Every part of the country has its own distinctive cuisine. But few regions inspire such passion and love as good old-fashioned southern cooking.
So if you’re planning a trip to the southeast, you should plan on making food a part of your travels. But what should be on the menu? Sit down, and we’ll dig into some of the must-try foods of the south.
What Kind of Food Is the Southeast Known For?
If you’re counting calories or watching your waistline, the food of the southeast may not be what you’re looking for. But for those seeking rich, flavorful, delightfully seasoned yet simple dishes, you’ll love southern cooking. Expect plenty of butter, sugar, and salt. Like many regional food cultures, it reflects the area’s history and geography.
Many dishes require few ingredients or cost relatively little, a reflection of the historical poverty experienced by many early southerners. Others reflect the earth’s bounty, including the seafood of the coastal regions and hearty barbecue and meat dishes. This hearty food heritage and famous southern hospitality make the southeast a top destination for culinary travelers.
The 8 Best Foods in the Southeast
Hungry yet? Let’s take a look at these iconic foods that have defined the region’s culinary heritage.
#1 Fried Chicken
What It Is: If you’ve been living under a rock or somehow don’t know about this glorious dish, fried chicken is exactly what it sounds like. Pieces of chicken (usually left on the bone) are coated in a breading and fried, either in a deep fryer or shallow fried in a pan on the stove.
Properly made fried chicken has a crispy, lightly seasoned outer layer without excess grease. There’s juicy, flavorful meat on the interior. Good hot or cold, on a platter or a sandwich, fried chicken is one of the most iconic southern dishes.
Where to Get It: You can find delicious fried chicken all over the south, from South Carolina to Louisiana. Kentucky is the state perhaps most strongly associated with fried chicken in popular culture. For a fiery regional twist, head to Prince’s in Nashville for Nashville hot chicken coated in a unique, scorching hot sauce.
What It Is: Cornbread is a variation of traditional bread that uses ground cornmeal as part of the batter. This helps create cornbread’s characteristic yellow hue, crumbly texture, and slightly sweet flavor.
Unlike many regular breads, cornbread is a quick bread, meaning it uses ingredients like baking soda or baking powder to rise, rather than yeast. The mix may or may not involve sugar, depending on who you ask. But be warned: there are strong feelings on both sides of the debate!
Where to Get It: Cornbread is truly one of the most ubiquitous southern foods. You can find it everywhere, from luxury restaurants to roadside stands. You’ll find some of the best at the three locations of Husk restaurant (in Charleston, S.C., Nashville, Tenn., and Savannah, Ga.). It offers smoky bacon cornbread.
Or simply make it yourself! Cornbread is one of the easier dishes even for inexperienced bakers and requires relatively few ingredients.
Traveler’s Tip: We expect you to photograph your food, but check out the 5 most Instagrammable spots in South Carolina during your travels, too!
What It Is: There are plenty of delicious fish dishes in southeastern cuisine, but none quite like catfish. Traditionally, it’s breaded with cornmeal and deep-fried, but this versatile fish can also be grilled, baked, or pan-fried. The delicate white-fleshed fish has a relatively mild flavor.
Where to Get It: Catfish love the southeast’s rivers, so head to Mississippi. You’ll discover some of the state’s best catfish in humble restaurants in small towns. Some of the most notable and long-lasting spots include Catfish Corner in Grenada, Taylor Grocery in Taylor, or Aunt Jenny’s Catfish Restaurant in Ocean Springs.
What It Is: Barbecue comes in many shapes and sizes. Dishes include pork shoulder or belly, ribs, brisket, chicken, turkey, and more, all smoked or cooked over an open flame. This iconic American cuisine varies widely across the southeast, from the pork shoulder-heavy dishes with a vinegar-based sauce of the Carolinas to Memphis’s dry rubs and ribs.
And that excludes two other iconic barbecue regions just outside the southeast: Texas and St. Louis. Even Alabama has its own style, centered around the chicken and the state’s distinctive white sauce.
Where to Get It: While you can find incredible barbecue just about everywhere across the south, North Carolina has some of the best. There’s even a Historic Barbecue Trail to help you sample all of the state’s best dishes.
#5 Country Ham
What It Is: You might be familiar with typical deli hams or the kind you bake in the oven. Now, it’s time to meet their southern cousin, country ham. They make it by curing a ham in a mixture of salt, sugar, and spices and then smoking it. Then they soak it in water before cooking or serving to remove some intense saltiness and return some hydration to the meat. You’ll find it as a steak, on a sandwich or biscuit, or diced or chopped.
Where to Get It: You’ll find country ham all across the south, but it’s perhaps most strongly associated with Virginia and Kentucky. Head out to the country of eastern Kentucky or Virginia’s panhandle. That’s where you’ll find excellent options made in this very region.
What It Is: Crawfish is a delicious crustacean somewhat resembling a lobster but closer to the size of a large shrimp. Traditionally, southerners make them in a crawfish boil, where they boil several pounds in a zesty mixture of spices and flavorings. They cook alongside other items like corn, potatoes, sausage, and more.
Cooks drain the mixture and pour it out onto a newspaper-covered table for communal eating. Just pinch the head, twist the body, and enjoy the delicious tail meat. You can also use it in a variety of other dishes, like gumbo or étouffée.
Where to Get It: The capital of the crawfish world is, undoubtedly, Louisiana. There are dozens if not hundreds of crawfish places across the Bayou State, each delivering its own subtle variations on the classic crawfish boil. One of the state’s most famous is Crawfish Town USA, located in Henderson, near Lafayette. Those staying in New Orleans should check out Frankie and Johnny’s, a local crawfish favorite.
#7 Shrimp and Grits
What It Is: Simple, quick to prepare, and delicious, shrimp and grits are an absolute can’t-miss Southern food. They saute the shrimp with a variety of flavorings while the grits cook until soft. Add a dollop of butter and some salt (and sometimes cheese) to your grits, and then top with shrimp.
The meaty, flavorful shrimp are the perfect contrast to the creamy grits. To the surprise of many non-native southerners, shrimp and grits are traditionally a breakfast dish. However, it’s made its way onto more lunch and dinner menus in recent decades.
Where to Get It: Shrimp and grits trace their roots to the low country of South Carolina and coastal Georgia. This remains the best place to grab a bowl. Poogan’s Porch in Charleston, S.C., is one of the state’s top options. This is another one that’s easy to make on your own, as well. Just grab some shrimp from one of the coast’s many fresh seafood markets and enjoy.
#8 Peach Cobbler
What It Is: Cobblers are one of those desserts that are so simple, you may soon find yourself whipping one up when you get a craving. These delicious dishes consist of a sugary, fruit-based filling, topped with a biscuit or dumpling-style batter to create a crust.
Bake the entire mixture to create an incredible combination of sweetness and breadiness that resembles a slightly less put-together pie. Cobblers come in many different fruit flavors, but few match the southern flair of a traditional peach cobbler.
Where to Get It: When you think of peaches, chances are you think of Georgia. And that’s most likely your best bet for where to get some delicious cobbler. In Atlanta, grab a piece at the classic Mary Mac’s, while visitors to Savannah can score some top-tier cobbler at Soho South Cafe.
Pro Tip: Find out if Georgia really has the best peaches—we had to know!
Take a Food Tour of the Southeast
The southeast has so much to offer, from fascinating history to unique natural environments. But few things can match the mouthwateringly delicious southern cooking that defines the region.
If you’re planning a trip to the southeast or are just suddenly feeling a little hungry, make sure not to miss these famous dishes. Your taste buds will thank you!
What’s your favorite southern food?