The Lowcountry, which is commonly defined as extending from Savannah to Pawleys Island in South Carolina, has produced one of the richest and most distinctive kitchens of American cookery. Long before the current locavore movement became a driving force among American chefs, Lowcountry cuisine was based strictly on foods grown and harvested in this coastal area, including crab, shrimp, fish, oyster, game, grits (ground cornmeal) and rice.
Lowcountry cooking incorporates a patchwork of ethnicities.
Rice was introduced in the late 17th century and thrived in this region of estuaries and marshes to become one of the most important crops of colonial America. Although its cultivation ended after the Civil War, when slaves who worked on the local plantations were freed, it has reemerged in recent decades in the form of Carolina Gold, an heirloom variety unique to the region. Whether served as a simple side dish or cooked with tomatoes and other vegetables, rice is integral to most Lowcountry meals.
Lowcountry cooking incorporates a patchwork of ethnicities. Vegetables like okra arrived with African slaves; French Huguenots and Portuguese Sephardic Jews added their produce, techniques and recipes to the culinary canon; and the inhabitants of Charleston and Savannah traded extensively with the British colonies of the Caribbean. Many of the most delicious recipes, including shrimp and grits, Frogmore stew, she-crab soup and Hoppin’ John have strong parallels with the Cajun cuisine of New Orleans.
Here are some classic Lowcountry dishes to try when you are in the area.
Country Captain has been cooked in the Lowcountry since colonial times, and its flavors can be traced to India. Chicken is stewed in tomato sauce spiked with curry powder and then served over white rice with a garnish of raisins and almonds.
A Southern cousin of the New England clambake, Frogmore stew takes its name from a small coastal South Carolina town. It also goes by the name “Lowcountry boil” and is a one-pot dish of shrimp, corn on the cob, potatoes and spicy sausage.
Rice, black-eyed peas, chopped onion and sliced bacon are the basic ingredients for this colorfully named dish. (In other variations of the recipe, sausage, ham hocks or smoked turkey are used instead of bacon.) Traditionally consumed on New Year’s Day because it’s said to bring good luck, it can be found on Lowcountry menus year-round.
The original recipe for this cake arrived in Charleston with the French Huguenots (Protestants who left France to escape religious persecution after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685). Adapting it to their new home, they added pecans — a native American nut — to the recipe, which also includes Granny Smith or other tart apples.
Considered by many the most emblematic dish of Charleston cooking, this ruddy and delicate soup takes its name from the female crab eggs that create its unique taste. A generous dash of dry sherry completes the dish.
Lowcountry residents consider the wild shrimp caught by local fishermen between June and December to be some of the best in the world. Grits, or stone-ground cornmeal cooked as a porridge, make a perfect backdrop for the sweet, iodine-rich flavor of the crustaceans. Some people prefer this dish plain, while others opt for adding gravies or sauces of various kinds.