Five local dishes to discover in South Carolina

South Carolina's homegrown chefs are putting the Palmetto State's culinary scene in the spotlight with a growing enthusiasm for cultural and time-honoured plates including barbecue and Gullah-inspired recipes.

Tuck in to sharing platters of fresh seafood alongside locals on your next trip to South Carolina.

Photograph by Discover South Carolina
By Zoey Goto
Published 11 Mar 2023, 15:00 GMT

Not far from the North Atlantic Ocean and home to acres of cultivated farmland, South Carolina boasts an abundance of fresh ingredients. Farm-to-table has long been a way of life here and, at weekends, bustling farmers markets sprout up across the state. A couple of standouts include West Columbia’s epic State Farmers Market, scaled up to the size of a sprawling village dedicated to the art of gastronomy, Greenville's Saturday Market, Columbia's Soda City Market and Aiken’s Farmers Market in the Alley, where customers are serenaded by live music as they graze. 

Heading down to the state's coast, chefs buy their catch of the day directly from the docking fishing boats. In Charleston, food trucks are scattered along the streets, selling hot new takes on creole classics, washed down with refreshing sips of sweet, iced tea. As every meal is a chance to celebrate South Carolina’s distinctive culture, here are the must-try dishes in the Palmetto State. 

Gullah Crab Rice 
Where to find it: Lowcountry (coast)

In South Carolina’s Lowcountry, the coastal region that includes the Sea Islands, you’ll find shady oaks elegantly draped in Spanish moss and a tangle of islands separated from the mainland by tidal marshlands. Here, you’ll also find the Gullah people, the descendants of enslaved Africans who were forced to work the rice and cotton plantations, aspects of their African culture preserved due to the area’s isolation. 

Today, Gullah cuisine, which fuses African cooking techniques with Lowcountry ingredients, particularly rice, seafood and fresh local vegetables, is gaining its long-overdue recognition. With the recent release of recipe book Gullah Geechee Home Cooking by the 90-year-old cooking legend Emily Meggett in April 2022, plus celebrated chef BJ Dennis due to open a Gullah Geechee restaurant inside Charleston’s International African American Museum in 2023, this is a cuisine truly stepping into the spotlight. 

A great entry dish is crab rice, a tasty medley of sweet blue crabmeat, rice, bacon and vegetables — the exact quantities of ingredients ebbing and flowing with the shifting seasons. At the neighbourhood hangout Hannibal’s Soul Kitchen, in Charleston, it’s the signature dish, best served with a heap of collard greens on the side, slow-cooked with ham hocks for an extra-smoky flavour. 

Take a stroll along Myrtle Beach after sampling the local dishes.

Take a stroll along Myrtle Beach after sampling the local dishes.

Photograph by Discover South Carolina

Where to find it: Statewide 

Each US state puts its own unique stamp on barbecue and in South Carolina, they keep things tangy with the state recognised official sauces. Mustard, vinegar and pepper, light tomato and heavy tomato are all poured over succulent smoky pork, cooked low and slow. In Charleston, Rodney Scott’s mastery as a whole hog pitmaster has made him a James Beard Foundation Award-winning barbecue celebrity. But those in the capital of Columbia will also find a standout barbecue joint, nestled between the city’s Greek revival architecture: Southern Belly BBQ is an experimental meat-lover’s dream, serving up fresh updates on classic American grills, including a Hawaiian-influenced luau pork sandwich, topped with grilled pineapple and Maui onions. Finally, if you have the time, make sure to stop by One Hot Mama's for authentic and delicious barbecue flavours. 

She-crab soup
Where to find it: Statewide 

This treasured coastal concoction uses only female crabs, due to the roe adding a particular flavour. Onions and a heavy glug of cream are then added to create a deliciously rich soup, similar to a bisque or chowder. Although a popular feature on Lowcountry menus, she-crab soup can be found with provincial twists across the state. In Greenville, nestled into the foothills of the breath-taking Blue Ridge Mountains, Soby's New South Cuisine serves heart-warming bowls of homemade she-crab soup, finished with a generous splash of sherry and a hefty dollop of fresh crabmeat. That being said, there are plenty of places to find traditional she-crab soup, including Hook & Barrel in Myrtle Beach and local favourite 82 Queen in Charleston.

Shrimp and grits
Where to find it: Statewide

Having started as a simple ground corn and shellfish breakfast staple, this dish has since become a popular addition to South Carolina’s lunch and dinner menus. Locally caught shrimp are fried in bacon grease for extra flavour, topped with onion and green pepper and served on a bed of creamy, porridge-like grits. In Mount Pleasant, a suburban town in Charleston County, the family-owned Page’s Okra Grill has taken this indulgent dish and added a satisfying flourish with andouille sausage and a rich creamy sauce, topped with fried grits cakes. Slightly North of Broad, affectionately known as S.N.O.B, is another favourite among South Carolinians. 

Shrimps and grit is famously popular in South Carolina for lunch and dinner.

Shrimps and grit is famously popular in South Carolina for lunch and dinner.

Photograph by Discover South Carolina

Frogmore Stew
Where to find it: Lowcountry (coast)

Nothing shouts South Carolina quite as loudly as Frogmore stew, an ingenious one-pot feast that’s also known locally as Beaufort stew, Lowcountry boil and tidewater stew. This hot mix of shrimp, sausage, corn on the cob and redskin potatoes is often boiled in beer and served family-style on tables casually covered in yesterday’s newspaper. The classic dish was created by local shrimpers on St Helena Island, just off the South Carolina coast, but has since migrated across the state and is now served everywhere from hip food trucks to upmarket urban eateries. But for a true taste of the Lowcountry, head to Bowens Island restaurant in Charleston, a rustic wooden shack balanced on stilts above the marchland. Their Frogmore stew is regularly voted the best in the state and pairs beautifully with the prize-winning coastal views.

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