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10 Obscure Southern Dishes That You Need to Know

Spoon bread, potlikker, comeback sauce — do you know what any of these words mean?
June 10, 2015
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by Megan Giller

It started with biscuits. We were obsessed, and frankly, still are, with these flaky, beautiful carbs. Then it became Southern comfort food in general, with Carolina rice showing up on every menu. And now the Southern obsession is in full force, with crazy-obscure regional dishes coming out of the woodwork to appear on upscale menus across the country. Potlikker? Comeback sauce? Chow-chow? Here’s a guide to help you decipher these dishes, as well as where to find modern versions of them. 

Spoon Bread

Think a soft, slightly sweet corn pudding that’s almost like a soufflé. Native American in origin, long ago it went by the names “awendaw” or “owendaw,” but now you’re most likely to find it layered under some tender, fatty pork, seafood or deep-fried chicken.

Where to Try: At Cochon in New Orleans, chef Donald Link calls it “corn custard” and gussied it up with spring onion soubise and crab salad. And at Mayfield in Brooklyn, the buttermilk-fried quail comes with a hearty side of collards and a scoop or two of spoon bread.

Boiled Peanuts

First of all, you won’t realize you’re eating a peanut. The legume’s texture and taste may surprise you, because this dish is prepared by boiling green peanuts in their shell in plenty of salty water, then topping them with a variety of spicy herbs and hot sauces.

Where to Try: Chef April Bloomfield outdoes herself with these snacky boiled peanuts fried in pork fat at The Breslin in NYC. And at Olamaie in Austin, chefs Grae Nonas and Michael Fojtasek turn the dish on its head with smoked hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and boiled peanuts with beans, tomato “likker” (read below!) and sorghum shallots.

Potlikker

You know how collards are simmered and braised with ham hock and vinegar into a mess of greens? Well, potlikker is the fragrant, smoky broth that’s left after you’re finished making the vegetables. It’s also now become chefs’ sauce of choice to ham things up, making a dish that much more succulent.

Where to Try: Holeman & Finch in Atlanta pairs fancy-schmancy foie gras with potlikker, creamed hominy and fermented collards for a high-low mash-up. And in Austin, Olamaie makes the traditional sauce with smoked scapes, and Odd Duck simmers heirloom pinto beans in a crazy amount of house bacon and pork trim to create a thick sauce; the beans and likker are served with grilled cabbage, fried sage, fresh herbs and balsamic.

Succotash

Southern cooking is all about the corn, and this dish is no exception. Sweet corn gets bolstered with lima beans and sometimes tomatoes and sweet peppers. It was originally a Native American dish, but because it’s relatively cheap to make, it became common during the Great Depression, especially in pot pie form.

Where to Try: In Louisville, KY, Harvest serves its blackened catfish with a side of smoky corn succotash and sauce gribiche. Meanwhile in Miami, Yardbird pairs its pork croquette appetizer with black-eyed pea succotash, parsley and a fried egg.

Chitlins

OK, so hog guts may not sound all that appetizing, but with the recent nose-to-tail movement, you’ve probably already eaten your fair share of intestines. However, this soul-food delicacy (also called “chitterlings”) is usually boiled and eaten with hot sauce, which means there’s no disguising what you’re eating. The smell is infamous, but chefs are making them taste great nonetheless.

Where to Try: Go for the original versions at Martha Lou’s Kitchen in Charleston, SC. Or try a fancified take on a classic at Buenos Aires in New York, which serves veal chitterlings on the parrilla, or “grill.”

Comeback Sauce

Sure, you can tell this sauce is probably so good it will make you want to come back for more, but what the heck is in it? Similar to a rémoulade, it’s made of mayonnaise and chile sauce, and it originated at a restaurant in Mississippi called the Rotisserie. Use it as a dip for crudité, onion rings, boiled shrimp or fried pickles, or slather it onto just about any dish to make it better.

Where to Try: JCT Kitchen in Atlanta serves its jar of pickled shrimp with crunchy toast, comeback sauce and EVOO. Meanwhile Austin’s Olamaie pairs country-fried flounder with housemade comeback sauce and relish.

Johnnycakes

Also called “hoecakes,” these rounds look like pancakes. But don’t be deceived! Made with cornmeal instead of flour, they’re dense and flat rather than soft and puffy. They’re delicious with collards or any other rich and smoky ingredient.

Where to Try: At the Pearl Oyster Bar in New York, find a small plate of smoked Atlantic salmon atop a johnnycake with crème fraîche. And at Holeman and Finch in Atlanta, try johnnycakes with a farm egg, foie gras, sorghum wheat and bacon.

Chow-Chow

No, we’re not talking about the breed of dog. In the South, “chow-chow” refers to a type of pickled relish, most often made with green tomato, though it can also include onions, asparagus, peas and other vegetables.

Where to Try: At Fixe in Austin, find boudin sausage with chow-chow and onion crackers, and at Lenoir, try kale with chow-chow, aïoli and padron peppers. And at Char No. 4 in Brooklyn, satisfy your cravings with crispy pimento cheese with green tomato chow-chow and smoked jalapeños.

Hoppin’ John

Black-eyed peas, rice, onion and bacon or ham hock make this dish a classic comfort food, and one that people love to eat on New Year’s Day for good luck. Traditionally it’s eaten with collard greens and cornbread, but now you’ll find it as a side and even a main at trendy restaurants all over the place.

Where to Try: At Kimball House in Decatur, GA, try hoppin’ John and mushrooms with grilled broccoli, Swiss chard, celery and yogurt. And at Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, go for the grouper with green garlic, crawfish and hoppin’ John.

Calf Fries

Also called “Rocky Mountain oysters,” calf fries got their start at home on the range, when cattle were castrated young. What to do with the testicles? Why, fry them up and eat them with gravy, of course! Long the mark of an adventurous eater, these specimens are now showing up on menus everywhere.

Where to Try: Chefs make a classic dish modern by using lamb instead of calves. At the 404 Kitchen in Nashville, the Border Springs Lamb Fries come with ramps, spring onion and morel mushrooms. And at Dai Due in Austin, they’re breaded in cornmeal, fried in tallow and served with tartar sauce and pickles.

april bloomfield
southern
grae nonas
michael fojtasek
southern comfort
donald link