The tastes of Charleston

The Tastes of Charleston

Here are ten dishes that help characterize the tastes of Charleston:

During our recent visit to the Charleston area, we found that certain characteristic foods, dishes and preparations pervaded both restaurant menus and home cooking.

They reflect culinary traditions handed down over generations, some brought over by African slaves. They also draw upon the bounty of a region rich in farmland that also possesses an enviable coastline location.

As a result, Charleston has a vibrant food culture: People love to cook, dine out and talk about food. This seems to increase the odds of finding interesting dishes and great places to eat.

Here are some of the dishes we “met” during our stay:

1) Collard Greens

Where tasted: Husk, Charleston

Ingredients are the stars at celebrity chef Sean Brock’s restaurant, Husk. Collard greens (a member of the cabbage family) are an African-American tradition. In 2011, Governor Nikki Haley proclaimed them the state vegetable of South Carolina.

Collard Greens at Husk
Southern Style Braised Collard Greens at Husk

2) Shrimp and Grits

Where tasted: Sunrise Bistro, Johns Island

Yes, this was a breakfast plate of crab, shrimp and grits with bacon. The fresh shellfish come from nearby Wadmalaw Island fishermen.

Shrimp and Grits
Shrimp and Grits at Sunrise Bistro

More shrimp and stone-ground Geechie Boy grits: These were made at home, served for dinner by our friends, Linda and Fred. 

Shrimp and Grits
Shrimp and Grits at Fred and Linda’s

3) Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Where tasted: Angel Oak Restaurant, Johns Island

This isn’t anywhere close to the Mac & Cheese your mom made you out of the blue box. This rich, creamy version is made with a Mornay cheese sauce and comes baked straight out of the oven.

Mac N' Cheese at Angel Oak Restaurant
Mac N’ Cheese at Angel Oak Restaurant

4) Hushpuppies

Where tasted: Lokal, Johns Island

Instead of bread, you’ll often find a basket of irresistible, deep-fried hushpuppies on the table. Made of a cornmeal batter, these came with a zesty cocktail sauce. According to legend, during the Civil War, confederate soldiers fed them to their dogs to “hush” them.

Hushpuppies at Locale
Hushpuppies at Lokal

5) Steamed oysters

Where tasted: Red’s Ice House, Johns Island

Oysters are a Charleston favorite, eaten raw, steamed or baked on the shell. Each January, there’s even an Oyster Roast festival. These oysters came from local beds, steamed and served in an almost bottomless bucket.

Steamed Oysters at Red's Ice House
Steamed Oysters at Red’s Ice House

6) Hoppin’ John

Where tasted: The Old Pink House, Savannah

Every culture seems to have its own version of rice and beans. Although these are popular across Lowcountry, we happened to taste them on a day trip to Savannah. In Charleston, they’re typically made with tasty black-eyed peas, also an African-American tradition.

Hoppin' John at the Old Pink House
Hoppin’ John at The Old Pink House

7) Fried Green Tomatoes

Where tasted: Lokal, Johns Island

I loved tomatoes so absolutely fell in love with Charleston’s fried green ones. Here, they are served in lieu of bread, as part of a crabcake sandwich.

Fried Green Tomatoes at Locale
Fried Green Tomatoes at Lokal

8) Pickled Everything

Where tasted: Charleston City Market

Pickled cucumbers are pretty ubiquitous in the northeast United States but in Charleston, it seems like everything comes preserved with vinegar or brine in a jar, including watermelon rind, pig’s feet and sausage. Southern chow-chow is often made with green tomatoes, green red peppers, sweet onions and cabbage.

Pickled Everything at Charleston City Market
Pickled Everything at Charleston City Market

9) Barbecue Chicken Wings

Where tasted: Home Team BBQ, West Ashley

You can find virtually every type of barbecued meat and poultry in Charleston. These revisionist chicken wings were dry rubbed with brown sugar, salt, pepper and chili by CIA-trained Chef Aaron Siegel.

Chicken Wings at Home Team Barbecue
Chicken Wings at Home Team Barbecue

10) Pork Belly

Where tasted: The Macintosh, Charleston

The chefs of Charleston aren’t shy about serving every part of the pig. Here, Chef Jeremiah Bacon uses pork belly, fatty meat taken from the belly of the pig, to reinterpret the classical Eggs Benedict.

Pork Belly at The Macintosh
Pork Belly at The Macintosh

Do you have any Lowcountry favorites that we’ve missed?

On the Web: If you like Southern cooking, check out this article, The Southern Larder, on Tasting Table. It is a list of 13 must-have items for a Southern pantry.

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  1. I lived in the Charleston area many years ago thanks to the Navy and my favorite Lowcountry food is She-crab soup.

  2. Are biscuits and gravy a popular item there? Interestingly, they are a staple breakfast item in southern Illinois,, and not normally an item you would see in the Chicago area. In southern Illinois biscuits and white gravy are a typical item on hotel breakfast buffets and a daily stable in the college cafeteria. I almost tried it the last time we were there, but I just could not stomach that vat of gravy!

    It seems like southern cooking can be quite flavorful and fun to try on a trip, but a lot of it seems unhealthy and artery clogging for daily eating.

    1. I know it’s a popular breakfast dish in the South, too. The only time we sampled biscuits was at a breakfast place with shrimp and grits that had it’s own gravy.

      In terms of its potential for clogging arteries, guess it depends on what you order and eat. There are many fresh seafood choices, too, because Charleston is a harbor city.

  3. I don’t think I’ve tried fried green tomatoes, but the sandwich with crabcakes looks so good! I pretty much loved all the food we tried in Charleston, but we really enjoyed this Gullah home-cooking place on one of the nearby islands. They had this amazing sweet potato cornbread, that I’ve since tried to imitate at home.

  4. I must admit, I know nothing about grits or collared greens or hush puppies. But I do know that I loved Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Seriously though, I now know more about these dishes and have only to try them.

  5. I moved to South Carolina from New Hampshire almost three years ago. The food culture took while to embrace but I’m coming around. 🙂 The upstate food is a bit different than food in the low country, but I now like shrimp and grits because they add flavor to the girt with butter and cheese.

  6. Great looking grub! I’d try any of these, particularly the shrimp dishes. I do have to say though, I have never had any desire to try grits. I think it’s the name; reminds me of dirt! 🙂

  7. I have not been to Charleston yet – but when I go there I will be sure to try the shrimp and grits. collard greens, and the fried green tomatoes. It all looks so yummy!

  8. One thing we tried decades ago while in Charleston was Boiled Peanuts…never again! But I do love the shrimp and grits…also Shecrab soup. And there are so many fabulous restaurants to choose from! I’m eager to return…

  9. What are grits?
    I feel a bit like Nancie – It doesn’t have the greatest word association…
    But I love trying local cuisines, so if you can tell me what it is I’ll be prepared for when I hit this part of the world!

  10. Well, I discovered hush puppies and grits there! And steamed oysters, barbecued wings, and pickled veggies were favorites in the Philippines, too. But I should have tasted those other five! I should pay more attention to food when I travel!

  11. OMG! I had a tooth drilled today and a temporary crown put on so have had nothing to eat since morning. . .I should not have read your post! I’d say my mouth is watering but the truth is I am drooling as the shots haven’t yet returned my numbed mouth to normal. Great post!

  12. I had my first hushpuppies when I was in Georgetown, South Carolina for a job interview during my last year of law school. They were on the menu and I had to ask what they were. I got this weird look and someone with an incredible southern drawl incredulously asked, “Y’all never had any hush puppies?” This was after someone in Conway, South Carolina looked at my resume, saw I spoke Spanish and said, “I thought you had an accent”—also in an amazing Southern drawl. I was offered a job there. I’m pretty sure my life would have taken a very different trajectory if I had accepted it.

  13. I’ve heard of many of these dishes but have only tried a few and I’m sure the versions I tasted were nothing like what you tasted. I’m a sucker for anything pickled so I’d love to try what’s in those jars and the fried green tomatoes looked fabulous! Mmmm…

  14. Your post is making me feel like I should eat my words Irene. I think I stand corrected and will gladly admit many different and delicious tastes were had in Charleston during our visit. Especially the fried green tomatoes!

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