She Crab Soup from Charleston

Nov 2014

This week we’ll be visiting Charleston, South Carolina on Green With Renvy. My hubby surprised me with a trip to celebrate a milestone birthday {I’ll let you guess which one }. While there are many reasons to fall in love with this city oozing with southern charm, the food is definitely high on the list. I thought you’d enjoy learning about the traditional She Crab Soup from Charleston on Meatless Monday.

she crab soup poster

When researching the food most typical of Charleston, this rich bisque-like dish was sited regularly. I found it on many of the restaurant menus. The well known delicacy of low country cooking is a rich soup which gets it’s pale peach color from the orange crab-roe of the female or She crab. It may be thickened by heat reduction or adding a puree of boiled rice. Most recipes I came across add a flour roux. Mace is the universal spice. A bit of sherry is stirred in just before serving.

blue crab

Talking to locals about the origin of She Crab Soup, there was a wide variety of answers.  It is most likely a creation of the early 1900’s when an expanded population and growth of the city increased demand for fish and seafood and the female crabs which had formerly been discarded because of their size, were added to the males {Jimmies} for the catch from local fisherman.

The tart and piquant nature of the flavor originates from the addition of the roe of the full grown female.  Today, state law forbids the harvest of she-crabs with mature roe, so conservation adds another layer to the discussion of the traditional soup. Crabs are only able to mate after the female has molted. This happens about once every two months. Luckily, the mature female is easily identified by the shape of their abdomens. The fertilized roe is uniquely carried in a yellow sponge on the outside of their shells. Chefs and home cooks are using male crabs and immature females for the modern version of the soup, and then adding a bit of roe from unfertilized mature females which are legal to catch. In addition, other recipes have substituted a bit crumbled yellow egg yolk to visually simulate the roe.

I borrowed the recipe below from a cookbook- Charleston Receipts. {receipts was the word for recipes used as far back as 1386} The book is one of the oldest cookbooks published by the Junior League and contains hundreds of low country recipes, some dating to the Civil War.

she crab soup from Charleston

She Crab Soup from Charleston

  • 4 blades of mace {Mace blade is the lacy outer covering of nutmeg. You can substitute ground mace if needed}
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • White pepper corns – about 1 teaspoon
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 teaspoons flour
  • 3 1/3 cup  milk
  • ½ cup cream
  • 3 ribs grated celery
  • 2 cups freshly picked white crab meat
  • ½ cup breadcrumbs
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 4 tablespoons dry sherry
  • Smoked paprika and olive oil to garnish
  • optional parsley garnish

In a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder, bash (or process the mace, salt and pepper until finely ground.

Melt the butter in a double boiler over boiling water. Add the flour and stir until smooth to form a roux. Add the mace, pepper, salt, and stir to combine. Slowly add the milk, whisking it constantly into the roux. Add the cream and celery and stir.

Simmer and stir for around 7 minutes until the soup begins to thicken. Add the crabmeat, breadcrumbs, Worcestershire sauce and simmer over the double boiler with a lid on for around ½ an hour.

Add the sherry and stir before transferring to bowls. Serve topped with a sprinkle of paprika, a drizzle of olive oil and with some crusty bread.

This may not be the dish I am looking to indulge in after the traditional Thanksgiving food coma I am just returning from, but on a cold winter day, I know the memory associated with She Crab Soup from Charleston will transport me right back to a wonderful visit to The Holy City.

Photos via Charleston Only, WikipediaOxmoor House/Southern Living

  1. A trip to Charleston for your birthday sounds fantastic Alison and so interesting to learn about this local soup. Did you enjoy it? The colour of the crab is just stunning.

    • alison says:

      Hi Catherine. It was great fun and Charleston is a beautiful city. Thanks for pointing out that I didn’t express my opinion! The soup was really delicious, but incredibly rich. I couldn’t eat the whole bowl! It was like eating dessert.

  2. What a fascinating recipe and story that goes with it Alison. Maybe the birthday celebrations need to continue just a little bit longer …to be sure you celebrate it enough 🙂 The soup is a lovely colour.

  3. anna parker says:

    Oh that looks good – handy recipe to have!! I was in North Carolina last month and loved the ‘southern welcome’ but everyone seems to say it is better in the South, so will need to revisit!

  4. Love the background on how today’s recipe came about and it does sound delicious. I’m a bit too fond of rich things!

  5. Cheryl says:

    Trying to find a copy of the poster. Promised aa copy I have to two different family members. Need another copy ASAP!!!
    Any ideas where I could find one? eBay and etsy don’t have it.
    Thank you.

  6. Cheryl says:

    Submitted the wrong email on my last comment.

  7. Linda says:

    If using dried mace instead of fresh mace, how much mace should one use?