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In South Carolina, you will spot shrimp & grits, Hoppin' John and various rice dishes on every restaurant menu, whether it's fine dining or a hole in the wall. Many visitors don't realize that these dishes were created by the Gullah people, and have existed in the New World for centuries.
The Gullah trace their history to the Sierra Leone rice growers of West Africa. When they were enslaved on isolated rice plantations in South Carolina, Georgia and parts of Florida, they were able to maintain a distinctive culture, which includes language, music and of course, food.
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Gullah food wraps the richness of the culture into dishes heaped with flavor. As descendants of skilled rice planters, the cuisine focuses on rice, rice and more rice. A typical Gullah restaurant will serve at least three kinds - and I'm not talking about white or brown rice. There's red rice (a mixture of tomato sauce and pork), a mini meal of rice, chicken, shrimp, sausage and vegetables called Gullah rice and the famous Hoppin' John, which blends rice with field peas.
At Gullah Cuisine cooking classes in Mt. Pleasant, SC, owner Charlotte Jenkins serves up country charm along with the rice.
The extensive cooking and demonstration menu offers okra gumbo, shrimp & grits, fish head stew, oyster salad, fried flounder, collard greens and macaroni and cheese. Charlotte hovers over customers like an indulgent mother, demonstrating the cooking traditions she learned at 9 years old.
You can select a demonstration class where she prepares all of the dishes and guests follow along or you can choose a partial hands-on class, which combines lecture and demonstrations. I couldn't finish all of my flounder and Charlotte whisked it off to put in a to-go bag, making me promise to finish it all the next day.
The spices are what distinguish Gullah food and I couldn't quite put my finger on what they were. Charlotte shot me a demure smile when I asked about her recipes. "Why, there's good stuff in there, history and things." She provides a pack of written recipes at the end of the class but I'd advise taking notes since so much of Gullah cooking is intuitive. Reservations can be made by email or phone.
At Gullah Grub Restaurant in St. Helena, SC, the chef - affectionately known as Mr. Bill - is just as particular about his dishes. Mr. Bill explains that the preparation and natural seasonings is what separates Gullah cooking from traditional soul food. After spending hours in the restaurant, which resembles a quaint Southern living room (complete with shelves of knickknacks), I understood what he meant.
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The fried whiting, collard greens, cornbread and rice that I sampled looked like typical soul food but didn't quite taste like it. It was less heavy and greasy and the spices left a tingle in my mouth. Other specialties include Lowcountry crab soup, shrimp gumbo and fried shark strips. I bought some of Mr. Bill's packaged spices to cook fish with and it transforms my seafood with a melange of flavors that I can only identify as Gullah.
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