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Low Country Cooking

The south’s “Low Country,” a relatively small coastal region that stretches from Charleston, South Carolina down through Savannah, Georgia, is home to a distinct mix of cultures, traditions, and cookways. The complex system of estuaries and inlets suppors shrimp, crab, clam, oysters, bass, mullet and other seafood; since these products could not be transported easily inland in the days before refrigeration, the region became known as a center for them.

American rice cultivation, though it would later become more prevalent further west in Louisiana and Texas, got its start in coastal South Carolina; rice is perhaps the most consistent component in low country cuisine. The low country also had international influences, from regions as diverse as Africa (a strong influence, especially in the sea islands where the African-influenced “Gullah” language is still spoken), Scotland, and France (the result of French Huguenot migration in the 18th century). The cooking fits into the broad definition of southern cuisine and yet maintains its own low country character.

She-crab soup is one of the region’s most distinctive dishes. Female crabs, cooked live, must be used because their eggs, or roe, are essential to the flavor of the soup. The soup, in addition to tasting of exquisitely concentrated crab—the meat, the shell, and the roe—gains true ruin-your-diet richness through the addition of heavy cream. An oyster stew or soup flavored with benne seeds (an African term for sesame) or a rich seafood gumbo would also be typical.

Benne seed wafers are one of Charleston’s distinctive treats. Flour and baking powder are added to a beaten mixture of butter, brown sugar, eggs and vanilla, toasted sesame seeds are gently stirred in, the batter is spoon-dropped onto a baking sheet, and the wafers are baked until crisp.

Frogmore stew, named after the town of Frogmore, South Carolina (and containing no frog meat) is associated with the Steamer Restaurant on Lady’s Island, South Carolina but is available all over the low country; a South Carolina seafood dealer, who claims to have invented the dish, campaigned unsuccessfully to have the popular stew named the official seafood dish of the state. The dish can be complicated and hence is often made for festivals and community events in immense quantities. The stew will probably start with a stock made from vegetables and perhaps shrimp shells, invariably with heaps of the chef’s favorite seafood season blend (like Old Bay). Subject to the usual variations, the gist of the stew will include crabs, shrimp or both, some kind of sausage, a good deal of corn, and aromatic vegetables, herbs and spices. The Low Country Boil is, depending on opinion, either a variant of Frogmore Stew or the very same thing. Country Captain is a mild curry flavored, chicken-based stew that usually contains golden raisins and is served garnished with toasted slivered almonds, a true reflection of the area’s international heritage.

Red rice (or Charleston red rice, or Savannah red rice) incorporates bacon chunks (or sausage chunks, or perhaps giblets), tomatoes, and aromatic vegetables like onions and bell peppers. The ingredients are simmered together before being baked to yield a hearty, crusty rice casserole.

With its African and Gullah roots, Hoppin’ John is a traditional New Year’s Day dish in the region, said to bring good luck for the coming year. The dish is essentially a variant of the staple combination of beans and rice, fried with onion and bacon. Some Hoppin’ John purists insist the beans used be those called “black eyed peas,” which are heavily associated with southern cooking. Since dried beans need to be soaked many hours before cooking, the soaking process will begin on New Year’s Eve, thus straddling the years and ensuring that the luck will indeed be good. Hoppin’ John is traditionally served with collard greens and pork ribs.

Perlau (there is no one accepted pronunciation, “pur-loo” being just one variant) is a rice porridge with African roots; the name reflects the dish’s international origins, as it is related to the Middle-Eastern pilaf and the East-Indian pilau. In its essence, it is a thick stew based on chicken (or wild game bird), vegetables and spices with a great deal of long grain rice mixed in. It may contain the mucilaginous vegetable okra as a thickener, in which case it might masquerade as a gumbo.

Low country desserts reflect the south’s palpable sweet tooth and penchant for filling, satisfying dishes. Sweet potato and pecan pies, bread and rice puddings, gingersnap cookies, rich cakes and other delights will finish the meal. As a culinary travel region the low country—its cities, small towns, country inns, restaurants and community food events—is a true gastronomic wonderland, though at a high cost in calories.