When traveling, obviously you want to try the local dishes. That’s just normal for most people. When I talk to foreigners about Croatian cuisine however, I experience usually that there is not much knowledge about dishes that go beyond ‘ćevapčići’. I figured this as the result of every Croatian restaurant that opens abroad serving mostly grill plates with ćevapčići.
But, surprise! The Croatian cuisine goes far beyond grill plates and ćevapčići. I will list my favorite must try dishes here (some of them are even on the list of Croatia’s intangible cultural heritage!). Why top 13 and not 10 you wonder? Well, I just couldn’t narrow it down further, I love them all! The order I list the food in, doesn’t mean anything. I will however write the Croatian name of the dishes in brackets so you can recognize it the next time you are in Croatia. Just in case the restaurant has no English menu. For some of the foods, I even have some recipes. So, if you are interested, just let me know in the comments and I will share 😉
1) Fresh calamari from the grill (lignje na žaru)
This dish is one of my absolute favourites when in a restaurant at the Croatian coast. Why? Well, it’s fresh, low in calories and just delicious. When ordering calamari or lignje in Croatia, you will very often see two different versions of the dish on the menu. The first one (second picture) is the healthy version – calamari on the grill (lignje na žaru). Usually containing just a little of olive oil as an add on. The second version is fried calamari (pržene lignje). Here, they cut the calamari into rings and deep fry them. Commonly this type of the calamari dish is served with french fries (because it’s not fatty enough haha).
Another slightly less healthy version (but soo delicious!) can sometimes be found on the menus as well. Some restaurants offer filled calamari. This means that they stuff the calamari with cheese and put bacon around them before putting them on the grill. This is probably the yummiest version of the dish you can get in my opinion.
2) Octopus salad (salata od hobotnice)
There are different versions of the octopus salad as well. It depends whether you are ordering the salad as a starter or as the main meal. For starters, the salad will contain freshly cooked octopus mixed with onions, tomatoes and other fresh ingredients, depending on the restaurant. As a main dish, local people usually add cooked potatoes to the salad. The best octopus salad I had so far was actually done by a friend, after he went diving to catch an octopus first. It doesn’t get fresher than that.
3) Burek or pita
Burek is the typical Croatian streetfood. Low in price, you can find it in any bakery and you would typically take it to go. It is also the food that any Croatian takes with themselves when travelling. However, I wouldn’t go as far to claim it typical Croatian. It origins from the times when the Ottomans tried to conquer Vienna and the whole balkan region. As a result, most balkan countries are eating variations of the burek dish nowadays. The traditional burek comes with meat (burek sa mesom) in the typical thin dough. Nevertheless, you can find many different variations when in a bakery. Burek with cheese and spinach is very common as well. When coming directly out of the oven, the taste is just fantastic.
Burek also comes in different looks. The dough can for example be layered between the ingredients. Alternatively, you can roll the dough. The result will be the same, the look a little bit different. An interesting fact: Bosnians claim the traditional burek to be with meat and meat only. That means that they are not amused when you call a burek with cheese a burek. That is why in Bosnia, anything that has no meat in it is called ‘pita’ instead of burek. In Croatia, you will find both variations, however the name ‘pita’ will be used for sweet ingredients (e.g. pumpkin or apple) more often.
4) Various meat or octopus under the bell (peka)
Dishes under the bell are typical in the coastal region of Croatia, Dalmatia. But what does ‘under the bell’ mean? Well, let me explain the concept in an easy way. For this dish you need a big, special pan, a bell and some metal rings. First, you fill the pan with various vegetables like potato, onions and pepper, that you would like to eat as a side dish. Then, you add the meat (or octopus). Don’t forget the spices!
When we do this dish at home, we usually mix different kinds of meat (chicken, lamb, pork) in the pan. Once your pan is ready, you go on and prepare your fireplace. When the fire burnt down and all there is left is the hot coal, you put the pan on the place where the fire was. You close the pan with the bell and put metal rings of different sizes on the bell. Those rings allow you to put the hot coal o tops of them. This means that the pan is now surrounded by heat from below and from the top. Depending on the size of the pan, after about an hour (for very big pans) your meal is ready!
5) Black risotto (crni rižot)
Black risotto is a typical Dalmatian dish that not everybody can handle. Not because of the taste (it is delicious!) but because of the colour. I was never bothered by it, however I learnt from my family members that they find it weird because it’s black. This risotto is very common in southern coastal Croatian cuisine. The black colour is a result of the ink of the cuttlefish that is next to rice the main ingredient of this dish. Most black risottos come additionally with squid and bit of parmesan on top.
6) Stuffed rolled cabbage leave (sarma)
Mmmh, sarma. My favorite winter dish. Why winter? Well, due to the ingredients and their preparation, the dish is only ready in winter. Typically (at least in my family), we would eat the first sarma of the year at Christmas. The reason therefore is the preparation that you need for this dish. At the beginning of autumn, ideally mid October, we would buy tons of cabbage. Just kidding, not tons, but about 20kg, just enough to fill up your barrel. Yes, you read correctly, you need a barrel. Add salt and water to it and close the barrel for about 1-2 months. Just before Christmas, your cabbage will be sour and ready. Congrats, you now have enough cabbage for a whole season of sarma.
Now, the cabbage out of the way, how do you do a good sarma dish? First, it is a saying that you must be at least a 40 year old female to be able to make a good sarma (more years of experience!). Then, you take one sour cabbage, and separate the leaves. You fill each leave with a mixture of minced meat and rice and roll them together. You repeat until your pot is full of stuffed rolled cabbage leaves. After that, you fill the pot with some additional real meat (not minced!), cabbage and water before you boil it. Tadaaa, your sarma is ready! Serve with mashed potato.
7) (Zagorski) Štrukli
Served in the Zagreb and northern Croatia (region called Zagorje) region, this dish is a real traditional Croatian one. It even made it to the list of Croatia’s intangible cultural heritage! Usually, this dish is filled with cheese (surprise!) and it is composed of dough. There are different variations for the filling. Also, they can be either cooked or baked. What they all have in common is the fact that the pastry is rolled out very thin and flat before being filled with an egg, cottage cheese and sour cream mixture. If served sweet, you could add blueberries and some sugar on top.
8) Dried meat plate with cheese and olives
Dried meat – something Croatians eat about everywhere and any time in all variations. For breakfast, for dinner, as starters (especially my dad is crazy about it). Croatians just love smoked meat and so it’s not a surprise that its preparation is a tradition among especially the older generation. Depending on your location, mainland or coastal Croatia, you would get different types of meat on your plate. What is very common in Slavonija (region in mainland Croatia) is šunka. On the coast on the contrary it is pršut. Both are home cured hams that are being washed and salted before they are hung out to dry. The difference is in the drying process. Pršut has a unique taste thanks to the cold bura wind that is only to be found at the coast.
Another delicacy from Slavonija is ‘kulen’, a cured meat delicacy, filled with peppers and cuts of pork. Before eating, the kulen as well needs to have some months smoking and maturing. Interesting fact: The kulen from the Baranja region bears the protected geographical indication of the European Union.
In addition to the meat, Croatia is also home to a number of award winning cheeses. The most popular among them is probably the ‘paški sir’, produced by a unique breed of small sheep from the island of Pag.
9) Bean soup (grah)
This bean soup is another typical winter dish. It is made of either white, pinto or cranberry beans, onions, carrots and meat. Particularly smoked meat (bacon, ham hock, sausage) is added to the soup. As this is a simpler dish, you will commonly find it in traditional restaurants that offer cheap lunches to working people (gablec). It is also a very popular dish to eat on the first of May (labour day).
10) Lamb/piglet on the spit (Janje / prase na ražnju)
There is not one good Croatian party without a lamb on the spit. Whenever there is something to celebrate, it is very common to buy a lamb (or a piglet, especially on Christmas), to put it on the spit and to invite all your friends or the whole neighbourhood. It is a social event, as the meat takes around 5-6 hours on the spit until it’s done. While the food it getting ready, you can take care of the salads or just enjoy the company.
You can get this traditional food also in many restaurants. Of course, only a portion of it 😉
11) Ćevapi and pljeskavica
Ćevapi (or ćevapčići) and pljeskavica – the second Balkanise answer to fast food (after burek). When ordering ćevapi, you usually get 5-10 (depending on the size you order) pieces of the finger shaped minced meat sticks in a flatbread (lepinja) with chopped raw onions, ajvar and kajmak. Ajvar is another typical dish; a relish made from peppers. Kajmak is something similar to clotted cream, a dairy product that is extracted from cow milk, collecting milk skin and adding salt. It is very fatty but yummy.
Pljeskavica (or meat patties) on the contrary you mostly get on a plate with either flatbread or french fries or both. Also, ajvar and kajmak are part of the deal. The difference between ćevapi and pljeskavica lies mostly in the form. Make sure to try the pljeskavica with cheese! It’s basically the balkan answer to cheeseburgers.
12) Stewed scampi (Škampi na buzaru)
You are familiar with scampi and might wonder what makes this dish so special. Even more, what makes it Croatian (other than that it’s super delicious 🙂 )?
Well, first there is our advantage: We can get the scampi directly from our sea. Consequently it’s really fresh. Second, we are using only local home-made ingredients when preparing the dish. You take a pot with olive oil, add garlic, breadcrumbs and tomato sauce (if you don’t have prepared tomato sauce, you first boil and peel the tomatoes) and some salt and pepper. After a while you add white wine and boil the scampi in the sauce for about 15 minutes. That’s it! Easy and amazing.
13) Fish on the grill
Fish on the grill is probably the simplest dish the Croatian cuisine has to offer. Nevertheless it is one of the best ones. All you need is a grill, wood fire and some homemade olive oil (add garlic for additional taste if you like). The type of fish that ends up on the grill depends pretty much on the area you are located in. The Adriatic sea is full of fresh fish and just at the doorstep. On islands you will probably find bigger fish types, on the mainland the smaller ones. Restaurants serve this typical mediterranean dish usually with cooked chad or vegetables from the grill. Enjoy with wine!