20 Iconic Charleston Dishes and Drinks and Their History
Charleston offers up some of the best cuisine in the country. A combination of European, African and Native American cuisines, Southern food combines complex flavors and classic techniques. Did we mention much of it is fried? Check out 20 of the most iconic dishes to try in Charleston.
She Crab Soup
She crab soup is a crab soup that has a “little something extra.” Orange roe tops this soup to make it specifically a soup made of female crabs. You’ll notice that Charlestonians love their crustaceans (crabs especially) from all the crab and shrimp dishes on this menu. A great spot for she crab soup is The Palmetto Café.
Shrimp and Grits
Shrimp and grits are to Charleston what pizza is to Chicago and bagels are to NYC. You just can’t leave without trying some. Grits come from the Muskogee Native American tribe; shrimp was long considered the food of the lower classes in the South, and the dish’s popularity spread. It was made famous by a Chapel Hill restaurant, Crook’s Corner in 1982. Today, you’ll see shrimp and grits on menus all over Charleston.
Cornbread originally comes from the Aztecs, Mayans and Native Americans (the latter passed the recipes on to the European settlers). Today it’s considered a bread basket staple in South Carolina. Try some at Bertha’s Kitchen— or any barbecue or fried chicken spot for that matter.
Originally invented at the Planters Innin Downtown Charleston, Planters Punch is just about as Charleston as you can get. Most recipes call for dark rum, grenadine, pineapple juice and Angostura bitters.
Originally called ‘red horse bread,’ hush puppies originated in South Carolina. Georgians were the first ones to begin calling the dish hush puppies. What are these delicious little morsels, you ask? Fried cornmeal batter. Get some of the best in Charleston at the Hominy Grill.
Don’t worry — Frogmore stew doesn’t contain actual frogs. It’s a mixture of potatoes, corn on the cob, sausage and shrimp (essentially a clambake without the clams). Head to the Bowens Island Restaurantto try some.
Fried Green Tomatoes
Everyone has heard of fried green tomatoes (no, we’re not talking about the Kathy Bates movie), but have you ever tried them? Slices of firm, green tomato are battered and fried until their crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. While many food historians think that fried green tomatoes didn’t become a southern staple until 1991, we’re sure glad they got here at some point.
Okra is a staple of the South. The hearty okra plant originated in or around Ethiopia in the 12thcentury. You’ll find it on lowcountry menus in everything from stew to rice. Bertha’s Kitchenserves up a pretty tasty bowl of okra stew in Charleston.
Sweet tea’s origins date back to the 1800s. It was considered a luxury, as sugar wasn’t cheap back in those days — though some food historians think it may have originally come from the North. Don’t tell a Charlestonian that. It’s no surprise that it became so popular in the South — what with all of the sugar. You can find variations of this drink all over Charleston, but we like the versions at Poogan’s Porchand the Butcher & Bee.
Another dish that was perfected in the South but came from elsewhere is fried chicken. Its origins can be traced back to Scotland (you can also find it in Asian cuisine). Yet it’s in the South where fried chicken is a staple. Boxcar Betty’s, the Hominy Grill, the Glass Onion, Bertha’s Restaurant and Huskall have variations that will knock your socks off.
Country Captain (Curry Chicken)
You might not expect to find some of the best curry chicken in Charleston (try saying that three times fast), but it makes sense: back in Colonial times, British officers would often bring recipes and spices from India to Charleston. This dish features both curry and currents as main ingredients. One could say it’s the best curry, current chicken in Charleston. Head to the Hominy Grillto try this lowcountry dish.
If you started dreaming about deviled eggs when you saw the name of this dish, your brain was headed in the right direction. Just like with the egg version, the insides of a crab are scooped out, mixed with spices and loaded right back into the shell — similar to a stuffed clam. Head to Dave’s Carryoutfor some of the best in the city.
Last crab dish on this list (we promise!). Crab goes into just about anything and everything in Charleston, so it’s wildly appropriate to order crab off a menu. Crab rice is sort of Charleston’s version of fried rice. Get it at Hannibal’s Kitchen; it’s cheap, flavorful and fast here.
Oysters come in all shapes and sizes in Charleston. You’ll find them roasted, fried and raw on the half shell. You’ll even find them in stews. Try some at Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar(whilst enjoying the chandeliers made of oyster shells).
There are so many barbecue joints in Charleston, you could eat nothing but pulled pork and brisket for your entire trip — and you’d enjoy a great meal every time. Yet if you want to skip all the noise and get right for the best meat, head to Dukes BBQ, Lewis Barbecue, Poogan’s Smokehouseor Rodney Scott’s BBQ.
Not only are boiled peanuts called “the caviar of the South,” but they are also the official state snack of South Carolina. From Labor Day on into the holiday season, boiled peanuts are abundantly available at roadside stands, gas stations, ball games, festivals, and anywhere else people gather for fun. Boiled peanuts have been ingrained in the South’s history since the Colonial era. Peanuts originally came from South America but made their way to the South via slave ships that were stocked with the legume for the long journey. The practice of boiling them also came from Africa, where peanuts had been boiled for centuries and it seems to have been a common way of preparing them for African Americans in antebellum South Carolina when they were green and fresh out of the ground. As with other African culinary staples like okra and black-eyed peas, boiled peanuts eventually became part of the diets of white Carolinians, too. You can find them at the Historic Charleston Market.
Everyone always assumes that peaches are purely Georgian. But in fact, they are just as much a South Carolina staple as a Georgian one. You can find peach orchards all over the Palmetto State — and included on menus all over Charleston. If you want to enjoy peaches in a pie, head to Magnoliasor Peace Pie.
Another recipe that has been in Charleston since the Colonial days, benne wafers are salty, sweet and nutty. Head to the Olde Colony Bakery, one of the original establishments to start selling these cookies.
Country Fried Steak
Whatever you call it — country fried or chicken fried — this fried chicken cutlet is delicious. Brought to Charleston by German immigrants, the South just wouldn’t be the same without it. You can find a traditional version at the Early Bird Dineror an elevated one at Husk.
Chicken bog is simply chicken and rice. Yes, the chicken gets bogged down in the rice. It’s a little hard to find in Charleston, but Mama Brown’s BBQoffers a variation.
As you can see, there’s plenty of food to try on your trip to Charleston. If you’re not stuffed at the end of your trip, don’t forget to try biscuits and gravyand some pimento cheesebefore you leave. Hungry for more? Take a walking tourwith us to work up an appetite!