South Carolina is known for its sunshine, beaches, and of course, seafood. The warm waters are swimming with an ecosystem of lifeforms that have sustained the coastal economy and culture for centuries. While the history of these fisheries casts a wide net of influence over the region’s cuisine, no dish is more synonymous with South Carolina than fried catfish.
For many, this simple fish is more than just a meal. Black Americans in the South have always embraced the dish not only for its taste but for its connection to the traditions of our ancestors.
The tradition of the fish fry can be traced back to stories from the plantations— during the weekends when the workload was slow, enslaved peoples were permitted to fish for their own food and bring it back to their quarters to cook. These times were used as a way to commune with each other, and over time, became a ritual of survival and celebration.
During the Great Migration, in which Black people traveled North to freedom in the early 20th century, the fish fry, along with other iconic slave cuisines, became a means of generating currency as freed slaves traveled to Northern states to create a new life. Today, it’s no surprise that, after Asian Americans, Black Americans are the second largest consumers of fish in the United States, with catfish and the fish fry still being a pivotal part of our culture and community.
Now, as we look to honor rituals of the past with a lens focused on sustainability, recreating South Carolina fried catfish with eggplant is a nod to the ingenuity and creativity of those who came before.
This recipe combines all the flavors and fellowship of a fish fry with environmentally conscious ingredients to create a dish that celebrates both heritage and health.
South Carolina Vegan Catfish and Coleslaw
- 1/2 head green cabbage, finely shredded
- 1/2 head red cabbage, finely shredded
- 1 large carrot, finely shredded
- 1 small white onion, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup vegan mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons white sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
- Sea salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Vegan tartar sauce
- 1 cup vegan mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup dill pickle, minced (or sweet relish)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
- 1 teaspoon fresh dill, chopped
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 tablespoon capers, drained (optional)
- Sea salt, to taste
- Freshly ground pepper, to taste
South Carolina Catfish
- 2 small eggplants
- 3/4 cup fine yellow cornmeal
- 1/2 cup all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 cup nut milk, unsweetened
- 2 teaspoons hot sauce (preferably a vinegar-heavy brand like Texas Pete or Louisiana Hot Sauce)
- 2 cups frying oil, preferably peanut or sunflower
Catfish condiments and garnish
- Lemon wedges
- Hot sauce
- Vegan tartar sauce
For Southern coleslaw: In a large bowl, mix green cabbage, red cabbage, carrots, and onion.
In a separate bowl, whisk mayonnaise, sugar, lemon juice, vinegar, salt, and black pepper until mixed.
Pour mayo mixture over cabbage and mix until thoroughly coated. Cover and transfer to the fridge to chill for at least 2 hours. Mix well before serving.
For the tartar sauce: In a small bowl, mix together mayonnaise, pickles (or relish, if using), tarragon, dill, lemon juice, sugar, and capers (if using). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.
Cut eggplant into 1/2-inch slices on the horizontal, so you’re left with long filet-shaped slices.
In a large paper or Ziploc bag, add cornmeal, flour, Old Bay, garlic powder, black pepper, paprika, cayenne, and sea salt; shake until mixed.
In a large bowl, whisk together nut milk and hot sauce.
For the catfish: Add eggplant filets to the nut milk mixture, coating on all sides.
One by one, remove eggplant filets from the nut milk, shake off excess liquid and add to the bag of cornmeal mix. Shaking vigorously until well coated.
Remove eggplant from the bag, shaking off excess breading, and transfer to a lined baking sheet.
In a large cast iron pan, pour in about 2 inches of oil, or enough to submerge the eggplant completely. Heat over medium-high heat until the temperature reaches 350 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer to measure oil, drop in a dollop of batter; when it bubbles profusely, your oil is hot enough to start frying.
In batches, slowly add the eggplant fillets into the oil. Fry until golden brown, about 2-4 minutes each side. Lower the heat if needed as you go.
Transfer cooked eggplant to a baking rack or paper towels to absorb excess oil.
Serve hot with hot sauce, tartar sauce, and fresh lemon wedges.
If you are making the catfish in an airfryer, follow steps 1-5. Transfer eggplant fillets into a greased air fryer basket. Spritz generously with oil. Cook at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Flip fillets, spritz again with oil, and cook an additional 3-5 minutes, or until crispy.
Check out more Black American dishes made vegan here.