What is Lowcountry Cuisine?

Come home to the Lowcountry!” If that strikes a longing for saltwater marshes, hundred-year-old live oaks draped with Spanish moss and a pungent odor that you identify as coming from plough mud, then you have spent enough time in the area along the South Carolina coast to know that it is like no other. Depending upon the source, you will find different criteria for defining the Lowcountry, but it is a combination of geography, culture, history, natural beauty and people that make this relatively small area one of the most popular and most-visited places in the world.   

Oh yeah, and it is home to Lowcountry cuisine! Folks may first visit for the beauty and history, but they always come back for the food!

What is Lowcountry cuisine or cooking? Climate and location play a starring role in the cooking of this region. Blessed with an almost embarrassing abundance of fresh seafood, shrimp, crab, oysters and fish find their way into nearly every meal. The climate lends itself to a long and fruitful growing season which has enabled the lowcountry to practice farm-to-table cooking long before it became popular in other areas. None of that, however, is especially unique: many coastal areas in southern climates around the world can say the same. What they do not have, however, is the particular confluence of cultures, mainly West African, European, Caribbean and native American that came together in the Lowcountry.

Much of coastal Carolina cuisine is synonymous with Gullah cooking, which we owe to the early Carolinians’ discovery of the “gold” in rice. West Africans brought here as slaves because of their knowledge and skill in cultivating rice also brought their way of cooking, which incorporated many of the foods they brought with them. Besides rice, other foods like yams, peanuts, okra and hot peppers became staples of what we now know as Lowcountry cuisine.

Favorite Lowcountry Dishes

Everyone in the Lowcountry has particular dishes that are their favorites, whether it is Carolina-style, pit-cooked barbeque, spicy gumbo, with okra, of course, or roasted oysters. Some of the best known that are loved by tourists and locals, alike, include:

Shrimp and Grits – perhaps the dish that first springs to mind when talking about Lowcountry cuisine is this one created with a bed of rice, topped with expertly seasoned shrimp and covered with a layer of rich gravy. Think this doesn’t sound all that good? Then you have never tried it!

Frogmore Stew – also known as a Lowcountry Boil, Frogmore Stew was named for the coastal island town of Frogmore, which is in the heart of Gullah country, and not because it actually contains frogs. It does not. It does, however, contain shrimp, spicy sausage, potatoes and corn-on-the-cob, all boiled together and then served in a big, steaming bowl.

Red Rice – rice is a staple in the south, but red rice is truly something special. Everyone has their own twist on how to make it, but, traditionally, it is rice, tomatoes and pork fat simmered on a low heat until the flavors all come together. Charleston red rice adds bits of bacon and sausage. How could you go wrong with that?

Hoppin’ John – when people put a tiny spoonful of black-eyed peas on their plate New Year’s Day to try and appease the prosperity gods, they don’t know what they are missing! Take those same peas, combine them with rice, bacon (or some sort of pork) and onions and you have Hoppin’ John, which is a delicious way to welcome the New Year or add flavor to any other day of the year.  

Huguenot Torte – there is a bit of controversy about whether this was actually named after French Huguenots who brought the recipe to South Carolina or the Charleston restaurant where the woman who created it, based on something she had eaten in the Ozarks, worked. Hardly anyone really cares, because, either way, the gooey pecan and apple concoction with meringue-like topping is unforgettably good.

Lowcountry cuisine is just as much a part of home life and community as it is fodder for gourmet magazines extolling the talents of the newest award-winning chef in Charleston. In the Gullah culture and as one of the oldest tenets of Southern hospitality, food is a means of bringing people together and showing appreciation for family and shared history. This is the heart of Lowcountry cuisine.  

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