Visitors to the South Carolina Lowcountry – a region along the state’s southeast coast that includes the Sea Islands, of which Hilton Head is perhaps the best known – tend to drop by for the scenery, the history, the golf, the lighthouses and more. But what really sticks with them is the food; there are a number of dishes that are either unique to the area, or are just closely associated with it.
With its rich diversity of seafood from the coastal estuaries, its pockets of wealth and the vibrant influence of Caribbean and African cuisines, Lowcountry cooking has strong parallels with the Cajun flavors of New Orleans. Here are some of the local favorites to tantalize the taste buds:
- Catfish stew – Common throughout the South, though it’s particularly associated with South Carolina, this stew consists of catfish fillets (taken from the sides of the fish) which are heavily boiled so that they fall apart. The fish is then combined with crushed tomatoes, potatoes and onions. (“White” catfish stew may substitute milk for the tomatoes.) Hot sauce or Tabasco is often added as well.
- Country Captain – A curried chicken and rice dish with origins in India. In its basic form, Country Captain is a mild stew made with browned chicken pieces, onions and curry powder. Almonds and golden raisins or zante currants are usually added, while many versions also call for tomatoes, garlic and bell peppers. The dish is served over white rice; with the exception of the rice, it is meant to be cooked all in the same pot. Country Captain was a favorite of General George S. Patton, which led to its inclusion, for a time, in the U.S. military’s “Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE)” packs.
- Frogmore stew (also known as Lowcountry Boil) – You’ll likely be pleased to know that the name of this creation has nothing to do with frogs; it’s named after the small community, Frogmore (near Beaufort), where it reportedly originated. It’s a seafood boil, similar to those found in Louisiana, but usually milder when it comes to seasoning. Although the recipe revolves around shellfish, it usually involves shrimp, corn on the cob, sausage and red potatoes. Sometimes ham is part of the mix.
- Shrimp and grits – Combining a pair of regional favorites (shrimp pulled fresh from the Atlantic and the southern staple of grits), this dish can be found in just about every restaurant along the coast, each of which spins its own variation. Frequently, the two main ingredients are augmented with ham, sausage and/or spices.
- Shrimp Kedgeree – A tasty and fun dish, known as much for its history as its flavor. In India, “khichari” refers to any of a large variety of legume-and-rice dishes. The ingredients changed when the dish moved to Victorian England, where it became a breakfast food, consisting of cooked, flaked fish (usually haddock), boiled rice, parsley, hard-boiled eggs, curry powder, butter or cream, and occasionally sultanas. In the U.S., however, kedgeree is associated with shrimp, and tends to walk on the mild side.
- She-crab soup – A rich soup, similar to bisque, made with milk or heavy cream, crab or fish stock, Atlantic blue crab meat, crab roe and a small amount of dry sherry. It may be thickened either by heat reduction or with a puree of boiled rice, and may include such seasonings as mace and shallots.
- Oyster roast – More an event than a dish. An oyster roast is a social function where oysters are piled on a grill, then wet burlap sacks are draped over the shells, so the oysters are half-grilled and half-steamed. The shells pop open and the oysters need just a little coaxing to come free. Oyster roasts are popular during the winter months (according to custom, oysters are generally harvested in months that contain an “R”), when the oysters are good and a hot fire keeps the coastal chill at bay.
- Hoppin’ John – A side dish made with peas, rice, chopped onion and sliced bacon, and seasoned with salt. While the dish originally called for black-eyed peas, it is made with field peas throughout the Lowcountry. (Some people substitute ham hock, fatback or country sausage for the bacon. A few use green peppers or vinger and spices.) According to tradition, eating Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day is thought to bring a prosperous year filled with luck. The exact origin of the name is unknown, but it may be a corruption of “pois pigeons,” the Haitian term for black-eyed peas.
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