For a relatively small place, Croatia has an impressive diversity of cuisines, from the pristine seafood of the coast and islands, to the river fish and spicy meats of Slavonia. Here we offer some background to what you can expect to arrive on your dinner plate.
Croatian cuisine can be divided between the culinary traditions of Central Europe and those of the Mediterranean, without dismissing the cultural influence of Hungary and Venice, Croatia’s indigenous Slavic roots and centuries of Ottoman rule. You can also add three distinct climatic regions – Continental, Alpine and Mediterranean.
All is underpinned by a fertile inland soil that produces such superb, often naturally organic, herbs, fruit and vegetables. Croatia’s love of fresh ingredients is evident by a quick perusal of any local market. Tomatoes and greens are brought in fresh, no modification needed.
Recently young chefs such as Marceliino's Mario Čerhak have noticeably turned these fabulous ingredients into something sensational. What shines through is their mission to work alongside time-honoured traditions to create something unique.
Continental Croatia is well known for its freshwater fish, including šaran (carp), pastrva (trout) and štuka (pike). Fiš paprikaš, river fish stewed in a paprika broth, is another inland favourite. Meanwhile, of course, there’s the Adriatic, whose bounty reaches Zagreb’s markets and kitchens early each morning. There are more than 400 species of fish in the famously clean waters. It’s fresh, so preparation is kept simple, generally grilled (na žaru) in olive oil. On most menus, fish is priced by the kilo. Usually about half-a-kilo is enough, depending on your appetite. Some fish can be farmed, especially brancin (sea bass) and orada (sea bream). If you see it on the menu, try zubatac (dentex), a highly prized big brute of a fish. The tuna in the Adriatic is so good the Japanese import much of it for sushi. Škrpina (scorpion fish) is tender but it can be the devil’s own job for the uninitiated to pick through the tiny bones.
The classic accompaniment to fish is blitva, a local kale, and potatoes. Brodet, fish stew, is traditionally made of three fish, one of which should be grdobina or rospo (monkfish, frogfish or angler fish). The equally succulent seafood – squid, prawns, langoustines, scallops – is often prepared in buzara (gently poached in a tomato-based sauce) or used in risotto, especially crni rižot, with dark squid ink. Octopus (hobotnica) is great in salads.
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What you’ll mostly find in Zagreb is pork or veal is prepared in breadcrumbs, often stuffed with cheese and ham, the famed Zagrebački odrezak. Everywhere else does the grilled Balkan specialities of cevapčići, minced meatballs, and pljeskavica, minced-meat patties. These have the same ingredients as a burger but that would be like comparing fish paste to caviar. They are invariably served with onions and flapping sides of bread, garnished with the outstanding ajvar, a pepper and aubergine relish. This is either a main meal or quite often a messy fast-food delicacy. Bosnian-run Sofra would be the ideal choice to try it. You’ll also find burek, a flaky pastry often filled with cheese, potato or meat, at many fast-food stands. A less bulky alternative are sarma, cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat, and punjene paprike, peppers stuffed with minced meat.
In Slavonia, kulen is revered, a hot, spicy sausage not unlike its salami cousin just over the border in Hungary. Gulaš also made the move south, but it’s more often used as a sauce for pastas than a stew on its own. A similar dish is čobanac, a meaty, paprika stew.
Some 30 per cent of Croatia is forest and hunting is a national pastime. Try venison or wild boar – mostly found in Istria. Game birds are a rarity. You’ll sometimes see rabbit on the menu, although often this has to be ordered a day in advance. Another speciality not to miss is lamb. The best is raised on salty, wild herbs and comes from the islands of Pag or Cres. Away from the sea, a common sight is a whole lamb roasting on a spit (sometimes turned by river power). Many places are right by the roadside, the smell tempting many a passing driver. Do stop and join them – the lamb is served with raw spring onions and big hunks of bread.
The most celebrated meat preparation is either cooked over an open fire (particularly ombolo, pork medallions, or steak) or, in Dalmatia, slow-roasted under a cast-iron dome or bell (peka). A couple of Zagreb restaurants specialise in it too – the Konoba Čiho for example.
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