Ten traditional Christmas dishes in Croatia

Christmas time staples you'll find on every dinner table in Croatia this winter

Written by
Marc Rowlands
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Christmas is celebrated differently across the world, and especially when it comes to traditional food. While Croatia reserves special dishes for the actual peak days of the Christmas holidays, there are many seasonal dishes that you'll find on Croatian dinner tables throughout the winter months. From pastries and hearty stews to preserved fruits, vegetables and fish, here's a look at some quintessentially Christmas dishes in Croatia.

Sarma with mashed potatoes

Sarma is minced meat, spiced and moulded together with rice, which is wrapped in sour, fermented cabbage leaves, known locally as kiseli kupus and in Germany as sauerkraut and then boiled in a spiced tomato sauce, which also sometimes contains bacon until the rice is cooked. A beloved dish in Croatia, it's eaten year-round, and it's a particular favourite when visiting the family home. A milder tasting version can be produced using either fresh cabbage leaves or blitva (chard) leaves. A hearty, comforting dish, it really comes into its own during winter, served with mashed potatoes.

Winter biscuits

Paprenjaci (pictured) are peppery gingerbread cookies which date back to at least the 16th century. Decorated with a stamped pattern, recipes vary, with some substituting honey for sugar, butter for fat, walnuts for hazelnuts and the inclusion of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg alongside pepper. In the past, when pepper was an expensive spice, they were quite rare. Vanilin kiflice, or vanilla half-moons, are a sweet, biscuit-like take on the more savoury version of this homemade staple.

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Fritule

Fritule are deep fried Croatian doughnuts that historically come from the coastal region of Dalmatia. They are usually boozy, and are flavoured with brandy or loza (a grape rakija). They can also be served with sugar, jam or chocolate.

Roasted fowl with mlinci

A local favourite, this is eaten several times a year across different holidays. In the past, duck and goose were more commonly used, and are still most easily available at this time of year. Turkey is also popular in some parts and chicken especially so. Mlinci is a thin pasta-like accompaniment, which is frequently (and rather unusually) cooked in fat. Such main meals around Christmas time are almost always accompanied by something called French salad, which is usually frozen mixed vegetables, cooked and then drowned in either mayo or mayo and sour cream. It is a salad popular within all Slavic regions. The French would probably disown it.

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Fiš paprikaš
© Didin Konak

Fiš paprikaš

In the east of Croatia (where it is sometimes known simply as fiš) this spicy, paprika-rich red fish stew is popular year-round and can be seen bubbling away in large pots, over open fires, outside restaurants and by the riverside. It is also a particularly festive treat, not least on Christmas Eve.

Krvavica
© Silar

Krvavica

Krvavica or blood sausage is a speciality that holds huge regional varieties in its composition throughout Europe, in South America and the Far East. Pigs blood is the key ingredient and what colours the sausage black after cooking. The filler could be bread, potato, buckwheat, corn flour or grains like barley. You'll sometimes find a bit of offal in the Croatian version and, rather confusingly, some argue that the name krvavica should be used when talking about švargla, a foodstuff made using much higher quantities of offal, usually preserved in jelly (not for the fainthearted). Croatians have an admirable tradition of using the whole of the animal once slaughtered. It is traditional for pigs to be dispatched in the winter. When pigs are killed in the summer, it is extremely rare that krvavica is made, as the weather is too warm for its production. Therefore, you only see this sausage in winter. Some Croatians are surprised to learn that versions of both kravavica and čvarci (fried pig rind) are eaten throughout the European continent.

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Makovnjača

Makovnjača is a poppy seed roll made from a yeast dough and is very traditional in Croatia. It can be a little dry when eaten alone, so you'll find many eating it alongside a glass of hot milk for dipping. 

Stuffed peppers

Stuffed peppers or punjena paprika are not dissimilar to sarma, being filled with rice and minced meat and served with a delicious tomato sauce.

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Strudel

Passed down through the family, the recipe for a proper Croatian strudle is less about specific ingredients and more about back-breaking work. A remnant of Croatia's Austro-Hungarian days, it's often stuffed with spiced apple, cheese or cherries and you can expect to see it at Croatia's advent markets.

Preserved fish

Preserved fish

Visitors to Croatia frequently associate fish with the summer and the seaside. But continental Croatians love their river fish dishes. And Croatians eat fish all year round. At no time is this more true than the winter period. It would be unusual to find a household in Croatia which does not observe the tradition of eating any meat on Christmas Eve. On that day, fiš paprikaš is often prepared. Less common, and quite expensive in Croatia, is salmon or losos (if a family invests in some, it is more likely to be on this day than any other). Long bakalar, dried, preserved cod, can also be seen in supermarkets throughout this period. After soaking in water for 24 hours, they are made into a soup or cooked with potatoes. At Christmas markets, you might also spot sea bass, which is cooked then preserved in olive oil and served cold.

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