My dad loved waking us to fish on the beach at dawn during summer. He reeled in a bounty of bream, whiting and flathead which he'd marinate in olive oil, garlic and parsley and barbecue over a wood fire for breakfast.
Come autumn, and the Balkan food that filled our summers was replaced with the spicy paprika-loaded dishes of Slavonia, a historic region near Zagreb in Croatia's northeast where dad had moved to as a boy.
When you're a child, you don't understand the geography of a place or that the food on your plate not only has its origins in a country, but a specific region or town. When I travelled around Croatia, I learned that each of its 21 regions celebrates its own culinary tradition and dishes.
In Dubrovnik, we hired a boat and zipped across to a tiny island, where its sole restaurant offered a blackboard menu of meat or fish. I ordered the fish, a medley of chargrilled baby calamari, octopus and fish, zinging with Mediterranean flavours straight from my dad's summer playbook.
The peninsula of Istria was truffles and more truffles. In the port city Rijeka, we devoured a lamb stew served on a bed of šurlice, a needle macaroni, handmade exclusively on the nearby island of Krk. In Samobor, a popular escape for Zagreb's well-to-do, we tried samoborska kremšnita, a creamy slab of sweet custard and puff pastry topped with a snowfall of icing sugar. And yes, I still dream about it.
Slavonia was a different kettle of fish. I'd arrived for a whirlwind visit that quickly turned into weeks as one relative or another asked "Drago's daughter" to stay. Being a dead ringer for my dad was the gift that kept on giving.
Slavonia is Croatia's food bowl, a fertile region in the northeast, awash with rivers, green and yellow chequerboard farmland, orchards and vineyards. Like the rest of continental Croatia, it was once a paid-up, badge-toting member of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Before that, the Ottomans bullied their way in, overstaying by a good hundred years.
These incursions and alliances have made for a hearty food legacy: goulash, stews, smoked meats, smoked fish and pickled vegetables. Paprika is king. Freshwater fish and pork are a mainstay.
"Slavonia is Croatia's food bowl, a fertile region in the northeast, awash with rivers, green and yellow chequerboard farmland, orchards and vineyards."
In Slavonia, I experienced some of the most authentic (if accidental) paddock-to-plate dining, long before it became the buzzword of regional cuisine.
There was the family gathering under a carport where we devoured cold platters of roast pork within earshot (and smell) of the pigsty. Outings to national parks, wetlands and rivers confirmed a truth universally acknowledged (at least in Slavonia) that a single man in possession of a roasting spit can and should set up a pork stall wherever possible.
But what really stands out is the traditional catfish paprikash prepared for me at a friend's riverside cottage near Osijek. The fish was caught, thrown into a camp oven with loads of hot and sweet paprika, then simmered over an open fire. We ate it al fresco by the very river that had just given us our meal.
This chicken paprikash is spicy and a huge hit in our family. It's a dish you can dress up or down depending on your budget. Water can stand in for stock; chilli powder works as well as hot paprika; wine and carrots can be left out altogether. When making it for children, I dial down the heat.
In Slavonia, it's traditionally served with handmade noodles cooked in the stew. In Zagreb, it's paired with potatoes or dumplings. I like to add a dollop of sour cream to the leftovers and serve it with hot pasta and a sprinkle of fresh parsley. Like any stew, it gets better with time.
Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @belindaluksic. Photographs by Belinda Luksic.
Chicken paprikash (kokosja paprikaš)
- 1 kg fresh whole chicken cut into 6 pieces (or use thigh on bone, drumettes or drumsticks skin on)
- 2 large onions, finely chopped
- 3 large red capsicum, seeds removed and diced
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 3 tsp sweet paprika
- ½ tsp hot paprika or chilli powder (or to taste)
- ½ tbsp plain flour
- 200 ml white wine
- 300 ml water or chicken stock
- Vegeta seasoning (optional)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Heat oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan.
- Add onions and cook on low heat until soft.
- Add capsicum and carrot and sauté for a further 5 mins.
- Add the chicken pieces and cook until white, stirring occasionally.
- Stir in sweet paprika and hot paprika or chilli (to taste).
- Add wine and cook for 5 minutes.
- Add water or stock to cover the chicken.
- Bring to the boil, cover with a lid, and let simmer for 50 minutes on low until chicken is cooked.
- Stir occasionally to ensure nothing sticks to the pan and add water if the sauce becomes too thick.
- Season with Vegeta (optional), salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Serve with mashed potato, dumplings, or pasta.
Note: Vegeta is available at major supermarkets and specialty delicatessens.