix of green tomatoes, gherkin pickles, cabbage, cauliflower, onions, turmeric, mustard, vinegar, and spices, having a bright yellow color, rather than the green of today’s pickle relish.   It, however was not as popular as the relish Heinz introduced the next year.   Too bad, now we know that turmeric is a miracle spice for heart health.      British today use Piccallili today to go with eggs, toast, and sausage.   There’s even a rare Piccalilli made in a former Dutch colony called  Surinamese Picalilli with garlic sambal and Madam Jeannette peppers that I’d love to try.


In 1889 H. J. Heinz introduced India Relish to the U. S. and British markets.   Originally a secret recipe, it was very loosely based on India relishes, featuring a sugared and vingared mix of pickled cucumbers, green tomatoes, cauliflower, white onions, red bell peppers, celery, mustard seed, cinnamon and allspice.     Pickle relishes in India contained in addition to the American relish ingredients, sesame oil, lemon juice, ginger, and garlic, and sometimes even chopped mangos.   Chutney is similar, with the addition of chili peppers and tomatoes.


I think of the three chutneys that most Indian restaurants in America serve with their deep fried samosa appetizers – the spicy chili and onion chutney, the cooling mint /coriander chutney, and the sweet and savory brown chutney. Each has much deeper flavor than our bland pickle relishes.   And, I could even see using some or all of them in the same uses as our blah American pickle relish.    But we chose a much less spicy and boring formula to make American.



India relish became Heinz’s best selling condiment, after his pickles and vinegar, until the ketchup boom during the late 1890s.    The FDA in 1910 was on a misbranding witch hunt, and didn’t appreciate that Heinz’ India relish was not from India.     Heinz was taken to court for misbranding, as were Grape Nuts cereal, which had neither grapes nor nuts, Holland Gin, not from Holland; Coca-Cola, and others.   The FDA seized five cases of India relish, but the legal case was dismissed, as with all others, when the court ruled that the name was being used generically.


Victorian relishes in America were mostly chunky preserved pickled vegetables.   And, the most valuable piece in Victorian china sets was is the relish tray.   A refined Victorian table always had a relish tray with pickled onions, carrots, radish, cauliflower, pickles, and olives.   It was our version of the Italian antipasto.  The relish tray tradition met its end with commercial refrigeration in the 1930s and 1940s, and it was probably around this time that relishes became less chunky and more pureed and bland like the typical sweet pickle relish with which we adorn our hot dogs or what we add to our macaroni salads.


An early advertisement showing Heinz’s products.   India Relish is in the lower right corner.


Pickle relish today is most commonly used as a hot dog dressing at family cookouts and in most sports stadiums.     Fast food restaurants tend to use whole pickles on burgers, rather than relish.   But, the most famous place that India Relish was used, was in a recently found recipe by Ernest Hemingway for his Wild West Hamburger.   The recipe was part of 2500 pieces of ephermera recently digitized by the John F. Kennedy Presidential library during Hemingway’s stay in Havana, Cuba from 1939-1960.   His burger in addition to calling for grated carrots, apples, onions, capers, minced ham, and a host of spices, called for a dollop of India relish.


So if you want to eat the burger that Hemingway was eating when he wrote books like For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea, you can use Saveur’s August 2014 post of his recipe:


1 lb. lean ground beef

2 oz. sliced ham, minced

1/3 cup dry red or white wine

¼ cup grated cheddar cheese

2 tbsp. capers, drained

2 tbsp. grated tart apple

1 tbsp. minced parsley

1 tbsp. soy sauce

1 ½ tsp ground sage

1 ½ tsp. India relish

½ tsp. Beau Monde seasoning

½ tsp. Mei Yen Powder (9 parts salt, 9 parts sugar, 2 parts MSG – use 2/3 tsp of powder with 1/8 tsp of soy sauce when 1 tsp of Mei Yen powder called for)

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 small scallions, minced

1 egg beaten

1 plum tomato, cored peeled & grated

½ small carrot, grated

½ small yellow onion, grated

Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to tast3e

1 tsp canola oil

Hamburger buns, lettuce, sliced tomato and onion

Ketchup, mustard, and mayo for serving


Mix ingredients, except for oil, buns and condiments in a bowl.

Form into four 6 oz. patties. Heat oil in a 12” skillet over medium high heat.

Cook patties, flipping once, until cooked to desired doneness, 8-10 minutes

For medium rare.   Serve on buns with lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup, mustard,

3 thoughts on “Relish America’s Oldest Condiment

  1. Nice article. I’ve been doing research on the “Hemingway Burger” and just finished making a version of the original Heinz India Relish. I found a food writer in South Africa who researched to recreate the chutney version rather than the “pickle relish” one often sees.

    In your research, did you run into any other interesting uses for India Relish? I cut the recipe in half and still ended up with three good size jars. The Hemingway recipe calls for only one table spoon.

    It’s also interesting to look at the original document with the recipe. I’ve decided to use the recipe as typed by Hemingway wife, rather than use the hand written notes on the page that are in two different colors of ink.


  2. I have been using Heinz India relish for the past 50 years, it is all my mother ever had in the house. I use it in every recipe that calls for relish. Use it on hamburgers and hot dogs, it is especially tasty on pulled pork sandwiches and sloppy joes. I also use it to make tuna salad, chicken salad and ham salad. I make my own version of tartar sauce with mayo, India relish, and a touch of spicy brown mustard, ratio of ingredients to your taste.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m doing research on chutney/chatni as in the original Indian condiment and would love to know your source dating chutney in India to the 1600s (also my conclusion, although I’ve seen a pretty wild span of dates offered). What’s the oldest actual chutney recipe you’ve found (India, not America)?


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