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What: One of several important rice dishes in the region, Charleston red rice—known by natives as just “red rice”— is a beloved combination of tomato, pork, and long-grain rice. Like the rice itself (see below), the origins for this dish most likely lie in Africa, where one-pot tomato-based rice dishes (such as joloff rice and ceebu jën, in Senegal) abound. Recipes in Charleston vary, but the rice is usually cooked with tomato paste or crushed tomatoes and bits of meat, like bacon, with seasoning courtesy of pork fat and, traditionally, onions, celery, and bell pepper (similar to jambalaya). With a lot of sausage, red rice can add up to a filling one-pot dish, but outside of a local’s home, you’ll likely encounter it as a simple side dish at a Lowcountry eatery or soul-food restaurant.
Good to know: Rice has been big here for centuries. The staple grain is said to have arrived to Charleston in the 1680s, when a ship from Madagascar, sidetracked by a storm, blew into the harbor for repairs, and a bag (or bushel) of rice was given to local farmers. It was soon realized that the area had the perfect climate for the crop, and “Carolina Gold Rice” was born, enjoying worldwide fame for its exceptional flavor and texture (courtesy of hand-pounding by West African slave women) for two centuries. Post-Civil War, production declined—the labor, for one, was no longer forced—and rice farming nearly disappeared from the state; Carolina Gold, the so-called grandfather of long-grain rice in the Americas, was practically extinct. Fortunately, the seed had been safely kept in USDA seed banks and, in the 1980s, was successfully restored to the area.
Where: For classic soul food cast through the lens of Charleston, Bertha’s Kitchen (843-554-6519; 2332 Meeting Street Rd., map), a two-story working-class steam-table cafe in industrial North Charleston, is absolutely worth the short drive north of downtown. It first came to our attention on the recommendation of John T. Edge, director of Southern Foodways Alliance, and its fried chicken, okra soup, cornbread, and cousins did not disappoint. This place is the real deal.
When: Mon-Fri, 11am-7pm. Cash only. Expect a lunchtime line; there’s a small dining room, but Bertha’s also does a brisk takeout trade.
Order: Red rice is a staple side dish ($1.50) at Bertha’s, messily scrawled on the whiteboard menu alongside lima beans, string beans, sweet corn, mac and cheese, stewed chicken necks, and other things that make decisions hard here. A main course—the fried chicken was perfection, but on any given day there may be fried pork chop, fish, turkey, beef stew—some red rice and two “vegetables” (cornbread is, fortunately, included) will run you about $8, and you will be very, very satisfied. The sausage-speckled red rice itself is delicious, fluffy and rich with tomato-y, porky flavor, a great starchy foil to the crispy foods you’re undoubtedly pairing it with. (See also: Lowcountry soul food)
Alternatively: Try another beloved home-style soul-food spot, like Martha Lou’s Kitchen (843-577-9583; 1068 Morrison Dr., map), or hit up a reliable Lowcountry eatery like Hominy Grill (207 Rutledge Ave., map), where red rice is usually offered as a side dish. Inside the Charleston City Market downtown, a tomato-heavy take is available as a side from the Food for the Southern Soul (Market 188 Meeting St., map) stand, alongside BBQ sandwiches and other local goodies.
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