Charleston burst on the scene, already a legend, a southern phenomenon, the original Low Country. Charleston has been celebrating its culinary culture for decades, much before the national press got stirred up by the quaint revelations of the small town. It was indeed the best kept secret of the peninsula. Foodie pilgrims from around the country and beyond have been frequenting the city by the sea for a few years now, leading to a phenomenal growth in tourism and hospitality. Almost everyone is mesmerized with their vibrant expedition but at the root of it all lay hundreds of years of history, generations of experimentation powering the perfecting of what are now traditional recipes and the finesse that trained chefs have brought to the table.
History of Charleston
We are not going to dive into the colonial era or the American Revolution, the Antebellum and Postbellum eras or the Civil War, albeit the region lived through it all. Charleston is a melting pot in a class of its own. Once upon a time, slaves from West Africa and West Indies greatly outnumbered their European masters. Many of these slaves worked in the kitchens. They would mishmash what they knew and what they were taught, resulting in a concoction like no other. Even today, the Charleston food scene is largely a celebration of West African flavors, mingling with produce from local farms and kitchen gardens, spices that were byproducts of the long gone colonial trade and the natural evolution of a distinct cuisine. These diverse and often contradicting influences gave birth to what is today called the Low Country flavor.
The Charleston food scene has traditionally been about oysters, crabs, rice, grits and okra. They are still the primary ingredients. Seafood is still the de facto favorite. There has been an unprecedented surge of interest among corporate bigwigs in recent years, many of whom have set up their branded restaurants with their own take on the traditional recipes and some new ones. Despite that, the bestsellers still are the okra soup at Bertha’s Kitchen, the fried chicken at Martha Lou’s, roasted oysters a Bowen’s Island or garlic crabs from the likes of Nana’s Seafood and Soul. Of course, it will be unwise to avoid Husk or FIG and other upscale places but one must begin the pilgrimage at the mom and pop restaurants. These are the places where the true essence is still preserved. These heritage addresses are at the crux of all the inspiration that has lead to the burgeoning of the Charleston food scene.
Get Accustomed with Charleston
Low Country, also spelled as Lowcountry, was originally the entire region of South Carolina below the Sandhills. Low Country today is mostly the coastal region. It also includes the islands. You will be hearing plenty about Lowcountry and you will have to learn a few new terms, especially if you want to know what dish it is. For instance, Lowcountry Boil is a unique dish made with corn and shrimp, sausage and potatoes or She-Crab Soup which is crab meat with roe, cream and sherry. You will hear a lot about Gullah or Geechee. It refers to the cuisine and culture of the descendants of the West Africans who were once enslaved in the region. The cuisine is generous in its use of rice, crabs, benne seeds, shrimp, oysters and seasonal vegetables. It is a harmonious coexistence of what grows on land and what is found in the sea. You will be tempted to try Carolina gold rice and crab rice, oyster roast and boiled peanuts. You may also be interested in exploring the magic of chefs Sean Brock, Frank Lee, B.J. Dennis and Mike Lata among others. All of them and others have been inspired by the Gullah/Geechee cuisine and the Low Country specialties. They are now spreading the joy.