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The complete foodie guide to South Carolina

The complete foodie guide to South Carolina

by Great British Chefs 08 May 2018

The US’s best barbecued pork, an abundance of seafood and a thriving farm-to-table movement makes South Carolina one of the best places to eat in America. Get to know a bit more about the state’s cuisine, its most famous dishes and where to eat if you’re in the area.

Historically, it’s always been the big cities we see in films and on TV that have attracted intrepid gastronomes from across the globe to the US. However, while there’s no denying they’re still fantastic places to eat, those looking for a true taste of regional American cooking are realising that the southern US offers more authenticity and flavour than anywhere else. And of all the southern states, South Carolina is where you’ll find a huge variety of ingredients, dishes and restaurants serving up incredible local cuisine.

The south-eastern state shares borders with Georgia and North Carolina but has garnered a reputation much larger than its relatively small size would suggest. Apart from the food, people travel to South Carolina to see its beautiful beaches, vast lakes and historical towns, with cities like Columbia (the state capital), Charleston and Myrtle Beach particularly popular places to stay. The state can be divided into three areas; the Blue Ridge Mountains (or Upcountry) in the west, the Midlands in the centre and the Lowcountry, which encompasses most of the state’s coast. Each of these regions has its own distinct food culture.

Some of South Carolina’s most famous foods include peaches (the state is one of the biggest producers of the fruit in the US), barbecue and seafood. But it’s worth taking a closer look at the traditions, dishes and ingredients that make South Carolina’s food scene one of the richest and most interesting in the country.

Barbecue

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Depending on where you are in South Carolina, barbecued pork will be mopped and served with one of four distinct sauces
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The bright yellow mustard sauce of the Midlands is unique to the state

You simply can’t talk about South Carolina cuisine without mentioning barbecue. It’s known as the birthplace of barbecue, which is a big claim in a country with such strong regional barbecue traditions (it’s arguably one of the most debated and talked about foods in the US). Pork is the meat of choice, usually cooked ‘whole hog’ over oak or hickory wood and then pulled, but what makes South Carolina barbecue unique is the four different sauces used to baste and dress it.

The most famous is mustard sauce, which is made with lots of vinegar, brown sugar, mustard seeds and spices, and is only served in the South Carolina Midlands. Head towards the coast and barbecued pork comes dressed in plenty of vinegar sauce, which is full of acidity and heat. Barbecue masters in the north east Pee Dee region combine vinegar, peppers and ketchup to create a light tomato sauce. And in the western parts of the state you’ll find a heavier, ketchup-like sauce that’s most like the standard barbecue sauces found in UK shops.

Each sauce has a fiercely loyal following in South Carolina (although mustard sauce is the only one you can't find anywhere else in the US), so it’s a good idea to try them all and find out which is your favourite. The state has its own South Carolina Barbecue Trail with over 200 restaurants to choose from, many of which will serve all four sauces.

The Lowcountry

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The coastal areas of South Carolina celebrate the fantastic local seafood, which is abundant and caught fresh daily
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Shrimp and grits – one of the most iconic dishes of the southern US – has its roots in Gullah Geechee cuisine

Barbecue tends to dominate in the Midlands and Blue Ridge Mountain areas of South Carolina, but the coastal areas of the state are where you’ll find Lowcountry cuisine – something different altogether. Being near South Carolina’s 187 miles of coastline means fish and seafood plays a major role, as does rice, a crop that brought a lot of money to the area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

There’s also Gullah Geechee cuisine, the name given to the traditional dishes cooked and eaten by the descendants of South Carolina’s freed African slaves. Many of the southern US’s most famous dishes have roots in Gullah Geechee cooking, including shrimp and grits (a combination of local fried prawns and coarsely ground corn which is then boiled into a porridge-like consistency) and Frogmore stew, which sees spicy sausages, potatoes, large prawns and corn on the cob boiled in water flavoured with Old Bay seasoning and lemon juice.

Other foods common in the Lowcountry are She-crab soup, a creamy bisque that’s rich in crabmeat and orange crab roe (hence the name). Oysters are grown in the creeks and saltmarshes along the state’s coast and served up from September to April, famous for their briny, crisp, distinct taste. They’re usually eaten raw, battered or baked, and ‘oyster roasts’ are held throughout the season. This sees huge numbers of oysters roasted in pits before being taken straight to large communal tables and shucked by hungry locals.

Other dishes

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Collard greens are a staple side dish throughout South Carolina
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Iced tea is the ubiquitous drink of the state, known as the 'Champagne of the South'

While fish, seafood and barbecued pork are among South Carolina’s most famous culinary creations, there’s plenty more to choose from. Peaches and pecans are grown across the state and make their way into pies, cobblers and crumbles, while collard greens (a leafy vegetable similar to kale or cabbage) is the most popular side dish in the state. You’ll find plenty of cornbread, which is the staple bread of the region, and sweetened iced tea is everywhere (particularly in Summerville, which is where the first tea plants in America were planted).

Where to eat in South Carolina

As well as incredible barbecue shacks and beachside restaurants serving fresh local seafood, there are a number of places all over South Carolina that specialise in farm-to-table cooking, where you can experience the state’s finest produce at its seasonal best.

For barbecue

  • Scott’s Bar-B-Que, Hemingway: This unassuming ‘whole hog’ barbecue joint serves up the finest examples of South Carolina barbecue. It’s all about the pork – there are no sides except for a few pieces of bread – but there’s almost always a queue outside the door.

  • Jackie Hite’s BBQ, Batesburg-Leesville: Traditional, delicious and offering a distinct taste of South Carolina, Jackie Hite does things the old fashioned way. It’s the perfect place to taste the state’s iconic mustard sauce, and the restaurant is particularly known for its pig skins (pork crackling).

For fish and seafood

  • Bowens Island Restaurant, Charleston: Famous for its roast oysters, Frogmore stew and other South Carolina seafood dishes, this traditional restaurant looks out onto the salt marshes and has been delighting diners since 1946. bowensisland.com

  • T.W. Graham & Co, McClellanville: Local shrimp is the order of the day here, although there is plenty of other seafood to try if you’re after a bit of variety. It’s all local and cooked with plenty of South Carolina flavour – be sure to get the fried green tomatoes on the side. twgrahamcoseafood.webs.com

For farm-to-table dining

  • Grits & Groceries, Belton: Combining Creole, Cajun and South Carolina cooking techniques, owners Heidi and Joe Trull use produce from their own kitchen garden and organic local growers to create some of South Carolina’s best food in an old country store. gritsandgroceries.com

  • Sean Brock at Husk, Charleston: Everything on the menu here is either grown, reared or caught in South Carolina, so it’s the best place to get a real taste of the state’s produce. Ingredients are put centre stage, with a giant chalkboard on display listing where they all come from. huskrestaurant.com

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