An In-Depth Guide to Croatian Gastronomy

Are you a foodie planning to visit Croatia? This guide will help you dive you into Croatian culinary traditions and discover the dishes you need to try (with their local names).

Aman Mehta
14. September 2018

Most people think of char-grilled fish and squid when conjuring images of Croatian cuisine. And while it is true that there is plenty of this delicious food available, there is a lot more to the Croatian table than just seafood, including some delicious regional dishes.

Croatian cuisine is also an important part of our culture, social structure, and traditions. Whether in a top-rated restaurant or a simple pizzeria, dining here is a pleasure. Thanks to its geographical position, Croatia offers a unique fusion of the best of many different regions.

Along the pristine coastal regions, the food is Mediterranean, with strong Italian influences. The region of Dalmatia, in particular, has a wide variety of different ingredients which are commonly used, ranging from fish, vegetables, spices, meats, etc. The basic staples, however, are olive oil, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, lemon, and nutmeg. Pasta dishes and pizza can be found throughout the country. Croatia is blessed with thousands of islands, so their cuisine also features a diverse variety of fish and seafood.

Further inland, in continental Croatia, you can expect to find many Austro-Hungarian dishes, such as goulash. In this part of Croatia, sausages, pork, black pepper, paprika, garlic, potatoes, and various types of cheeses are the most common ingredients. A plate of the famous sheep’s milk cheese (paški sir) with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, and air-dried prosciutto (pršut) is the best way to start your meal. Many dishes that were once regional, however, have many different variations throughout the entire country.

Fish Dishes

Seafood-lovers will be impressed by the variety of fish they'll find in Croatia. Photo: WikimediaCommons. 

Some of the more commonly found fish on menus on the coast are gray mullet (cipal), red mullet, hake (oslić), bream (orada) John Dory (kovač), mackerel (skuša or lokarda) eel (jegulja). If you eat in someone's home and the fish is caught locally, you can have a whole host of local species that may be rather unfamiliar. You will also find octopus (hobotnica) on the menu, as well as squid (lignje), mussels (dagnje), and oysters (kamenice). Inland, freshwater fish include trout (pastrva) and carp (saran).

Fish is usually lightly boiled (kuhano), grilled (na žaru), fried (przeno) or baked (pečeno), and often served topped with a mixture of freshly chopped parsley, crushed garlic, and olive oil. A traditional and particularly delicious way of preparing fish and meat in Croatia is ispod peke (literally under the peka"), in which the food is placed under a domed cast iron lid and roasted in a wood fire. Octopus cooked in this way is mouth-wateringly good, though it just as often makes an appearance as a salad (salata od hobotnice) with potato, onion, and olive oil.

Photo: WikimediaCommons. 

Another favorite way of preparing shellfish (školjke), and in particular lobster tails and large shrimp (both known as škampi), is as a buzara, simmered in an enormous pot with garlic, olive oil, and white wine and guaranteed to make a complete mess of your clothes. Fried squid (often referred to on English-language menus using the Italian word calamari) is very popular and best when caught fresh, though you might also want to try them stuffed and roasted in the oven (purjene ligre). In Slavonia, carp caught from the rivers is prepared as a vast stew with spicy peppers (fis paprikas).

Meat dishes

Meat and vegetables. Photo: WikimediaCommons. 

Croats are great meat eaters. Lamb (janjetina) is a perennial favorite across Croatia, traditionally roasted on a spit with generous amounts of rosemary and garlic, or cooked ispod peke. The best lamb, many consider is from the island of Pag, where the animals graze on a diet rich in aromatic herbs with grasses rare in this otherwise arid landscape. The herbs are said to contribute much to the meat's flavor, as are the salty breezes that blow across the area.

Another very popular dish in Croatia is called Pašticada. It is basically a stewed beef dish, cooked in a tasty sauce, and served with pasta. A scoop of this is enough to understand why it is so celebrated. Accompanied with fresh salad and red wine, this dish will leave you satisfied in every way.

Zagrebacki Odrezak. Photo: WikimediaCommons. 

Originating from Zagreb, Zagrebacki Odrezak is the Croatian version of the famous Wiener Schnitzel. This mouth-watering dish has the distinct taste of meat which is accentuated by the accompanying ingredients and is proudly considered one of Zagreb's most notable and delicious dishes. There are many variations of this dish. However, it is traditionally prepared with veal, filled with ham and cheese and grilled with breadcrumbs.

For many families in Croatia, Sarma is a staple dish, particularly during the holidays. Sarma Cabbage rolls stuffed with chopped pork meat and rice are part of the traditional cuisine of many Central European countries.

Desserts and Drinks

Homemade marmelade. Photo: WikimediaCommons. 

Cakes and desserts come in all shapes and sizes, from whisper-light kiflice to the creamy Jelačić kocke, and the distinctive mahovnjača and orahovnjača (filled with poppy seeds and walnuts respectively). There is plenty of delectable ice cream (sladoled) both on the coast and inland.

Traditional kiflice. Photo: WikimediaCommons. 

Coffee (kava) is something of a national pastime, with all that sunshine and cafés spilling out into the open on lovely medieval town squares. After all, what better to do with your free time? The standard coffee is espresso, almost always excellent and served with a glass of water, as it should be. What an espresso is called depends a bit on where you are in Croatia. On the coast and islands (with stronger Italian links), it is usually called an espresso, while in the rest of the country it is kava or obična kava (an "ordinary coffee"). A coffee with milk is kava s mlijekom, a macchiato is a makiato, and a cappuccino is a kapučino. If you prefer tea (čaj), you usually have a choice, including various flavors of herbal tea (Voćni čaj).

A cup of coffee. Photo: WikimediaCommons. 

There is plenty of fruit juice available (voćni sok or more usually just sok), including blueberry juice (sok od borovnice), apple juice (sok od jabuke), and orange juice (sok od naranče). If you want mineral water, ask for mineralna voda, either gazirana (sparkling) or negazirana (still).

Local beers (pivo) include the widely available Karlovačko (brewed in Karlovac) and Ožujsko (brewed in Zagreb), as well as Tomislav (a dark beer from Zagreb) and the less common though excellent Velebitsko Pivo (brewed in Gospić, behind the Velebit Mountains). Some consider the beers from the Ličanka microbrewery in Donje Pazarište to be quite tasty.

Cold beer – the ideal refreshment during hot summer days. Photo: WikimediaCommons

Another drink you may well encounter on your travels in Croatia is rakija, a fiery local spirit that comes in a number of guises: Loza made with grapes is similar to Italian grappa, travarica is made with herbs, Šljivovica is made with plums, and medovača is made with honey. A decent homemade (domace) rakija can be very good indeed, while other drinks offered are quite the opposite, from personal experience. Finding out is all part of the Croatian experience, but you should always drink responsibly and never drive. The legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers in Croatia is 0.05 percent.

Tasting Croatian Wine

Croatian wine. Photo: WikimediaCommons. 

With its steep, rocky hillsides and plenty of sunshine, Croatia produces plenty of wine, some of them being a treat to the tastebuds. Quality is indicated by three main categories: vrhunsko vino (the highest quality, literally meaning "top wine"), kvalitetno vino (standard quality), and stolno vino (table wine), with the price usually (though not always) being another fairly good indicator.

In recent years, a number of boutique wines and vineyards have emerged, some excellent, though in some cases expensive when compared to what you can buy for a similar price in the United States or western Europe. The best red wines (crno vino) tend to be those from the Dingač region of the Pelješac Peninsula, which produces intense, fruit-driven wines from the Plavac Mali grape. There are also some excellent reds from Ivan Dolac on the island of Hvar.

For white wines (bjelo vino), look out for those made with the Traminac grape in Slavonia, such as lločki Podrum in llok, as well as the excellent Malvazija from Istria. Some of the Croatian islands also produce good white wines, such as Žlahtina from Krk and Vugava Viška from Vis. Fans of dessert wines can seek out the sweet and sticky dessert wine prošek.

Vinyard in Hvar Island. Photo: WikimediaCommons. 

When purchasing some of the better wines, avoid buying them in general supermarkets if possible; they are likely to have been sitting on the top shelf, upright and in the heat for far too long. Instead seek out a decent wine merchant or boutique, which you should be able to find in larger cities, such as Bornstein in Zagreb. You can also buy from the vineyard in most cases, and at open-air markets. Homemade wine is advertised by the roadside, some of which can be very good and remarkably cheap.

If you are in Dubrovnik and want to taste a range of Croatian wines, head for D'Vino, which has around 100 different wines by the glass. There are a number of wine roads in Croatia, including Plešivica, Ilok, and several in Istria.

Food Culture

Traditional easter eggs. Photo: WikimediaCommons. 

Food, in particular, home cooking is an important part of Croatian life. The frozen dinner has not caught on here yet, though there are plenty of fast-food outlets. If you require a cheap meal, pizza is widely available and is usually excellent with a thin, crispy base and plenty of toppings to choose from. Pasta is also served fairly widely. For many Croatians, lunch is the main meal of the day, beginning with soup (juha) and followed by either fish or meat as a main course (glavno-jelo) served with vegetables and a salad. Dinner is a lighter meal.

The traditional Christmas dinner in Croatia is puretina (turkey) with mlinci (flat dried noodles, rather like giant tagliatelle, cooked in the bird's own juices), while bakalar (salt cod stew) is traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve.

Tipping

In recent years tipping has become more commonplace in Croatian restaurants, especially in cities and larger towns. Although not expected, it is always appreciated in restaurants and cafés where service has been good. Tip according to the quality of service you receive; something between 5 and 10 percent is plenty.