Charleston is known for its rich and diverse culinary scene, but when it comes to what dishes are iconic to the city itself, the cuisine is rooted in Southern tradition and flavor. Here are 10 essential dishes to taste in the Lowcountry:
Shrimp and Grits
One dish that you’ll find on almost every menu in Charleston is shrimp and grits. There is, perhaps, no dish more iconic to the Holy City—and for good reason! It’s the kind of dish that is varied and adaptable, served at high-end restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints alike.
Although fried chicken can be found throughout the country, nobody does it better than the South. The key to good fried chicken is a crispy, spice-packed crust enveloping a juicy, moist hunk of chicken that tastes just as good out of the fridge as it does out of the fryer. The best fried chicken is made with buttermilk, lard and a whole lot of love.
Country Fried Steak
Country fried steak, also known as chicken fried steak, is like fried chicken’s lesser-known cousin. It’s also related to the country-fried pork chop, another popular Charleston dish. The preparation is quite similar to that of fried chicken—take a hunk of meat, batter it and deep-fry it—but it differs in that country fried steak is typically served with some kind of gravy, either white gravy (like what’s usually served with a biscuit) or brown (made with some kind of meat drippings).
Fried Green Tomatoes
We love fried green tomatoes so much in the South, they even titled a movie after this classic Southern dish. Although the dish can be found in the Northern regions of the U.S., the Southern version, made with cornmeal or corn flour, is the only version worth eating.
Pulled-pork barbecue is a Southern staple; there are few things more quintessentially Southern than a whole pig roasting over an open fire. People pride themselves on their hog-roasting abilities, traveling around the country to have their pork compete for the top spot. Charleston is lucky enough to have a number of prizewinning pitmasters in residence, so there’s no shortage of meaty goodness in the Holy City. Eat it plain or with some of South Carolina’s own mustard-based sauce.
Chicken bog (aka chicken pirloo/pilau) is one of the more unique dishes to the Lowcountry. Odds are, if you’re not from this area, you likely haven’t heard of it. It’s a basic dish—a rich porridge consisting of chicken, rice, onions and sausage that’s the kind of meal you’d only be served in your grandmother’s kitchen. But, it’s seen a resurgence recently in Southern culinary culture.
Being on the coast, it’s no surprise that oysters are a classic Charleston dish. The “r” months—the months between September and April—are prime oyster season in Charleston. You’ll find oysters on the menu at events ranging from big, elaborate festivals to quaint, backyard roasts throughout the fall and spring. Be prepared to try this Lowcountry treat (and don’t be surprised when people bring their own oyster knives to the party).
In Charleston, okra comes in many different forms. It can be grilled, stewed, boiled, roasted, pickled or fried, but no matter how you prepare it, one thing is certain: It’s delicious. Outsiders often write off this super food because of its tendency to release a slimy sugar residue (not unlike aloe vera) when prepared by the inexperienced cook, but in Charleston, chefs have found a way to make this down-home delicacy into a gourmet culinary experience you’re not likely to find anywhere else.
On New Years’ Day around the South, you’ll find people cooking up pork, hoppin’ john and collard greens for good luck in the coming year. But we don’t just eat our greens one day a year; Charlestonians love a good bowl of collard greens. Savory and salty, they’re best when cooked with ham and served with a generous helping of pepper vinegar or hot sauce for a true taste of Southern “health food.”
Where to get it: Jestine’s Kitchen, Early Bird Diner, Martha Lou’s Kitchen
One of the best parts of summertime is heading to see the Charleston Riverdogs play ball and buying a hot bag of Cajun-style boiled peanuts from a local celebrity, Tony the Peanut Man. Often called “the caviar of the South,” boiled peanuts look something like kidney beans, but taste like salty pearls of edamame, crossed with a chick pea, crossed with a peanut. They’re unique, and they’re addicting!