Croatian food is good. It lacks spice but that’s not the end of the world for a vacation. And Croatia as a country lacks “ethnic” restaurants, which is great for you – it means there’s a better chance that you’ll actually be eating Croatian food and not Thai! Croatia has served as the crossroads between Western Europe and the Orient and this shows in a number of cultural facets, not least the food. Be it Italian, Hungarian and Turkish culinary influences, it is not uncommon for Croatians to seek inspiration from the eastern side of the country and then fish out their dinner straight from the Adriatic. That said, the food served will mostly depend on your whereabouts. Try to keep your orders local, too: a sea-bass in Slavonia is never a good idea, just like a Dalmatian chef probably won’t know how to make those stuffed peppers just right. Also, try to pair local food with local wines for a true experience. But if you need to play it safe, a dingač (pronounced: deeng-ah-ch) red will be great with the continental meat dishes and graševina (pronounced grash-eh-veena) white, albeit from the north, has no problem sharing stomach space with Adriatic fish.
Octopus in many forms
The Stuffed and Grilled Octopus is typically filled with local herbs, breadcrumbs and of course a good portion of prosciutto. You can’t go wrong with this harmonious medley unless you dine somewhere without an actual grill. The Slow-cooked Baked Octopus in White Wine is a revolution for your taste buds. Baked under the peka, a heavy iron bell specially made to fit into an open-fire grill, allows for the octopus to absorb the herbs, wine, any added vegetables, and of course its own juices in a unique way seldom experienced anywhere else. And of course, try your hand at Croatia’s version of the Octopus Salad or have some slice or two on your pizza!
Grilled Squid and Swiss Chard
When it comes to squid, size does not matter. Croatian squid certainly ranges in size but is typically small and entirely delicious! A typical serving will include between 8 and 10 squid and will be more than enough to satiate and delight. Pair the squid (when grilled, it retains more flavor than fried) with Dalmatian-style blitva, a chard-family green prepared with cooked potatoes and local olive oil. Treat yourself to some natural flavor enhancers and ask for the Trieste sauce, a garlic, parsley and olive oil bomb that will make the dish explode in your mouth.
Prosciutto and Pag Island Cheese
Prosciutto in much of Europe is always pretty good. In Croatia, it’s exceptional. A fun do-it-yourself lunch would be an Istrian verse Dalmatian prosciutto taste-test comparison. Most evening meals on the Dalmatian coast begin with this delectably comestible tandem. The pršut, as it’s known locally, is made from pigs and contains several ingredients specific to the region: Adriatic salt, ground spicy paprika and the key ingredient – the bura wind as the drying mechanism. The end result is seemingly simple yet hard to stop eating, especially when paired with sheep cheese from the island of Pag. The island offers limited pasture areas mostly by the sea and the grass receives a liberal salty sprinkling carried by the aforementioned bura wind. Saltier grass makes saltier milk and this, in turn, provides gourmets with an excellent, inherently salty cheese.
Pljukanci or Fuži Pasta and Truffles
The green rolling hills of Istria are home to a highly sought-after culinary delight – the truffle. Truffles are rock hard and actually resemble rocks. They grow about 4 inches below the ground and the secretive, flavorful truffles are found in forests by specially trained dogs or pig. They can be incorporated into a number of dishes usually with grated pieces or infused oil. The black truffle season conveniently peaks at the same time you’re most likely to be here, from May until October, and it is therefore relatively easy, if not inexpensive, to find this rare mushroom on the menus of Istrian restaurants. The white truffle, on the other hand, grows in the winter months and may be harder to locate. To keep the experience truly Istrian though, order truffle sauce on home-made fuži or pljukanci pasta and help it down the throat with a glass of malvasia.
Purica i Mlinci
The Zagreb area and northern Croatians like their birds roasted and they do a great job with it. The most beloved Croatian food in this area is roasted turkey with mlinci dumplings. In this case, the turkey is typically prepared with ample garlic, bacon and rosemary, and then traditionally served with mlinci, simple but tasty dumplings made of the usual suspects: flour, water, salt and oil that are then covered with the succulent bird to infuse its juices. Second helpings are often in order.
Black Risotto known as Crni rižot, is a Dalmatian black hole of a bowl and a must-try dish. It’s a seafood risotto with cuttlefish and squid as main ingredients. It’s name and black color are result of squids’ ink which gives this delicacy its distinctive Mediterranean flavor and personality. Traditionally it’s sprinkled with grated cheese.
Yes there are even delicious Croatian fish dishes that don’t come from the Adriatic. The fish paprikash is the pride of the region around Osijek city in Slavonia which joins the best of the Hungarian cuisine and Danube tributaries’ fish. The meal can be cooked using trout, pike, catfish – or all of the above– together with onions, paprika, peppers and local white wine. The result is quite a holiday for the palate, best served and consumed with hearty home-made bread and a glass of Slavonian Riesling. Of all of the classic Croatian foods, this might be the least common to find on the Adriatic so eat your portion in Zagreb or to the east while you can.
Lamb or Veal under the “Peka”
If you love meat this is the Croatian food to note. If you need some Thanksgiving inspiration, this is also the Croatian food to note. The peka is a heavy iron bell specially made to fit into an open-fire grill. The veal or lamb, depending on the day and restaurant, will be placed onto the lower part of the bell along with rosemary-seasoned potatoes before the large lid is lowered onto it and covered with coal and ash. The meat and potato cook in their own juice for just over an hour becoming as tender as they’ll ever be. This meal is very popular with restaurants along the old Lika magistrala road connecting Zagreb to Zadar via Plitvice lakes, but it can also be found in most of Dalmatia. The plavac mali is an excellent wine to accompany the meat and locals will also keep šljivovica, the plum-based rakija, on the table.
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