As a tiny country nestled on the beautiful adriatic coast, the diversity of Croatian food offerings is hard to match anywhere in the world.
More impressively, a quick look at the list of countries with the most Michelin stars shows that Croatia is one of the smallest countries to make it into the exclusive Michelin Guide with its population of just over 4 million people.
Add to that, Croatia now boasts 7 Michelin stars with more eateries being considered for the exclusive foodie guide each year. That’s twice as many as Greece which has one of the most legendary cuisines in the world.
You will see that the influences in Croatian food culture come from a variety of sources with the two main factors being driven by geography, specifically the availability of fresh ingredients, and adopted customs and cuisines from the various regimes that have occupied the region over the centuries.
Table of Contents
- Croatian Food Culture Influences
- Food Regions of Croatia
- List of 25 Fun Facts About Croatian Food Culture
- 13 Popular Croatian Dishes Around the Country
Croatian Food Culture Influences
Throughout history, Croatia has been invaded by numerous empires, each leaving their mark on the culture, including it’s cuisine.
Croatian dishes are a mix of influences from Greece, Romans, Venice, the Ottoman Empire, Hungary, Austria, Italy, Germany, and all of the neighboring countries that once formed Yugoslavia.
Croatian cuisine spans everything from delicate seafood specialties to hearty meat dishes and stews. For example: the dishes in the northern Istria region include everything from Italian influenced pasta dishes to everyday Austrian schnitzels.
Desserts also follow this custom. You will find lovely crepes and neapolitan pastries along side of hungarian cakes, austrian strudels, and an assortment of local specialties.
Let’s take a closer look at how this all came about.
Food Regions of Croatia
As we already mentioned, Croatian cuisine is a mix of different cultural influences, but also very diverse climate and natural conditions in different parts of the country. Southern parts, along the coast, tend to enjoy more Mediterranean food – a lot of fish, olive oil, and risotto. As we move to the north and to the east, things get meatier and spicier.
A quick glance over the map explains the reasons behind this. The Croatian territory stretches across the Adriatic shore. mountains looming over the coast, northwestern woodlands, with cosmopolitan capital Zagreb, and large plains of Slavonia in the northeast.
Each of these regions contributes with their local specialties to the amazing variety of Croatian cuisine, making sure that even the pickiest gourmets will surely find a dish to satisfy their taste buds.
Dalmatian cuisine is a typical representative of Mediterranean cooking. Different types of seafood and fish, lots of olive oil, garlic, and various herbs. People in Dalmatia like their food fresh and simple. Dishes commonly go through just short thermic preparation, cooking, or grilling mostly. Most meals begin with risotto, often combined with seafood and olives, and usual appetizers are Pag cheese and prosciutto. The most popular main courses are grilled fresh sea fish or lamb, especially from the islands of Pag and Cres. The most popular dishes are Gregada (fish and potato stew), Black Risotto, Pasticada (beef cooked in wine), Brudet (fish and seafood stew), Soparnik (flat vegetarian pie), and Octopus salad among others.
Istria and Kvarner
The Istria and Kvarner area feature foods that are a mixture of inland and coastal cuisine, but also under strong Italian influence due to the proximity of the border and the fact that, for some periods, the Italians ruled these regions. We are talking about a lot of seafood – scallops, shrimps, squid, and octopus, all prepared using a lot of olive oil, herbs, and garlic. On the other hand, this region is also famous for lamb and game, usually slow-cooked under hot ash using peka – domed metal lid. Istria is, also, one of the world’s most prominent truffle areas, and they feature heavily in the meals. The most popular dishes are Surlice (pasta with seafood), Manestra (bean soup), Slozenac (fish stew), Krostule (fried dough strips with lemon and grape brandy), and Fuzi with truffles.
Zagreb and Northwestern Croatia
When it comes to food, Croatia’s capital Zagreb and surrounding area – Zagorje and Međimurje, carry a strong an Austro-Hungarian touch. The meals in this area usually consist of maize or barley bread, a lot of pasta, a lot of dairy products, vegetables mixed with meat, and fresh salads. The winters here are typically very cold and food stock is still prepared in a traditional way – pickled cabbage and peppers, cucumbers boiled in vinegar, bottled fruit, and plenty of jams and marmalades. The most popular dishes are Pecenje (spit-roasted pork or lamb), Turkey with mlinci, Zagrebacki odrezak (veal schnitzel stuffed with cheese and ham), Gibanica (yeast cake with cheese), Strukli (cheese pastry), and Sarma (cabbage leaves filled with ground meat and rice).
Slavonia is the area of rich and fertile plains, so the main staples of local cuisine are white bread, different pastry, potatoes, beans, dairy, and various fat meat dishes, usually very spicy. Still, thanks to the strong Hungarian and Central European influence, this area is most famous for different types of sausages. These are all foods that can be questionable health-wise, but for centuries they provided necessary energy for the hard-working people of this region. The most popular dishes are Kulen (spicy sausage), different versions of goulash, Cobanac (spicy stew with meat), and Riblji Paprikas (fish stew with paprika).
List of 25 Fun Facts About Croatian Food Culture
- While filming the episode of “No Reservations” set in Croatia, the late, great Anthony Bourdain couldn’t hide his excitement over Croatian food, pronouncing the local cuisine “the next big thing”.
- Lunch is still the main meal in Croatia and a time for all of the family to get together. The most common parts of lunch are soup (juha), meat or fish depending on a region, vegetables, and salad.
- The legend says that Julius Caesar’s favorite olive oil came from Istria. The quality of Istrian olive oils is preserved these days.
- Christmas is a big deal in Croatia and traditional Christmas dinner is turkey with mlinci (thin flatbread fried in poultry fat). On Christmas Eve, the Croats usually enjoy salt cod stew.
- Flos Olei, the world’s most reputable olive oil guide declared Istria as the best olive oil region on the planet.
- The Croats love to grill their food using two types of grills known as rostilj (in the continental region) or gradele (on the coast). The preparation is usually handled by the man of the house who takes pride in his grilling skills. Grilling on is done on live coals while grilling over an open fire is considered distasteful and borderline barbaric.
- Istria is also famous for its truffles. Motovun woods on this peninsula are known as “the land of truffles”. It even holds the Guinness record for the largest white truffle ever. It was found by a local, Giancarlo Zigante, in 1999, and it weighed 2.8lbs
- For centuries, long before brunching became popular in the West, the Croats had their own version of a meal eaten between breakfast and lunch. Marenda, as it is known, is a light meal enjoyed around 10 or 11 am. It usually consists of slices of dry meat, such as prosciutto or kulen, and some cheese.
- The Adriatic Sea is known for its clear waters, and fish caught there are held in high regard throughout the world. So much so that a lot of tuna caught along the Croatian coastline ends up as sushi in high-end restaurants all over Japan.
- Neretva Mandarin from Neretva River Valley and Baranjski Kulen, a type of sausage from the Baranja region, are the Croatian foods that bear the GI (Geographical Indication) status. It’s international recognition that the goods possess a specific geographical origin and qualities directly related to that origin.
- Peljesac Peninsula is famous for its oysters and some of the oyster beds are continuously harvested since the times of the Roman Empire.
- If you care how healthy your food is, it may interest you to know that all 21 counties in Croatia are GMO-free.
- The origins of the famous California grape variety Zinfandel are actually in Croatia from where it found its way to the United States in the 19th century.
- Over the last several years, Croatia has seen a rapid increase in the number of family-run farms, or the OPGs. These certified small farms grow and offer organic fruit and vegetables, and meat form free-ranging animals. They are mostly concentrated in Dalmatia and Istria and most of them are open for visitors. Here you can enjoy healthy natural dishes in a beautiful pastoral setting.
- Rarely a meal in Croatia starts without an aperitif, and this includes even breakfast. The most popular aperitifs are slivovica (plum brandy), loza (grape brandy) travarica (herbal liqueur), viljamovka (pear brandy), vinjak (local cognac), and perhaps the most popular, pelinkovac (juniper liqueur).
- The Croats really love their bread and they eat it with almost any meal, even with fruits sometimes. Home-made bread is a source of pride for every Croatian homemaker.
- As is the case in most Mediterranian countries, in Croatia no meal is complete without at least a glass of wine. Although the wine production is rather small compared to juggernauts like Spain, Portugal, or France, Croatia has numerous wines of high quality which are regular award winners at wine competitions.
- The most authentic cuisine in Croatia can be found in konobas, casual establishments similar to taverns, often family-owned.
- Croatia is one of the official representatives of the Mediterranian Diet which is on the list of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage of humanity. It includes growing and preparing food, but also consuming it and all the rituals that go with it.
- Croatia has a great tradition of producing the finest sea salt. The salt pans on Pag island are first mentioned way back in the 10th century.
- The salt production on Pag is also the main reason for the delicate taste of the famous Pag cheese made of sheep milk. The strong sea winds spray a touch of salt over everything on the island, including the vegetation that the local sheep eat. The salty and pungent aroma of the vegetation is the unexpected cause of Pag cheese delicacy.
- Each year, there are dozens of food festivals held all over Croatia. They usually celebrated local food specialties and are dedicated to everything from squids to beans and chestnuts.
- Some of the foods in Croatia are extremely local and enjoyed in only small parts of the country. One of the examples is puh – edible dormouse which may be found in a dish in only three villages and served only in a couple of restaurants in all of Croatia.
- One of the reasons many tourists come to Croatia is that a good part of Game of Thrones was filmed on the sites in Dalmatia, the City of Dubrovnik especially. A lot of local restaurants responded by creating GoT-themed menus featuring the dishes that were seen or mentioned on the show.
- In Croatia, it’s often considered rude to leave uneaten food on a plate. Likewise, no one will give you an evil eye if you help yourself to the seconds.
- Before every meal, it’s customary to say “dobar tek!” (bon appetit) before you dig into the food.
13 Popular Croatian Dishes Around the Country
(Croatia’s National Dish) Peka is a dish that epitomizes everything there is to love about Croatian food. It involves slow cooking, a unique blend of meat, vegetables, and spices, and a savory taste and juicy texture of the prepared meal. And a lot of olive oil, of course. Veal, lamb, or octopus are mixed with seasonal vegetables and potatoes, placed on a baking tray, and covered with a bell-like metal lid. Peka is cooked on hot ash for several hours, so if you plan to try it at one of the Croatian restaurants, make sure your order is way ahead.
Sarma is a dish of a Turkish origin, popular in all of the Balkan countries. Minced meat, white rice, onion, garlic, and herbal spices are mixed together and stuffed into sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) leaves, rolled and tucked on both sides. Then it’s slowly cooked for several hours with bacon and pieces of dry meat added for extra flavor. The vegetarian version of this dish is also very popular, especially during fasting holidays in winter.
3. Crni Rizot
(Black Risotto) This is a dish mainly prepared along the coast and very popular among tourists and travelers due to its specific color and intense seafood flavor. The main ingredient, apart from rice, is cuttlefish whose ing is responsible for the black color of the dish. The taste is further improved by olive oil, garlic, and red wine. It’s usually served with a bit of parmesan cheese on the side. Black Risotto dates back to the Middle Ages and has Arabian origins, but it was introduced to Croatia via Venice.
Another dish brought to the Balkans by the Turks and enjoyed in all of former Yugoslavia, Cevapi are served in almost all restaurants in the country. They are made from minced meat (beef and pork) and spices that are shaped like fingers, kinda like a smaller Turkish kebab. Cevapi are grilled over live coal and served in a lepinja (a special kind of flatbread) with chopped raw onions and kajmak (Balkan dairy product similar to sour cream).
Popular in the southern parts of Croatia, Pasticada is a dish that is cooked long and meticulously, but the richness of its flavor is certainly worth the wait. Its main ingredient is beef which is stuffed with bacon, carrots, garlic, and loves and left to marinate in vinegar overnight. On the next day, it’s roasted for about five hours with prunes, nutmegs, onions, parsley, bacon, and Prosek wine. Depending on the area some more ingredients may be added. Pasticada is traditionally served with gnocchi and is often served at big events such as weddings or christenings.
Manestra is a thick soup, almost a stew, commonly made of a vegetable mix containing beans, corn, potatoes, celery, and cabbage. Its taste is further improved by adding cured meats such as pancetta or prosciutto and garlic. Like most of the best Croatian dishes, it’s slowly cooked for hours until the desired thickness is achieved. Dense texture, full flavor, and crunchy corn bite are what make this soup one of the favorite meals all over Croatia, especially in the Istrian region.
Brudet is a slowly cooked fish stew, mainly popular in the southern part of the country. It’s prepared with several different kinds of seafood. Monkfish,.eel, grouper, tuna, or whatever fishermen catch that day are stewed with tomato sauce, spices, onions, wine, and a touch of vinegar. The mixture gives this dish a strong and exquisite taste which varies depending on the ingredients on a given day. Sometimes, it’s even prepared with frogs. Brudet is served steaming hot, over polenta.
Originating from the Zagorje region is a pastry usually filled with sour cream and cheese, although there are variations with truffles or blueberries. It can be prepared in two ways – baking or cooking in boiling water. The pastry is rolled out until it’s extremely thin and then it’s filled with eggs and the above-mentioned ingredients. This dish is on the Croatian list of intangible cultural heritage.
Blitva (Swiss chard) is a traditional Croatian side dish that was forgotten for a while, but lately is making a big comeback. It’s fairly simple to prepare, blanched Swiss chard is mixed with garlic, boiled potatoes, and sauteed in the olive oil. It’s very healthy and nutritious, and it’s usually served alongside grilled fish or meat. Sometimes
Fritules, a popular dish served as a dessert, are basically the Croatian version of doughnuts. They are a simple fried pastry whose ingredients are flour, yeast, eggs, sugar, butter, and milk. They are often filled with grated lemon or raisins. some locals even add brandy to the mix. Fritules are served topped with chocolate crisps, powder sugar, or caramel. They are a traditional Christmas treat all over Croatia.
Palacinke, the Balkan version of crepes, are popular and tasty dessert, mostly enjoyed after dinner. They are a staple in the majority of restaurants, but can also be picked up on numerous street stands. the thin crepes are made from eggs, milk, flour, sugar, club soda, and butter and fried in a flat pan. they can be stuffed jams, marmalade, chocolate, ice cream, and various chopped fruit. There is also a non-sweet variety of Palacinke, filled with cheese, ham, or vegetables.
Kremsnita is a delicious fluffy dessert, mostly popular in the northwestern part of the country. The most famous version of this delicacy comes from the town of Samobor. Kremsnita has a custard cream filling and a puff pastry top. it’s served sliced in cubes and dusted with powdered sugar. Nowadays there are numerous variations of Samobor original including versions with a whipped cream layer beneath the top or the chocolate glazing.
Breskvice (little peaches) are a delicious pear-shaped treat commonly enjoyed around Easter, Christmas, and other festivities. They are small biscuits resembling peaches in shape and color, filled with jam, chocolate, or walnuts, and rolled in sugar. The preparation of Breskvice demands time and patience and so they are very valued as presents.
Popular Croatian Spices, Ingredients, and Condiments You May Need
As with anything else concerning Croatian food, the popularity of ingredients and spices is highly regional.
Logically, on the South, near the coastline, seafood and fish dominate. The most popular fish are grouper, tuna, monkfish, seabass, mackerel, and pilchard among others. Croats also make full use of octopuses, squids, and scampi using them in salads, stews, and in a variety of other ways.
Mediterranean influence is particularly noticeable when it comes to extensive use of olive oil and spices – rosemary, bay leaf, sage, clove, oregano, marjoram, and cinnamon.
Continental regions of Croatia are more in touch with Slavic roots and Turkish and Austro-Hungarian influence. They often use lard for cooking and the most popular spices are garlic, paprika, and black pepper.
Most of the inland dishes include several basic ingredients such as dairy, beans, potatoes, nuts, pork, and lamb.
The list of popular spices in Croatia wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t mention Vegeta. Vegetable-based seasoning, produced by Croatian food company Podravka, Vegeta dominates the market in former Yugoslavia for over 60 years and is a staple in every kitchen next to salt and pepper. It’s universally loved all over the Balkans and used in almost every dish.
Croatian Cooking Styles and Techniques
The cooking method most characteristic for Croatia is peka. It’s not just the name for a delicious dish but the whole school of cooking. This cooking technique involves cooking of vegetables, potatoes, or meat (often together), under the dome-shaped lid – peka. .
The ingredients are put on a tray or in a pot, covered with peka, and heated with the hot ash. Cooking with peka usually takes place outside and is done slowly allowing the dish to keep its flavor and aroma. This is a cooking style spread in all of the Balkans, including Serbia and Bosnia where peka is known as a sac.
Buzara is another Croatian cooking technique, mostly practiced in the coastal part of the country. It’s used for preparing seafood by cooking it in a mixture of olive oil, wine, garlic, herbs, and bread crumbs.
The point of this method is to create a flavorful sauce with a distinctive sea aroma. The most commonly cooked ingredients this way are scampi and mussels, but it can be used for any seafood you can think of. The sauce can be white if you add white wine or red if you add tomatoes or red wine.
Gradele is a simple way of grilling fresh fish on a grate over live coals. The trick is to have fish perfectly grilled and juicy at the same time. During the grilling, the grill master brushes the fish with a rosemary brunch dipped into olive oil giving it a special and poignant aroma. For Croats, gradele is not just a way of preparing food, it’s a symbol of tradition, ideology, and coastal lifestyle.
Croatian Food is “the next big thing”!
Croatian food encapsulates everything that Croatia is about. It echoes all of the cultures that have left their mark on this small, but proud country. Traveling through Croatia you’ll have a chance to taste the mixture of culinary and cultural traditions that you’ll hardly find anywhere else. If you still haven’t visited this beautiful country, make it an obligatory item on your bucket list. The numerous dishes we mentioned here are not a comprehensive list, not even close. There’s plenty more waiting for you to discover and enjoy.