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Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Taste of Gullah

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 taking 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 Restaurant, just off Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, owners Charlotte and
Frank Jenkins (pictured above left) serve up country charm along with the rice.
The extensive 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 and the eatery envelopes guests with friendliness. 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 her about her recipes. "Why, there's good stuff in there, history and things."

At Gullah Grub Restaurant in St. Helena, South Carolina, the chef, affectionately known as Mr. Bill (above right) 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, with shelves of knick knacks, I understood what he meant. The fried whiting, collard greens , corn bread 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. 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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