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Corn relish is a corn-based sauce or small salad that is typically served as a condiment. There are two primary types of corn relish: those that are pickled and those that a fresh. Corn relish is predominantly a facet of American cuisine. It is common in the deep South and is increasingly served with Tex-Mex and Southwestern foods, as well.
The United States was the first Western country to embrace the regular consumption of corn, and remains one of the world’s largest corn producers and consumers. Throughout much of Europe, corn was traditionally considered a peasant food and was usually reserved for animal and livestock feed. Americans, meanwhile, pioneered a number of corn-based dishes and recipes. Relish is one of them.
The most traditional corn relish traces its origins to the South, particularly Louisiana. This sort of relish is often little more than fresh corn kernels, hot peppers, and spices that are boiled briefly in vinegar. The vinegar acts as a preserving agent and also pickles the corn. Cooks normally can the relish by pouring it into glass jars, then sealing each jar with either a pressure cooker or a boiling water bath.
Pickled corn relishes are served year-round as a topping to crab cakes, as a zesty addition to sandwiches, or as an accompaniment to steaks. It usually has a slightly sweet, slightly salty flavor. The sweetness of corn relish is enhanced by using sweet corn, a variety with a high sugar content. A specifically “sweet corn relish” is likely made with this type of corn.
Corn relish is considered a condiment since it is rarely ever consumed on its own. Unlike more familiar condiments like ketchup and mustard, however, pickled corn relish is not smooth, and does not generally spread well. The corn kernels that make it up are left whole, and peppers and other additives are usually only roughly chopped. It usually resembles a salsa more than anything else.
In contemporary cooking, the “relish” designation — once reserved for pickled vegetables — has expanded somewhat to also include spiced salads and other vegetable-based dishes designed to accompany meats or other dishes. Almost any corn salad made as a condiment can be described as a relish. This is particularly true if the salad contains vinegar.
While a pickled corn relish is likely to be somewhat consistent, at least in terms of core ingredients, the same is not true for more salad-like relishes. Corn relishes of this sort often include beans, onions, and tomatoes. They tend to be used in the same way as their pickled counterparts, but carry a fresher, less saucy bite. This type of corn relish is much more common in the American Southwest, often paired with Mexican food and other Latin American-inspired cuisine.