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North Carolina Travel Guide

10 Things to Eat and Drink in the Carolinas

Southern cooking with an Atlantic touch.

North and South Carolina have long been producers of abundant agriculture, pork, and fresh seafood. These fine products are showcased in rich, historical dishes that vary distinctly from region to region. Young chefs in cities like Charleston, Durham, and Asheville often try new spins on the old classics, while you can expect the more traditional staples in small towns and at casual restaurants throughout the region.

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While barbecue is generally a term for all meat cooked over a grill, “Barbecue” in the Carolinas really means one thing: slow-cooked, pulled pork that is lightly sauced, seasoned, and served on a bun or plate with sides. Sauce varies from region to region, as does the debate over which is best. Expect vinegar-based sauce in Eastern North Carolina (a favorite among barbecue purists), ketchup as the main ingredient in the Western part of the state, and mustard-based BBQ sauce in most of South Carolina. We advise eating as much barbecue as possible throughout the region in order to come to your own conclusions.

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Boiled Peanuts

Boiled peanuts may appear on some New Southern fine dining menus these days, but this snack is still one of those regional delicacies that simply tastes best when purchased from a roadside stand. Green peanuts are boiled, salted, and served warm in brown paper bags, sold at small stores and stands throughout the Carolinas (usually advertised by a handwritten sign or scrap of cardboard, so keep an eye out). The green peanut has a unique flavor and texture almost unrecognizable from the familiar roasted version. Instead, the boiled nut is quite chewy, meaty, and, well, not for everyone.

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Regional colas abound in the American South, but this one has remained popular since the family-run company introduced it in 1917. North Carolina’s state soda, a cherry cola of a dark red color (that earned it its namesake), can be found everywhere, from fast-food restaurants to small grocery stores.

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Sweet Tea

You’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant throughout the Carolinas that doesn’t offer this beloved drink, iced tea sweetened with loads of sugar and usually served with a lemon wedge. South Carolina, deeming itself the “Birthplace of Sweet Tea,” grew some of the first tea leaves in the states (and still does), and people there have been enjoying the beverage on front porches for almost as long. Many restaurants and bars will offer sweet tea cocktails mixed with spirits like bourbon and vodka. If you shy away from the really sugary stuff, remember to order your tea “unsweetened” or “half sweet”—simply ordering an “iced tea” anywhere in the South invariably means it comes sweetened.

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Brunswick Stew

There’s a tense debate over whether Brunswick Stew originated in Virginia or North Carolina, but for unbiased taste buds, dueling origin stories are of little consequence. This stew of slow-simmered pulled pork, tomato, beans, and corn is simply delicious, regardless of where it came from, and should be ordered and consumed happily wherever available.

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Low Country Boil

This casual, one-pot meal (also called “Frogmore Stew”) abounds in the backyards, picnic tables, and casual restaurants of Charleston and the South Carolina coast and coastal isles. Fresh shrimp, sausage, corn, and potatoes are boiled in a large pot with plenty of spices (usually Old Bay) and poured over a newspaper-laden table, tasting best when accompanied by plenty of friends, family, and cold beverages.

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Chow Chow

North Carolina’s most popular pickle is said to have evolved in resourceful country kitchens, where vegetable scraps were thrown into a relish rather than wasted. The sweet and tangy pickled relish can be made with any amount of peppers, cabbage, and whatever else is lying around. The chow chow you’ll see today is an art form: chefs in places like Durham and Asheville incorporate inventive chow chows into the haute cuisine of their restaurants. Local jars of chow chow (found on the shelves of every farm stand and grocery store, large or small) showcase different regions and home kitchens, and taste delicious on basically everything.

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Moravian Cookies

The Moravians, an early Protestant sect originally from Germany, settled in the area around Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as early as the 18th century. Today, the traditional peoples are known for their crafts and baked goods, sold at grocery stores and farmer’s markets throughout North Carolina. Moravian cookies, paper-thin wafers spiced and sweetened with molasses, are especially popular around Christmas time.

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The culinary capital of perhaps both Carolinas, Charleston is full of year-round oyster restaurants and seasonal oyster roasts (mostly during the winter months). In a roast, delicate oysters are lightly steamed to take on a meaty texture and slightly smoky flavor, while the abundant raw oysters-on-the-half-shell offered throughout Charleston are also excellent. In North Carolina, small oyster farms have increased in method (and production) in recent years, and mollusks found today at restaurants in Wilmington and its beaches, as well as the Piedmont, compete with Charleston for quality and flavor.

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She-Crab Soup

This creamy seafood bisque, comprised of Atlantic Blue Crab, fish stock, heavy cream, and a small amount of crab roe (hence the “she” in “She-Crab”) reportedly has Scottish origins, when Scottish immigrants brought a similar crab recipe to Charleston as early as the 1700s. What evolved into a more elevated version is served today in restaurants all over Charleston and both Carolina coasts.

mackcyrus2003 December 3, 2021

While Charleston has arguably the most consistently good food in the US (IMHO); in the Carolinas that crown is definitely no longer Charleston's alone.  The Triangle, Asheville, and Charlotte (home of Johnson and Wales University) are increasingly better and more definitely more diverse.