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Charleston-The Jewel of the South- Part IV , A Taste of Southern Cuisine

The concept of Southern hospitality often evokes images of warm welcomes, gracious manners, and, of course, mouth-watering food. But is there truly something distinctive about the way Charleston in particular, embraces this tradition? As I delved into the culinary world of this historic city, I discovered that Charleston's famed hospitality is not just a marketing ploy but a deeply ingrained aspect of its culture, one that finds expression in its vibrant and diverse cuisine.
Charleston, nestled in the south-eastern United States, proudly claims a rich cultural heritage that rivals major northern cities like New York and Boston. Its status as one of the earliest settlements in America is a point of pride for its residents, who exude a palpable sense of connection to their history. Conversations with locals, whether influential figures or everyday folks, reveal a deep-seated appreciation for Charleston's past, including the challenging topic of slavery, which, while undeniably dark, is often discussed in the context of how Charlestonians believe their ancestors navigated it with a sense of enlightened progressiveness.
The culinary spectrum that defines Charleston's gastronomic landscape, is indeed both vibrant and diverse. While many may associate the city with the Whole hog Barbecue championed by Chef Rodney Scot, there's a world of flavours and traditions beyond this celebrated dish.
She-Crab Soup: A Charlestonian Delight
No exploration of Charleston's cuisine is complete without indulging in a bowl of she-crab soup. This iconic dish, with its roots in Scottish seafood bisques, has been elevated to a symbol of Charleston's hospitality and culinary finesse. Legend has it that the addition of crab roe to the soup was a gesture to please none other than President William Howard Taft during his visit, adding a touch of presidential allure to its history.

The soup's creamy texture, accentuated by the delicate flavour of crab roe and a hint of sherry, embodies the city's maritime heritage and its abundance of fresh seafood. While traditional recipes may have evolved due to modern culinary regulations, the essence of she-crab soup remains a testament to Charleston's ability to blend history with contemporary tastes.
Exploring Charleston's Culinary Mosaic
Charleston is celebrated for both its classic dishes and its vibrant Lowcountry cuisine, reflecting the area's rich cultural heritage and Southern hospitality. Beyond its famous offerings, Charleston boasts many lesser-known culinary gems that highlight the region's diverse influences.
Hoppin' John: This Southern staple combines black-eyed peas and rice with onions and bacon, often flavored with ham hock or fatback. Eaten for good luck at New Year’s, it symbolizes prosperity.
Benne Wafers: Originating from West Africa during the slave trade, benne (sesame) seeds create these thin, nutty-flavored cookies, blending toasted sesame with sugar, butter, and flour—a testament to Charleston’s culinary fusion.
Frogmore Stew: Also known as Lowcountry boil, this communal, spicy dish of shrimp, sausage, corn, and potatoes is a social favorite, traditionally served on newspaper-covered tables. It originates from Frogmore, SC.
Carolina Gold Rice: This once coveted variety is vital to Lowcountry cuisine, known for its unique texture and taste, and used in dishes like pilafs and Hoppin' John.
Sheepshead Fish: A local delicacy, sheepshead is known for its sweet flavour and firm texture, often grilled or baked with herbs and spices, showcasing Charleston’s seafood.
These dishes reflect the area’s African, European, and Caribbean influences and emphasize Charleston’s culinary depth, marrying traditional recipes with innovative techniques.
Gullah Cuisine 
The Gullah, descendants of enslaved Africans living in the Lowcountry regions of Georgia and South Carolina, have maintained a distinct cultural identity through their language, arts, and culinary practices. Gullah dishes include rice-based meals, stews, and seafood, incorporating ingredients like okra, sweet potatoes, and fresh local fish, often seasoned with a mix called Gullah seasoning.
India Connection
Charleston's culinary journey isn't confined to Southern roots alone. Interestingly, there is one dish that is supposed to have travelled from India to this region through British Officers stationed in India. Called ‘Country Captain’ - it is a curried chicken and rice dish and features chicken, onions, garlic, tomatoes, almonds, raisins, and curry powder.
A Culinary Odyssey at 82, Queen
One cannot truly understand Charleston's culinary allure without experiencing it first-hand. A visit to 82, Queen, located on the charming Queen Street, offers a glimpse into the city's culinary soul. Renowned for its she-crab soup and a menu that celebrates Lowcountry flavours with a contemporary twist, this establishment is a culinary haven for locals and visitors alike. 
The recipe of their celebrated she-crab soup is displayed right at their entrance, written in chalk on a small black board. This innovation well reflects the seamless fusion of formal dining room setting with informal courtyard ambience.

The Soup indeed lived unto its reputation. Rich and creamy, its texture was granular possibly because of the crab roe as it melted in the mouth effortlessly. The hint of dry sherry also gave it a distinct flavour.
Barbeque Shrimp & Grits, a pleasant smelling and colourful dish of Shrimp, Stone-Ground Grits, Bourbon–Barbeque Sauce, Applewood Bacon, Cheddar, and Scallions is the staple here. The two other dishes that engaged our attention and titillated our taste bud included Fried Green Tomatoes, an appetite building creation of Pimento Cheese, Stone-Ground Grits, Green Tomatoes, Bacon, and Jam. It was delicious and tasted better than anticipated. The other entree’ was Jambalaya, made with Shrimp, Crawfish, Peppers, Onions, Tasso Ham, Charleston Red Rice, and Creole Butter. 

The Queen's Salad, with its fresh ingredients and harmonious blend of flavours, offered a refreshing interlude, while the Crème Brûlée French Toast dessert was a decadent finale that left us craving more.
Our culinary journey at 82, Queen was a symphony of flavours and textures. From the velvety richness of the She-crab soup to the tantalizing Barbeque Shrimp & Grits and the robust Jambalaya, each dish told a story of Charleston's past and present. 
As we bid farewell to 82, Queen, the evening air tinged with the aroma of Southern spices and the laughter of satisfied diners, I couldn't help but reflect on the depth of Charleston's culinary heritage. It's not just about food here; it's a celebration of history, culture, and the enduring spirit of Southern hospitality that makes Charleston a culinary destination like no other.

(Uday Kumar Varma is an IAS officer. Retired as Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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