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.
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.
More shrimp and stone-ground Geechie Boy grits: These were made at home, served for dinner by our friends, Linda and Fred.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kay LynnMarch 6, 2015 at 6:51 pm
I lived in the Charleston area many years ago thanks to the Navy and my favorite Lowcountry food is She-crab soup.
Irene S. LevineMarch 6, 2015 at 6:53 pm
Definitely! Great addition~
LauraMarch 7, 2015 at 12:30 am
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.
Irene S. LevineMarch 7, 2015 at 7:38 pm
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.
LaurenMarch 7, 2015 at 11:35 pm
This lowcountry food looks delicious!
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 8:53 am
We thought it was!:-) Also nice to sample a cuisine of it’s own in the U.S.
Betsy Wuebker | PassingThruMarch 9, 2015 at 12:54 am
Yum! I would kill for hush puppies here in Australia! And the mac and cheese looks to die for! Real down home comfort food.
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 8:58 am
The hush puppies were pretty addictive!
santafetravelerMarch 9, 2015 at 12:54 am
What a moveable feast you had in Charleston! I’d love to eat my way through the city.
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 8:59 am
It’s a great city for food lovers!
ShelleyMarch 9, 2015 at 1:28 am
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.
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 9:00 am
Now how did I miss the sweet potato cornbread? Sounds yummy!
Paula McInerneyMarch 9, 2015 at 2:48 am
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.
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 9:03 am
That movie was my first exposure to Fried Greens Tomatoes, too!
Michele Peterson ( A Taste for Travel)March 9, 2015 at 5:38 am
A whole bucket of oysters? Heaven! Charleston looks like my kind of food destination!
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 9:04 am
Harvested locally, they go great with a cold beer!
Charles McCoolMarch 9, 2015 at 8:29 am
Now I am soooo hungry. Love the Low Country food. I had the most amazing shrimp and grits at Hominy Grill in Charleston.
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 9:10 am
That’s one of the restaurants I want to return to!
Patti MorrowMarch 9, 2015 at 9:14 am
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.
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 9:11 am
It feels like an ethnic cuisine. After a month, the steady diet of it did get a bit boring:-)
Suzanne StavertMarch 9, 2015 at 11:50 am
I know I just have to visit there! My mouth is watering! Did you enjoy all of that food on ONE trip? 🙂
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 9:12 am
My BFF lives in Charleston so we’ve been there several times but this time we were fortunate to stay for a month!
NancieMarch 9, 2015 at 6:04 pm
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! 🙂
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 9:15 am
You might be surprised at how pleasing grits are to the palate!
Carole Terwilliger MeyersMarch 9, 2015 at 8:15 pm
Your photos are great! I’ll have the hush puppies, please, and maybe some of that pork belly, too.
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 9:17 am
It’s amazing how Southern chefs use every part of the pig!
Susan MooreMarch 9, 2015 at 9:19 pm
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!
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 9:19 am
Sounds like you have your itinerary mapped out:-)
The GypsyNestersMarch 9, 2015 at 10:54 pm
Charleston is one of our favorite cities. Yes, for the food, but that is only part of its charm.
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 9:20 am
It’s a city rich in history and resilience having recovered from wars, hurricanes, and fires!
AnneMarch 10, 2015 at 9:46 am
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…
Irene S. LevineMarch 11, 2015 at 9:20 am
Yes the number of restaurant choices are amazing~
Linda ~ Journey JottingsMarch 11, 2015 at 10:39 am
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!
Irene S. LevineMarch 13, 2015 at 8:41 am
Grits are made from kernels of white corn that are finely ground. They are really quite delicious!
Carol ColbornMarch 11, 2015 at 11:58 am
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!
Irene S. LevineMarch 13, 2015 at 8:43 am
I would love to learn more about the foods of the Philippines. You can learn a lot about the history and culture of a place through its foods.
A Cook Not Mad (Nat)March 11, 2015 at 9:12 pm
That pork belly looks amazing. Haven’t been to Charleston in years but had one of the best meals I can remember there at Slightly North Of Broad.
Irene S. LevineMarch 13, 2015 at 8:44 am
Didn’t make it to Slightly North of Broad but there is always next time!
Jackie SmithMarch 12, 2015 at 4:57 pm
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!
Irene S. LevineMarch 12, 2015 at 7:52 pm
Too funny! Hope your mouth is feeling better by the time you read this response:-)
Sue ReddelMarch 12, 2015 at 10:45 pm
So that’s why they called them hushpuppies! I had no idea. These Southern favorites sure made my mouth water.
Irene S. LevineMarch 13, 2015 at 8:38 am
Definitely hard to eat just one!:-)
Suzanne FluhrMarch 13, 2015 at 5:42 am
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.
Irene S. LevineMarch 13, 2015 at 8:46 am
Yes, our lives are so determined by place and timing!
Anita @ No Particular Place To GoMarch 13, 2015 at 7:24 am
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…
alison abbottMarch 15, 2015 at 9:06 pm
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!
Irene S. LevineMarch 16, 2015 at 12:21 am
You might need to go back for another taste:-)
alison abbottMarch 15, 2015 at 9:08 pm
That Facebook post must have hit me at an afternoon low.