The Republic of Croatia, formed in 1991 after it declared independence from Yugoslavia, draws from many influences, both geographical and historical, when it comes to the dishes that have infiltrated the country’s dinner tables.
Croatian food is often described as the ‘cuisine of the regions’ for its variety throughout the country. East Croatian cuisine is heavily influenced by the Hungarians, who once ruled the region, and the food is spicier than in other areas, with garlic and paprika staple ingredients. The paprika-infused sausage kulen is served with capsicums, cottage cheese and tursija (pickled vegetables). The area produces a vast amount of wheat, too, so bread and pastries – filled with jam, walnuts or poppy seeds – are popular.
Bordering the beautiful Dalmatian coast means Croatia has easy access to fresh seafood, and this is often cooked simply with subtle flavours: fish such as sea bass, mackerel, squid and pilchards are grilled and then topped with olive oil, garlic and lemon. With many Italians making the trip across the water for a holiday, Italian influences are commonplace along the coast. Think rizot (risotto), pastas and pizzas (with a thicker bread-like dough), and brudet (fish stewed in tomato sauce and served with polenta). Meat isn’t forgotten, with lamb (boiled or baked), smoked meats (such as prust), hearty soups of sauerkraut, meat and vegetables among the favourites.
Hearty meals are the norm in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, and northern Croatia, so soups and cabbage-based salads are often accompanied by breads. There’s certainly an Austrian influence here, too, with savijaca sa sampinjonima (strudel made with bacon and mushrooms instead of apples), pasticada (meat stew) and manistra od bobica (a hearty soup of beans, maize and smoked meat).
There is some debate as to whether ćevapčići (skinless sausage) is strictly Croatian, as variations are found around southeast Europe, however many Croatian families consider this a traditional dish. Perhaps most synonymous with Croatian cuisine is burek (a pastry filled with meat, cheese or apple), palacinke (a crêpe-like dessert) and bakalar (dried cod).
Potatoes have been one of the chief crops in Croatia for centuries. Most stews and soups are bulked out (especially in winter) with potatoes, and they are also popular in salads or simply roasted.
Garlic is used liberally in Croatian dishes, from smallgoods to seafood. The garlic grown in the Ljubitovica area is renowned throughout the region and is distinguished by its streaked reddish veins.
Red capsicum features in the classic ajvar (roasted capsicum and eggplant relish) while the green variety is favoured to make punjene paprike (capsicum stuffed with onion and ground meat).
4. Olive oil
Olive oil is a key ingredient, used for marinades, dressings, drizzled over fish, and used for the gradelavanje method of cooking (grilled, then roasted in olive oil). The main olive varieties are buza, istarska bjelica, rosulja and vodnjanska crnica. Many families continue to make their own olive oil.
Although not a highly spiced cuisine, paprika is used widely in most dishes from spiced salamis such as kulen to riblji paprikaš (fish-based stew). Its use is most common in north-eastern Croatia, which is influenced by its border with Hungary.
Both mild and hot varieties of paprika are used in Croatian cooking, particularly in the areas closer to the Hungarian border. It is used to flavour the traditional smallgoods as well as many of the stews such as the fish-based riblji paprikaš.
Photography by Janyon. Food preparation by Angela Nahas and Julie Ballard.