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10 Quintessential Charleston Dishes: Get a Taste of our Culture and the Recipes

10 Quintessential Charleston Dishes: Get a Taste of our Culture and the Recipes
February 2021

From a West African-derived soup to a colonial dessert, cook up your own Very Charleston feast

Henry’s Cheese Spread

Established at 54 Market Street in 1932 as Henry’s Café, the location became Henry’s Restaurant by the 1950s and was known for fine dining, with seafood as the backbone of its cuisine. Waiters in pristine white jackets and black ties started the diners’ meals with plates of crudité, much like those found on the dinner tables in fashionable Charleston homes. Carrots, celery, radishes, and pickles were accompanied by crackers and the zesty cheese spread recreated by Matt Lee and Ted Lee in their cookbook, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen (Clarkson Potter, 2013). Click here for the recipe.

Red Rice

This red rice comes from the Gullah-Geechee people, a designation for the enslaved Africans who were isolated on island and coastal plantations from North Carolina into Florida, and their descendents. Their culture continues here in the Lowcountry, exhibited in language, music, and foodways. Food Network star Kardea Brown, whose show The Delicious Miss Brown is filmed on Edisto Island, is of Gullah-Geechee descent and learned to cook red rice in her grandmother’s kitchen on Wadmalaw. Her recipe creates a substantial stewpot supper similar to jambalaya, with the vegetables and sausage making it a meal. Read our Q&A with Kardea Brown here. Click here for Kardea Brown’s Gullah Red Rice recipe.

Shrimp & Grits

This simple dish—originally made with just grits (called “hominy”) and tiny shrimp caught by seining in the creeks and marshes—was a familiar sight on Charleston breakfast tables. An 1894 News & Courier article stated, “hardly a family in the city does not have this dainty little crustacean served for breakfast.” The dish’s first rhapsody in print came in 1985 when New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne tasted Bill Neal’s adaptation at his restaurant, Crook’s Corner, in Chapel Hill. While there are fancied up versions in many Southern eateries, our longtime favorite is this creation from the beloved, but now departed, Hominy Grill, by owner Robert Stehling, who started in the restaurant business working for Neal at Crook’s. Learn more about this So Charleston dish here. Click here for Hominy Grill’s Pan-Fried Shrimp & Grits recipe.

She-Crab Soup

The most elegant of Southern soups, she-crab’s earliest recipe is attributed to 19th-century Scottish settlers, whose crab soup thickened with rice was known as “partan bree.” Today’s is credited to William Deas, Mayor Goldwyn Rhett’s African-American cook who, in 1909, added flavorful crab roe to the family’s recipe when requested to gussy it up for a dinner for President William Taft. Deas went on to manage the kitchen at Everett’s Restaurant on Cannon Street, where his soup became a commercial success. The recipe was subsequently published in Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking in 1930 and enjoyed across the city. Here’s a rich crab and roe-thickened version from the 2012 cookbook Cool Inside: Hank’s Seafood Restaurant, by founding chef Frank McMahon. For William Deas’s original She Crab Soup recipe, click here. Click here for Frank McMahon’s She Crab Soup recipe.

Okra Soup

This soup, like much of the city’s cuisine, has its roots in the cooking of the area’s enslaved Africans. Its origins date back to the gumbo, an African word for “okra,” brought and planted by the Lowcountry’s Gullah-Geechee people, descendants of Central and West African slaves. This recipe maintains the characteristics of Gullah cuisine: simple and fresh from the garden. There is no need for a roux as the okra lends body to the soup. While the tomatoes’ acidity reduces the okra’s viscosity, when heated, its mucilage acts as a natural thickener. Even for soup, buy small pods; the large tend to be woody. Jimmy Hagood of Food for the Southern Soul shares the recipe for his jarred version and suggests adding shredded cooked chicken or baked ham and serving it over rice. Meet Food for the Southern Soul owner Jimmy Hagood and get his Labor Day cookout recipes here. Click here for Jimmy Hagood’s Okra Soup recipe.


Much of colonial Charleston’s wealth was derived from the production of Carolina Gold rice, a crop grown and harvested by enslaved West Africans who were bought for their rice-growing knowledge. As the city became the richest of the British colonies, Charleston’s planter aristocracy dined on “purloo” (also known as “pilau” or “perlo” but all pronounced per’-lo), an African dish of rice cooked in stock.

The owner and chef of the much-missed Mount Pleasant restaurant Gullah Cuisine and author of Gullah Cuisine: By Land and by Sea (Evening Post Books, 2010), Charlotte Jenkins grew up in Awendaw’s Ten Mile community. Born in a house of many children, she cooked for them starting at nine years old. “Gullah cooking,” said Jenkins, “is when you don’t have much to work with and you can make something great come from something little.” Here, she shares her simply delicious oyster purloo. Learn about Gullah chef Charlotte Jenkins and her cookbook here. Click here for Charlotte Jenkins’s Oyster Purloo recipe.

Deviled Crab

Similar in composition to the crab cake, with the addition of onions, pepper, and cayenne (the heat giving birth to the name “deviled”), this seafood mixture was traditionally tucked back into crab shells and sold in fish shacks up and down the East Coast. In Charleston, the former Henry’s on Market Street was the place to go for this special dish, the owner’s wife having made them at home and delivered to the cafe in the family’s Packard. These days, you can find that same deviled formula—made by Susan Shaffer, a descendent of Henry’s founder—at The Wreck on Shem Creek. Health codes prevent using the shells, so they’re served in aluminum facsimiles. Not quite as impressive, but still delicious. Here, Matt Lee and Ted Lee share their recipe, based on Henry’s original, reprinted from The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen (Clarkson Potter, 2013). Click here for The Lee Bros. Deviled Crab recipe.

Benne Wafers

Traditionally thin, subtly sweet, and crunchy with sesame seeds, these delectable cookies are a time-honored staple of Charleston cuisine. Brought from Africa with slaves in the early 18th century, benne is the Bantu word for “sesame.” The original benne seed bears no resemblance in flavor to the sesame seed commonly substituted today. (Should you care to find out, Sea Island Benne Seeds and bennecake flour are available for purchase from Anson Mills.) 

There are savory benne wafers, common at Charleston cocktail parties, as well as the sweet ones, such as those yielded by this recipe from Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking (Gibbs Smith, 2012) by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart. Click here for Nathalie Dupree’s Benne Wafers recipe.

Frogmore Stew

There are no frogs in it, and it’s not truly a stew, so why the name? The dish is said to have originated from the Frogmore Plantation area on St. Helena, a sea island near Beaufort. Today, many simply call it “Lowcountry Boil.”

John Martin Taylor writes of his recipe—first published in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston and the Carolina Coastal Plain (The University of North Carolina Press, 2012)—from his current home in the Cambodian capitol, Phnom Penh: “Though I left Charleston years ago, Lowcountry cooking remains the foundation of my kitchen. I have made this marvelously simple, fun crowd-pleaser all over the world, most recently here in Cambodia for the US ambassador and his family. If there are leftovers, I peel the shrimp, cut the corn from the cob, slice the sausage thinly, then add all to a broth—shrimp stock, duck stock, or tomato juice—for a delicious soup.” Click here for John Martin Taylor’s Frogmore Stew recipe.


This confection offers a sweet sip of history. James Beard wrote that “syllabubs are one of the oldest of all English desserts, and they have been known in this country since the first American colonies were established.” The name, he said, comes from “the early English word ‘silly,’ meaning ‘happy.’”

While written recipes in Britain date as far back as 1655, it was popular throughout the  17th century, both as a drink and as a dessert, to be sipped or spooned. It was fashionable here in colonial times with its wine given additional flavor by lemon zest and juice. Syllabubs have reappeared in favor off and on in the years since. Today, you are more likely to find the frothy creation served in private homes. Click here for the Syllabub recipe.