Eating and drinking in Croatia
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Croatian food is varied and distinctive, largely because the country straddles two culinary cultures: the seafood-dominated cuisine of the Mediterranean and the filling schnitzel-and-strudel style of Central Europe. Each area of Croatia has regional specialities as well. Here is your complete guide to what to eat and drink in Croatia, with Croatia’s national and regional dishes, and information about restaurants, cafes, bars and eateries.
Main meat dishes normally consist of a grilled or pan-fried kotlet (chop) or odrezak (fillet or escalope). These are usually either pork or veal, and can be prepared in a variety of ways: a kotlet or odrezak cooked nažaruwill be a simple grill, bečkiodrezak (Wiener schnitzel) comes fried in breadcrumbs, pariškiodrezak (Pariser schnitzel) is fried in batter and zagrebačkiodrezak (Zagreb schnitzel) is stuffed with cheese and ham. A popular Croatian food that appears on all menus is Mješanomeso (mixed grill), usually consisting of a pork or veal kotlet, a few ćevapi, a pljeskavica and maybe a spicy kobasica (sausage), served alongside a bright-red aubergine and pepper relish known as ajvar.
Lamb is usually prepared as a spit-roast. In sheep-raising regions (Cres, Rab, the hinterland of Zadar and Split) it’s quite common to see roadside restaurants where a whole sheep is being roasted over an open fire in the car park to tempt travellers inside. One way of preparing diced lamb that’s typical of Istria and the Adriatic islands is to slow-bake it underneath a peka – a metal lid that is covered with hot embers.
Stewed meats are less common than grilled or baked ones, although goulash (gulaš) is frequently employed as a sauce served with pasta, and čobanac (a fiery red stew) is a staple of the southeast. Grah (or fažol in Dalmatia) is a delicious soup of paprika-spiced haricot beans (grah literally means “beans”) with bits of sausage or pljeskavica added.
A main course associated with Dalmatia is pašticada (beef cooked in wine and prunes). The most common poultry dish is puricasmlincima (turkey with baked pasta slivers), which is indigenous to Zagreb and the Zagorje. Other meaty mains include punjenepaprike (peppers stuffed with rice and meat) and sarma (cabbage leaves filled with a similar mixture). Arambašica, a version of sarma found in the Dalmatian hinterland, contains more meat and less rice.
On the coast you’ll be regaled with every kind of seafood. Starters include salataodhobotnice (octopus salad) and the slightly more expensive salataodjastoga (nibble-size portions of lobster flesh seasoned with olive oil and herbs).
Fish can come either nažaru (grilled), upečnici (baked) or lešo (boiled). Grilling is by far the most common way of preparing freshly caught fish, which is sold by weight (the best fish starts at about 300Kn per kilo in cheap and mid-range restaurants, 400Kn per kilo and over in top-class establishments). Waiting staff will tell you what fish they have in stock, or will show you a tray of fish from which to choose. A decent-sized fish for one person usually weighs somewhere between a third and half a kilo, although you can always order a big fish and share it between two people.
Fish dishes are invariably accompanied by blitva (Swiss chard), a spinach-like plant indigenous to Dalmatia, served with boiled potatoes and garlic.
Among the tastiest white fish are kovač (John Dory), list (sole), brancin (sea bass), komarča or orada (gilt-head sea bream) and škrpina (scorpion fish), although the range of fish caught in Adriatic waters is almost limitless. Oslić (hake) is slightly cheaper than the others, and is often served sliced and pan-fried in batter or breadcrumbs rather than grilled – when it will be priced per portion rather than by weight. Cheaper still is so-called plavariba (oily fish), a category that includes anchovies and mackerel. Another budget choice is girice, tiny fish similar to whitebait, which are deep fried and eaten whole. Brodet (also spelled brudet) is seafood stewed in red wine and spices. Two ubiquitous and inexpensive staples are lignjenažaru (grilled squid) and crnirižot (“black risotto”; made from pieces of squid with the ink included).
The more expensive or specialist establishments will have delicacies such as crab, oysters, mussels and lobster. Scampi usually come as whole prawns which you have to crack open with your fingers. They’re often served with a buzara sauce, made from garlic and wine.
Typical Croatian food served as accompaniments with your main course are likely to include a choice of carbohydrate such as boiled potatoes, chips, rice and gnocchi, and a vegetable or salad side.
Indigenous forms of pasta include fuži in Istria (pasta dough rolled into a cylinder or folded into a twirl), šurlice on the island of Krk and mlinci in Zagreb and the Zagorje – the last are lasagne-thin scraps of dough which are boiled, then baked.
Additional vegetables can be ordered as items from the menu. Croatians eat an enormous amount of bread, and you’ll be expected to scoff a couple of large slices with your meal regardless of whatever else you order.
The most common salads are zelenasalata (green salad) and mješanasalata (mixed salad). Other popular side dishes are gherkins (krastavci) and pickled peppers (paprike).
Typical restaurant desserts include sladoled (ice cream), torta (cake) and palačinke (pancakes), which are usually served samarmeladom (with marmalade), s čokoladom (with chocolate sauce) or s oresima (with walnuts). In Dubrovnik, try rožata, the locally produced version of crème caramel. A slastičarnica is a place to find ice cream, cakes and pastries, including baklava, the syrup-coated pastry indigenous to the Balkans and the Middle East.
Istrian food is very similar to the cuisine of its geographical neighbours. Particularly apparent, is the Italian influence on its regional specialities, where pasta, truffles, olive oil, cured ham and wild asparagus take the spotlight.
The Istrian peninsula is a cornucopia of culinary riches, with the seafood of the coast melding with the hearty meat-based fare of Central Europe. Whether you’re looking for a haute-cuisine restaurant or an informal village inn, culinary standards are high and ingredients first class. Regional delicacies include oysters (oštrige) from the Limski kanal, and cured ham (pršut), wild asparagus (šparoga) and truffles (tartufi) from the hills inland. Istrian meats, such as kobasice (succulent, fatty sausages) and ombolo (smoked pork loin), are often cooked on the kamin or open hearth. Fuži (pasta twists) and njoki (gnocchi) are very much local staples, and are often freshly made by hand in the more traditional country inns. Istrian olive oil, as elsewhere in Croatia, is largely produced by individual farmers or regional cooperatives, ensuring a high degree of quality and recognizably individual flavours.
Best known of Istria’s wines is the crisp white Malvazija that is produced all over the peninsula; mass-market brands like De Mar are perfectly palatable, although family winery Radovan and the craft winemaker Clai offer more in terms of quality. The slightly acidic but eminently drinkable Teran is a characterful indigenous red. A typical Istrian spirit is biska, the aphrodisiac mistletoe brandy associated with the region around Buzet and Hum. One Istrian concoction you should definitely try at least once is supa, an earthenware jug of red wine mulled with sugar, olive oil and pepper, served with a slice of toast for dipping purposes.
The woods around Motovun and Buzet are one of Europe’s prime hunting grounds for the truffle (tartuf), a subterranean fungus whose delicate taste – part nutty, part mushroomy, part sweaty sock – have made it a highly prized delicacy among the foodie fraternity. Truffles, which look like small tubers, tend to overpower whatever other ingredients they’re mixed with, and so are used very sparingly in cooking – either grated over a freshly cooked dish, or used in a sauce to give a defining flavour.
White truffles, harvested in autumn, are traditionally regarded as the most highly flavoured, and are usually used raw; black truffles come into season slightly later in winter and are slightly less pungent.
The truffle-hunting season begins in late September and carries on through the autumn, with locals and their specially trained dogs heading off into the Istrian fog to sniff out the fungus. During this period most of the region’s restaurants will have at least one truffle-based recipe on the menu, even if only a simple truffle-and-pasta dish or a truffle fritaja (omelette).
To mark the start of the season, Truffle Days (DaniTartufa) are organized in various places in the Motovun/Buzet region from mid-September until early November; these might involve truffle-tasting events, live music or just lots of good-natured drinking. Best known of these fungus-fixated fiestas is the Buzetska Subotina (“Buzet Saturday”), when an enormous truffle omelette is fried up on the main square and then scoffed by an army of hungry celebrants.
Food along the Dalmatian coast is very Mediterranean in style, with fish and seafood featuring heavily on the menu. The waters off the island of Vis represent one of the richest fisheries in the Adriatic, so it’s no wonder that the local restaurants on Vis and the neighbouring islands, offer some of the freshest lobster and fish in Dalmatia.
The food in Zagreb takes its influence from its Central European neighbours. Dishes tend to be heavier to eat, usually including meat, potatoes and root vegetables.
Hearty stews and meat (usually pork) dishes cooked in big pots are all the rage in Slavonia. Paprika is the spice of choice in Slavonia, with smoked meats and pickled vegetables also demonstrating the Austro-Hungarian influence on the regional cuisine.
Seafood in the Kvarner is as good as anywhere in Croatia, although the Gulf is famous above all for its scampi, which thrive in this part of the Adriatic due to the sea’s uniquely sandy bottom. Kvarner scampi can be prepared in a number of ways although the classic recipe is škampi na buzaru, served in a garlic and wine sauce. The scampi are invariably served whole and unpeeled – you are supposed to prize them open with your fingers and suck out the white flesh.
Prime among the island-based specialities is Pag cheese, a hard and piquant affair that is best eaten as a nibble-and-savour starter. A regional staple found on the island of Krk and on the nearby mainland too is šurlice, long, thin tubes of pasta dough, traditionally eaten sa gulašom (with goulash) or sa žgvacetom (with lamb stew). Visitors to Rab should not leave without sampling rabska torta, the marzipan-filled pastry sold in local patisseries, while most famous of the region’s wines is Vrbnička Žlahtina, an excellent white from Vrbnik on Krk’s east coast.
Inland Croatian cuisine is invariably a waistline-enhancing affair, with generous helpings of pork, turkey, duck and freshwater fish forming the backbone of most menus. Signature dish of Zagorje and the northeast is roast turkey served with mlinci, sheets of pasta torn into misshapen scraps and covered with tasty juices from the bird.
Paprika is the main characteristic of Slavonia and the Baranja, where meat and fish are cauldron-stewed with generous helpings of the red spice. Carp, catfish and pike-perch from Sava and Drava rivers frequently end up in fiš paprikaš, the spicy, soupy mainstay of most restaurant menus around Osijek and in the southeast. Frequently served with tagliatelle-like noodles, fiš perkelt is a slightly reduced version of the same thing. The meat-eater’s alternative to fiš is čobanac, a goulash-esque paprika-laden stew which is served in vast tureens. Many Slavonian families keep a pig or two, traditionally slaughtered towards the end of November in the annual kolinje, or pig cull. The main pork-based delicacy is kulen, a rich, paprika-flavoured sausage served as a snack or horsd’oeuvre.
The wines of inland Croatia are an increasingly big deal, with excellent Graševina (Welschriesling) and Traminac (Gewurztraminer) on sale in the family-run wineries of Zmajevac and Ilok.
Croatia’s most celebrated hors d’oeuvre is pršut, home-cured ham served in thin, melt-in-the-mouth slices. Pršut is mainly produced in inland Istria and Dalmatia, where it’s common for families to own a handful of pigs. The unlucky porkers are slaughtered in late autumn, and the hind legs from which pršut is made are laboriously washed, salted and flattened under rocks. They are then hung outside the house to be dried out by the bura, a cold, dry wind that sweeps down to the coast from inland Croatia. After that, the ham is hung indoors to mature, ready to be eaten the following summer. Pršut from Dalmatia is usually smoked at some stage during the maturing period, while that from Istria is left as it is, producing a significant difference in flavour between the two regions’ produce.
For Croatians the most important meal of the day is lunch (ručak) rather than dinner (večera), although restaurants are accustomed to foreigners who eat lightly at lunchtime and more copiously in the evening, and offer a full range of food throughout the day.
Unless you’re staying in a private room, apartment or a campsite, breakfast will almost always be included in the cost of your accommodation. At its simplest it will include a couple of bread rolls, a few slices of cheese and/or salami, and some butter and jam. Mid- and top-range hotels will offer a buffet breakfast, complete with a choice of cereals, scrambled eggs and bacon.
A few Croatian restaurants in tourist areas are beginning to offer breakfast menus; otherwise few Croatian cafés or restaurants bother to serve breakfast, although they don't usually mind if you bring along bread buns or pastries bought from a nearby bakery and consume them along with your coffee.
Because many Croatians eat lunch relatively late in the afternoon, restaurants frequently offer a list of brunch-snacks (called marende on the coast, gableci inland) between 10.30am and noon. These are usually no different from main meat and fish dishes, but come in slightly smaller portions, making an excellent low-cost midday meal. Details are often chalked up on a board outside rather than written on a menu.
Most bakeries and slastičarnice sell pastries, such as burek (filled with minced meat or cheese), zeljanica (filled with spinach) or krumpiruša (with potato) – traditional Croatian food.
For a more substantial snack, try the traditional southeast European repertoire of grilled meats: ćevapi (rissoles of minced beef, pork or lamb), ražnijići (shish kebab) or pljeskavica (a hamburger-like minced-meat patty), all of which are often served in a lepinja – a flat bread bun.
Basic self-catering and picnic ingredients like cheese, vegetables and fruit can be bought at a supermarket (samoposluga) or an open-air market (tržnica). Markets often open early (about 6am) and begin to pack up in the early afternoon, though in well-touristed areas they sometimes keep going until late evening. Bread can be bought from either a supermarket or a bakery (pekara). Small outlets may offer a simple white loaf and little else, although you’ll usually be offered a wide choice of breads, ranging from French sticks (francuskibaton or francuz) through to wholemeal loaves (punozrnatikruh) and corn bread (kukuruznikruh). You’ll have to point at what you want though: names of different loaves differ from one place to the next. A pekara may often sell sandwiches – filled most commonly with ham, cheese or pršut.
Main meals are typically eaten in a restoran (restaurant) or a konoba (tavern) – the latter is more likely to have folksy decor but essentially serves the same range of food. A gostiona (inn) is a more rough-and-ready version of a restoran.
When eating out in Croatia, any list of starters should begin with pršut, Croatia’s excellent home-cured ham. It’s often served on a platter together with cheese: paškisir from the island of Pag is the most famous – a hard, piquant cheese with a taste somewhere between Parmesan and mature cheddar; sirsavrhnjem (cream cheese) is a milder alternative. Kulen, a spicy, paprika-laced sausage from Slavonia, is another local delicacy. Soups (juha) are usually clear and light and served with spindly noodles, unless you opt for the thicker krem-juha (cream soup).
One starter that is stodgy enough to serve as a main course is štrukli, a pastry and cheese dish which is common to Zagreb and the Zagorje hills to the north. It comes in two forms: kuhani (boiled) štrukli are large parcels of dough filled with cottage cheese, while for pečeni (baked) štrukli the dough and cheese are baked in an earthenware dish, resulting in a cross between cheese soufflé and lasagne.
Street food is not that big a phenomenon in Croatia. For Croatia’s version of fast food, pizza is likely to be the easiest thing to find. However, Croatia’s adaptation of burek pastries, are the most common type of street food in Croatia. Whilst typically filled with meat or cheese, sometimes sweeter strudel-like versions are available – pick one of these up in a market stall kiosk or a small bakery or cafe.
Vegetarian cuisine has never been one of Croatia’s strong points, but there’s usually enough to choose from on restaurant menus if you look hard enough. Strict vegetarians should exercise caution however: many items that look like good vegetarian choices – the various risottos and bean soups are invariably made with fish or meat stock. Even in well-meaning restaurants, it’s not uncommon to find dishes advertised as “vegetarian” that turn out to have ham or chicken in them. Yummy-looking grilled vegetables may have been cooked on the same grill as the meat dishes, so be sure to ask.
Vegetarians can however construct a handsome meal from the meat-free dishes listed as starters or side dishes. Pastas with various sauces, mushroom dishes and sizeable salads are rarely hard to find. Mushroom omelettes (omletsagljiivama) and cheese fried in breadcrumbs (pohanisir) are fairly ubiquitous. Italian-influenced pizzerias and spaghetterias are perhaps the best bet: most pizzerias offer a pizza vegeterijanska featuring a selection of seasonal vegetables, and there’s usually a choice of meatless pasta dishes including, if you’re lucky, a vegetarian lasagne. One traditional meat-free dish is the cheesy štrukli although this is a north Croatian speciality that can rarely be found on the coast.
“Ja sam vegeterijanac” (vegeterijanka is the female form of the noun) means “I am a vegetarian.” To ask “Have you got anything which doesn’t contain meat?”, say “Imate li nešto bez mesa?”
Drinking takes place in a kavana (café) – usually a roomy and comfortable place with plenty of outdoor seating and serving the full range of alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, as well as pastries and ice creams – or in a kafić (café-bar), essentially a smaller version of the same thing.
The word “pub” is frequently adopted by café-bars attempting to imitate British, or more often Irish, styles. Both cafés and café-bars open extraordinarily early (sometimes as early as 6am) in order to serve the first espresso to those catching the early-morning ferry, although alcohol isn’t served until 9am. Closing time is usually 11pm–midnight, although regulations are relaxed in summer, when café-bars in resort areas may stay open until 2am. Few Croatian cafés of any kind serve substantial food except for the odd sandwich.
Most Croatian beer is of the light lager variety. Mass-market beer brands like Karlovačko and Ožujsko are pretty unexciting, so it's worth trying the more flavoursome, small-brewery alternatives like Velebitsko pivo from Gospić or Vukovarsko from Vukovar. Red beers and porters produced by Zagreb’s Medvedgrad brewery are increasingly common outside the capital. There’s also a growing craft-beer movement in Croatia, with Istrian brewery San Servolo producing a widely distributed range of light, red and dark beers that continue fermenting in the bottle. Meanwhile Zagreb-based craft brewers such as Zmajska pivovara (“Dragon Brewery”), Nova runda (“Another Round”) and Varionica (“The Brew House”) are cooking up a new generation of pale ales and porters – well worth trying if you can track down the small but growing network of bars that stock them.
Whether you’re drinking beer in bottles or on tap, a malopivo (small beer) usually means 30cl, a velikopivo (large beer) is a half-litre.
Croatia’s wine industry has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, with a new breed of boutique wineries and family businesses leading the way. Although there are plenty of decent-quality Chardonnays, Cabernets and Merlots in Croatia, it’s really the indigenous or near-indigenous grape varieties that are creating the most excitement.
Istria is renowned for its dry white Malvazija, and for the tannin-rich reds Teran and Refošk. More excellent reds are to be found in Dalmatia, where Babić is king in the Primošten-Šibenik region, while Plavac mali (a distant cousin of Zinfandel) predominates on the south Dalmatian islands and the Pelješac peninsula. The Plavac wines from Pelješac’s Dingač and Postup vineyards are among Croatia’s finest reds, and command the highest prices.
The island of Korčula is home to the excellent light whites Pošip and Rukatac; Krk is renowned for the medium-dry Vrbnička Žlahtina, while Vis is famous for the more flowery white Vugava. Hvar offers an embarrassment of riches, with Plavac mali, Pošip and indigenous white Bogdanjuša. White Graševina (Welschriesling) and Traminac (Gewurztraminer) cover much of eastern Croatia, with the cellars of Kutjevo and Ilok traditionally producing the best wines.
Wine sold in shops and supermarkets is graded as stolnovino (table wine), kvalitetnovino (quality wine) or vrhunskovino (supreme wine). Basically, anything in the stolno category is cheap and drinkable, although the kvalitetno category usually delivers higher quality for a very reasonable price. Anything in the vrhunsko band is really quite special.
Popular wine-derived drinks, all served cold, include bevanda (white or red wine mixed with plain water), gemišt (white wine and fizzy mineral water) and bafflingly popular summer tipple bambus (red wine mixed with cola).
Most local spirits (žestokapića) are grouped under the term rakija (brandy), which covers all the indigenous fruit-derived firewaters. Most rakijas are produced from grapes, and are called loza or lozovača unless they are flavoured with an additional ingredient, as is the case with travarica (herb brandy), medica (honey brandy), rogačica (carob brandy) and orahovača (walnut brandy). Rakijas made from other fruits include plum brandy (šljivovica) and pear brandy (vilijamovka). Other local aperitifs you should try are pelinkovac (a juniper-based spirit similar to Jägermeister), borovnica (blueberry liqueur), maraskino (a cherry liqueur from Zadar) and biska (a mistletoe-flavoured spirit from Istria. Foreign brandies and whiskies are available pretty much everywhere.
Apart from the vast urns of overstewed brown liquid served up by hotels at breakfast time, coffee is usually of a high quality. It is served as a strong black espresso unless specified otherwise – kava sa mlijekom or makijato comes with a drop of milk, kava sa šlagom comes with cream, and bijela kava (white coffee) is usually like a good caffè latte. Cappuccino is also fairly ubiquitous. Tea is usually of the herbal variety; ask for crni čaj (black tea) or indijski čaj (Indian tea) if you want the Brit-style brew. Čaj sa limunom is with a slice of lemon, sa mlijekom comes with milk.
Tap water (obična voda) is usually free, and comes automatically if you are drinking an espresso. Mineral water and other soft drinks are often served in multiples of 10cl or dec (pronounced “dets”). If you want 20cl of mineral water ask for dva deca, 30cl is tri deca. If you want fruit juice, note that the word đus (“juice”) usually means orange juice.
Top image: Grilled Croatian squid © Jana Kollarova/Shutterstock