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These Four Soups Are Always on in South Carolina

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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It's the ultimate comfort food - a steamy bowl of homemade soup. As Mama's first line of defense for the miseries inflicted by both cold weather and cold viruses, it's no wonder we equate a ladle of soup with a ladle of love.

In South Carolina, simmering soup pots are an integral part of our food culture, symbols of nourishment in lean and no-so-lean times, vessels in which food scraps or the bounty of our waterways or fields could be turned into something sumptuous and filling with a little sleight of hand and a few well-chosen seasonings.

Here are four of South Carolina's most iconic stews and soups, each deeply rooted in our history and as defining as our dialect.

Fish Stew

Fish stew is a classic dish of the Carolina coastline. Potatoes and pieces of fresh fish, usually catfish, give it a chunky consistency, with tomatoes, onion, celery and carrot rounding out the main ingredients. Bay leaf and hot sauce give this hearty stew its kick. In true South Carolina fashion, it is usually served over white rice. It is said that a fish stew prepared in Florence in 1909 was enjoyed by President Taft, who pronounced it "good," according to the book, "The Food of a Younger Land" by Mark Kurlansky. Legions of South Carolinians still concur.

Where you can try it (call for availability):

See Wee Restaurant, Awendaw

Bowens Island, Charleston

FIG, Charleston

Chesapeake House, Myrtle Beach

Old MacDonald Fish Camp, North Augusta

She Crab Soup

The forerunner of this famous Lowcountry dish is partan bree, a soup brought to Charleston by an influx of Scottish immigrants. As with many of our best offerings, most all the glory for She Crab Soup should be heaped on African culture. William Deas was a butler and highly skilled chef working at the Rutledge House, owned by then-Charleston Mayor Robert Goodwyn Rhett. With a visit from President William Taft looming, Rhett asked Deas to prepare crab soup, but kick it up a notch. That's when Deas took the legendary measure of adding crab roe to the soup - a mix of butter, milk or cream, crab, a dash of sherry and various seasonings. The results are now ingrained in South Carolina's culinary history, with She Crab Soup rivaling Shrimp and Grits as our most beloved and sought after dish.

Where you can try it (call for availability):

82 Queen, Charleston

Blue Marlin, Columbia

Tubb's Shrimp & Fish Company, Florence

Soby's, Greenville

Sea Captain's House, Myrtle Beach

Chive Blossom, Pawleys Island

Oyster Soup/Stew

Irish immigrants accustomed to eating fish on Christmas Eve are thought to have established the tradition of eating this thin, but rich soup (sometimes to referred to as "stew") on the holiday. Winter is, of course, peak oyster season, so it stands to reason that such a dish would be popular during the colder months. In South Carolina, the most legendary oyster soup was concocted under the expertise of Nat Fuller, an African slave who became one of the most exalted South Carolina chefs in our history. He's most famous for orchestrating an interracial feast to mark the end of the Civil War. On the menu that remarkable night: oyster soup, a version much lauded in culinary circles thanks to Fuller's expert fine-tuning of this dish. It is a masterpiece made of simple ingredients: butter, milk, celery, seasonings and, of course, plenty of fresh South Carolina oysters.

Where you can try it (call for availability):

Hank's, Charleston

Husk, Charleston

Oyster House on Market, Charleston

Inlet Crab House and Raw Bar, Murrells Inlet

Hanser House, Pawleys Island

Okra Soup

Okra found its way to North America by way of West-African slave ships, and it's been an integral part of the Southern diet ever since. In South Carolina, the crisp, green pods are often sliced into rounds and cooked with onions, tomatoes, beef shank and spices. The result is a tangy, thick okra soup traditionally paired with white rice. Though it shares some similarities with Louisiana's gumbo, okra soup is not thickened with a roux but relies on the glutinous qualities of the cooked okra to give the soup its satisfying stick-to-your-ribs texture. It's a menu mainstay in many of our Gullah eateries and a favorite of most everyone who gives it a try.

Where you can try it (call for availability):

Bertha's Kitchen, Charleston

Hannibal's Kitchen, Charleston



Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.