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There’s History in Every Bite of Gullah Cuisine

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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Shrimp, crab, peas, rice, okra and greens - these are some of the nuts and bolts of Gullah dishes. Descendants of enslaved West Africans, the Gullah people have been preparing their special recipes for centuries, with many of the dishes rooted in a culture that is thousands of years old.

The cuisine of the Gullah, who still maintain a presence in South Carolina's Lowcountry and sea islands, relies upon the gifts of land and sea. The ingredients are locally sourced in season in keeping with the ways of old. Okra soup, purloos (seasoned dishes of rice and meat), seafood soups, red rice, garlic crabs and "Reezy Peezy," a simple mainstay made from stewed field peas, are some of the delicious dishes that can be enjoyed today, thanks to the culinary traditions kept alive by this remarkable culture.

Though most Gullah cooking happens in the privacy of family kitchens, there is a small treasure trove of establishments where you can sample these special foods. Restaurants with dedicated Gullah menus are rare, so it's likely you'll find Gullah dishes mingled in with Southern or soul food fare. Click here to learn about these distinctions. Most Gullah-owned restaurants are modest and no-frills, but that's part of the experience. Fancy is fine, but if you want a true taste of South Carolina's culinary heritage, seek out these restaurants and eat the Gullah way.


Bertha's Kitchen, Charleston

This James Beard America's Classics Award winner has been serving some of the best Gullah grub around since 1980. Housed in a bright blue building, Bertha's is a landmark where folks line up for lunch and dinner plates on weekdays only.

Try these: okra soup, stewed chicken with gizzards, lima beans, purloo

Charlie Brown Seafood, North Charleston

One word: crabs. If you're ready to get cracking on a heap of blue crab, you're at the right place. This is a fresh seafood market and to-go kitchen, so carryout only.

Try these: Garlic crabs (freshly fried blue crabs dunked in a spiced garlic-butter sauce) with a side of corn, sausage, potatoes and hard-boiled egg. Note: You'll need a crab mallet to get to the meat, so make sure to have one on hand before you dig in. Oh, and plenty of napkins!

Gullah Grub, St. Helena Island

Owner Bill Green proudly touts the Gullah influences of his restaurant. Here, food and culture go hand in hand, with Green (the chef and a local teacher of Gullah cooking customs) happily answering customers' questions about the cuisine.

Try these: fish chowder, crab soup, shrimp gumbo, red rice

Gullah Gullah Fish, Manning

One of the few such eateries located inland, this seafood market and cafe has grown a healthy following since opening in 2017. The owners claim a Gullah heritage and strive to reproduce recipes that harken back to the 1800s.

Try these: oxtails, garlic crabs with corn on the cob, sausage and hard-boiled egg, Gullah rice

Hannibal's Kitchen, Charleston

Since 1985, locals have sought sustenance from Hannibal's Kitchen, or as owner L.J. Huger puts it, he has been "feeding the soul of the city." You'll find a satisfying mix of Southern and Gullah favorites to fill your plate.

Try these: crab rice, whole whiting, collards with smoked neck bones and pigtails, okra soup

Martha Lou's Kitchen, Charleston

That eye-popping pink building on Morrison Drive is a Charleston landmark, thanks to all the good eats that have issued from Martha Lou's Kitchen for more than 30 years. National recognition from The New York Times, Travel Channel and more also mean it's a tourist attraction. The menu is a mix of soul and Gullah, so there's plenty of filling things to eat.

Try these: okra soup, chitterlings, lima beans, fried whiting

Momma's Gullah Cuisine, Lady's Island

This popular strip mall cafe originally operated as Momma Lou's. New owner, Stephanie Finn, took over in July 2018 and continues cooking up the many Gullah dishes that made this place a local favorite.

Try these: oxtails and potatoes, shrimp and okra, crab rice, red rice, barbecue pig feet

My Three Sons, North Charleston

It's a real treat to savor the fare of Alice Warren, a legend in Charleston food circles. With more than 40 years in the restaurant business, she knows what she's doing and that experience translates into mighty good eating.

Try these: crab soup, okra soup, deviled crab, seafood rice, Gullah rice

Nana's Seafood and Soul Take-out, Charleston

It's no secret that the McNeil family turns out some of the tastiest Gullah eats in Charleston. You can see what all the raving is about Monday through Saturday. The restaurant is on the small side, so be prepared to wait outside for your carryout. Don't forget to order some pineapple tea to wash down your Gullah meal.

Try these: garlic crabs, Hoppin' John, purloo, seafood macaroni and cheese, crab rice

Ravenel Seafood, Ravenel

Pop in for a clamshell container brimming with some of the most finger-licking garlic crabs in the Lowcountry. There are a couple of tables inside and a few picnic tables outside if you wish to crack into them then and there. The owners will provide you with a mallet and, if they have time, even show you how to use it to best advantage.

Try these: garlic crabs, seafood gumbo, red rice

Workmen's Cafe, James Island

Angie Bellinger is a hero to the local workforce who show up in droves to dip into the savory buffet. She's a one-woman show with serious cooking chops, whipping up vats of her late mother's favorite dishes and getting them on the steam table in time for the hungry crowds. Bonus: There's a large adjoining dining room, so come on in, take a seat and dig in!

Try these: lima beans, smoked neck bones, pig tails, red rice, okra and tomatoes, fried fish (on Fridays only)

Libby Wiersema
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.