Imagine a country where a typical bakery’s breakfast offerings include, side-by-side, Turkish-style börek cheese rolls (burek in Croatian) and Austrian-style apple strudel (štrudla). This surprising conjunction exemplifies the remarkable diversity of Croatian cuisine.
This diversity is in itself a reflection of the country’s diverse geography, permitting it to cultivate a vast range of fruit and vegetables, and even more so of its cultural diversity, of the many peoples and cultures that have influenced Croatia over the millennia. Essentially, it appears as if the Croatians deliberately adopted and adapted the best parts of all those traditions, so that the visitor can discern Slavic elements, Ottoman influences as filtered through Bosnian and Hungarian cuisine, a Germanic (Austrian in particular) note, as well as a strong Mediterranean presence with close links to Italy. Not surprisingly, Croatia’s cuisine can be subdivided into a number of distinctive regional or local traditions, of which at least nine are generally recognised. Many restaurants specialise in one of those local cuisines.
As a result of that diversity, it is difficult to describe a “typical” Croatian meal – there are just too many possibilities. That said, there is certainly something to suit any taste on most Croatian menus, be it meat, fish, a vegetable dish or a soup. Surprisingly, considering its wealth, Croatian food is not yet well-known outside the country. In the following, we describe a small selection of what is available.
Some of Dalmatia’s islands, among them Brač and Hvar, are famous for their lamb and goat dishes, for example janjetina, a typical Mediterranean-style slow-roasted lamb with aromatic herbs. More festive and more elaborate is the dalmatinska pašticada, beef that has been stuffed with garlic, carrots and cloves, marinated overnight and then cooked for many hours together with sweet wine, tomatoes, prunes and Dalmatia’s excellent pršut, the local version of prosciutto. Another slow-cooking option is the peka: meat and vegetables are placed under metal dome and placed on brick or stone, covered by a metal dome, which is then buried under glowing charcoal for a long time. This allows the flavours to mingle and prevents juice from escaping. Further inland, one can find some strikingly continental options, such as pork with sauerkraut. The best-known example of the Bosnian/Ottoman tradition’s meat dishes is ćevapi, an elongated meatball very similar to Turkey’s köfte kebap. Various types of goulash (gulaš) are commonly served. Croatia also produces a large variety of cured meats, hams and salamis of very high quality.
Cheese is made throughout the country, of many types and textures, but the most famous is the hard and nutty sheep’s milk cheese from the island of Pag. Its secret is the island’s salty climate, leading to especially aromatic herbal vegetation, which the sheep graze on…
As regards seafood, the Adriatic provides Croatia with rich choices, from grilled sardines via succulent tuna to a large variety of crustaceans and shells, including mussels, scallops and oysters. Especially typical of the entire coast is brodet, a tasty stew of mixed fish. In Dalmatia, it is worth trying the cuttlefish risotto, strongly flavoured and coloured by using the animal’s ink.
Pasta and wheat-based dishes also abound. On the coast, types of gnocchi are a common accompaniment or main course, but there are also less well-known local varieties, such as Istria’s bow-shaped fuži. Popular around Zagreb, zagorski štrukli is a kind of cheese-filled pie, while žganci or pura is a polenta-like speciality that can be eaten savoury or sweet.
The classic vegetable dish is đuveč, a ratatouille of tomatoes, mushrooms, olives and herbs, plus many possible additional ingredients, sometimes including meat. There are many salads, frequently based on cucumber or on swiss chard.
Desserts are normally offered; the most common is palačinka, a kind of crêpe served with jam, sugar, chocolate sauce, ice cream and so on. Many types of cake and donut are available around the country.
In most cases, Croatian chefs try to use local and regional ingredients. Often, they are eager to highlight speciality produce, such as extra virgin olive oil, cherries, kumquats, truffles, local seafood and so on.
Alcoholic drinks are routinely offered with meals, much as they are in most of Europe.
Beer is very popular in Croatia and the vast majority of what is consumed is produced domestically. The style of brewing is rather germanic. The most popular beers are Ožujsko and Karlovačko, but it is also worth checking out some of the smaller breweries.
Croatia is recently gathering attention for its wines, which look back on a proud tradition: viticulture was introduced by Greek colonists in the 4th century BC. Produced in no less than twelve defined wine regions throughout the country, including the Dalmatian coast and islands, they show enormous potential. Production levels are still quite low; the emphasis is on quality. Bottled and branded wines are available everywhere, but many restaurants additionally serve a “house wine”, which can be excellent.
The country grows some of the “international” grape varieties, but is well worth looking out for the local varieties unique to the country, of which there is an impressive number. The coast’s most famous red grape is Plavac Mali, which ferments into a deep red wine with strong character and notes of cherry, prune or even pepper. It is a close relative of Zinfandel, which has been proven to originate near Split. Among the whites, the Grk (the name betraying its origin) of Korčula, is notable: it can be developed into a fruity dry wine with hints of pine. These are just two examples of a fascinating field: there is much to be discovered.
Distilled fruit spirits are a very typical and immensely popular Croatian product: they are usually consumed as an aperitif at the start of a meal. Pelinkovac, also popular in neighbouring countries, is a bitter liqueur based on wormwood and herbs. Rakia is a generic term describing grappa-like distillations of grape. They are common aklong the coast and often come flavoured with herbs, nuts or aniseed. Most typical of all, however, is šljivovica, widespread throughout the mainland. The classic version is distilled from plums, but there are countless varieties, e.g. from cherries or pears.
Croatia produces a typical Mediterranean-type range of soft drinks, including many local lemonades, such as Split’s rather surprisingly named Pipi. Bottled water, still or sparkling is available everywhere; the tap water also tend to be potable. Depending on the region, fresh fruit juices may be available. Of course, the large international soft drink brands have a presence as well.