I was excited to hear I’d be heading to South Carolina to research a few dishes for Cook’s Country. My experience with the South was mostly confined to layovers in airports and over-the-top southern cooking shows. My preliminary research was encouraging. South Carolina’s “low country,” the state’s low-laying coastal area, blends a rich, storied culture with food and ingredients representative of the region.
A shrimp perloo (pronounced PUHR-LOW) is a great example of that cultural blending. It’s a dish that takes advantage of the best the area has to offer: shrimp and rice. It’s especially unique because it reflects a confluence of two events: long-established rice cultivation and the immigration of people who knew how to cook it.
South Carolina’s rice culture got its start in the early 18th century. Colonists quickly realized the low-lying swamps were perfect for growing rice—a highly prized crop in the day. Charleston centered a majority of its economy around rice and rice cultivation, importing slaves from rice-growing regions of Africa. Slaves from the “Rice Coast” brought with them superior knowledge and techniques for rice growing. As rice became the staple crop, recipes and cooking techniques soon followed reflecting that rice culture.
However, perloo—or the technique for cooking it—is much older. The dish traces its roots back to 7th-century Persia. From Persia it spread throughout the Middle East (pullao), Turkey (piliaf), to Southern Europe (Spanish paella) and parts of Africa. With each stop on the map, slight tweaks or changes were made. During the Crusades, the technique made its way to France, namely Provence, where it was known as pilau. The French Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution, traveled from France and settled in coastal South Carolina. They soon tailored their cooking techniques and ingredient lists to take advantage of the abundance around them.
On paper, shrimp perloo is simple: Cook rice in a flavorful shrimp stock with onions, peppers, and tomatoes until the liquid is absorbed; add shrimp; and continue cooking until both the rice and shrimp are done. The rice absorbs the flavorful liquid as it cooks. The trademark of a proper perloo is rice that’s cooked properly—not too chewy and not mushy, with individual, separate grains. As simple as that sounds, the difficulty of mastering perloo’s subtleties was not lost on me. I’d have to leave the Test Kitchen in Boston and learn how to cook it properly from seasoned South Carolina locals. I made some phone calls, lined up cooks to meet in Charleston, and booked my flight.
I knew I wanted to meet with both home cooks and restaurant chefs (perloo is a staple on menus at diners and fine-dining restaurants alike). Lining up restaurants to visit was relatively easy. I arranged to meet Chef Robert Stehling at Hominy Grill, a Charleston institution.
Hominy Grill has been serving hungry Charlestonians since 1996. They feature a seasonal perloo when the ingredients permit. My timing was slightly off, missing the opening of shrimp season by a few weeks, but Chef Stehling offered to show me a special they keep on the menu: okra perloo. I figured I could glean plenty of good technique, even if shrimp weren’t involved.
The morning after I touched down in Charleston, I found myself in Hominy Grill’s busy kitchen. Chef Stehling offered to show me how to cook his version.
A classically trained chef, Robert tailored his perloo approach to a restaurant setting. In order to serve a crowd, he baked his in the oven (as opposed to cooking it on the stove) and utilized a layering technique in a large roasting pan.
He first layered in sautéed onions, celery, bell pepper, and garlic, and then added sautéed raw white rice—the sauté technique cooks the outside starch of the rice while preventing it from becoming mushy during cooking.
Next he added tomatoes—the ingredient specific to a Charleston perloo—and okra. Sausage is layered in there, as well.
Then he added the broth while stressing its importance; broth was the vehicle that not only cooked the rice, but also flavored it. He wrapped the pan with foil and baked it in the oven. Thirty minutes later it was done.
The rice, tender with separate grains, was deliciously simple and flavorful. The stock played a critical role overall—it truly was the backbone of the dish. With one last cup of coffee and a thankful goodbye, I made plans for my next perloo.
Lining up a home cook on my trip was trickier. The prospect of letting a perfect stranger come into your home and watch you cook could be seen an imposition. To get a solid lead, I called Glenn Roberts, the president of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and owner of Anson Mills, an heirloom grain purveyor. If anyone were connected to the rice culture in Charleston, he would know about it. He told me that getting a close look at how perloo is prepared would be difficult; the traditional way of cooking it is slowly fading. He said in all his days he’s ran across exactly three people who cooked perloo the old way—slowly, in heavy cast iron, on the stove top with no shortcuts—and, unfortunately for me, two of them were dead.
The remaining traditionalist was Mitchell Crosby, a mover and shaker in Charleston. Glenn told me, “You can throw a party in Charleston, but if Mitchell’s not involved it’s not really a party.” I called Mitchell and, without hesitation, he graciously offered to let me come into his kitchen.
I was treated to some true Southern hospitality with Mitchell Crosby, his partner Randall Felkel, and their friends. What I thought would be a quick perloo tutorial was actually a very beautiful dinner party. Mitchell, a true Charleston ambassador and impeccable host, poured me a drink upon arrival and escorted me to his beautiful backyard for conversation and snacks in the warm coastal air.
The perloo would have to wait.
Formalities behind us, Mitchell opened up his kitchen (and cooking secrets) to me. Like any good host, Mitchell had gotten a head start on the perloo. In a Dutch oven, he had sautéed onions, celery, bell peppers, and garlic with a pinch of cayenne and thyme until they were tender and aromatic.
He added tomatoes—again, the signature ingredient of a Charleston perloo—before adding the broth and rice. Mitchell simmered the pot until the rice was “nearly dry,” and then slid it off the heat to let it rest. This was a critical step, as the residual heat from the pot gently cooked the rice through without the risk of scorching. After another ten minutes, dinner was served.
As predicted, the rice was perfectly cooked, with tender, separate grains. I was beginning to understand the utmost importance of the roles rice and stock played in this dish. They were the factors that could make—or break—a perloo.
After we had finished dessert and the dishes were cleared, Mitchell walked me out to his front porch for a nightcap. We chatted about South Carolina, food, current events, family history, and so on. Here I was, in a strange place, sitting and talking with someone I just met, laughing and telling stories. But I couldn’t have felt more at home.
From left to right: Randall, Nick (me), Mitchell
Do you have any favorite food traditions from South Carolina? Please share in the comments.