Croatian food is a wonderful mix of Mediterranean and Slavic influences plus it comes with great wines, too. This article will take you on a full culinary journey through Croatia – from the dreamy waves of the Adriatic to the mountains and the fusion restaurants of Zagreb.
For such a small country, there is plenty to cover here. Croatian food is awesome but it’s also very varied. So, as a little caution note: don’t take this article as the only place to learn about the cuisine in Croatia. Get there, eat as much as you can, and make sure to thank the local grandmas. And, of course, try to keep up your fitness schedule. All the olive oil may be healthy but the sweets really throw that calorie balance off.
Croatia is not that big but it has a rich heritage and regional culture. That’s why the food in Dalmatia is so different from what they usually have in Slavonia or Zagreb. So, before we dive into obscure and mouth-watering dishes, let’s talk about the regions of Croatia.
Dalmatia is on the coast. It is, quite possibly, the most recognizable place in Croatia. Yes, this is also where Dubrovnik is. Can you guess what kind of food it would be? Typically Mediterranean cuisine.
I am talking about plenty of seafood (usually grilled, not fried), olive oil on everything, and spices like oregano, rosemary, and garlic. Dalmatian food is usually lighter and it goes wonderfully with sweeter wines. A side note: Croatians love their glass of wine at mid-day but if you can’t handle the alcohol, it is best not to drink. The alcohol culture here is drinking without getting drunk!
The Istrian cuisine has Mediterranean roots but it also has its own unique dishes. Since the region is not as popular as Dalmatia among foreigners, people tend to mistake the two. So, in the name of being smart foodies, let’s look at some 100% Istrian dishes.
Istrian food is a delicious combination of Italian and Austro-Hungarian influences. Local produce makes it to dishes often and you would be crazy to miss it. More than just veggies, did you know the region is famous for its’ truffles? The world’s largest truffle was actually found in Istria.
Your first must-try is a simple bean soup. It’s called manestra and it is the quintessential winter food. Warm, hearty, and comforting, a good manestra keeps the cold weather blues away.
Still, even if you go in summer, manestra is a must. It’s the first dish that locals name as “typical Croatian food”. Suck it up, and go have some soup (no matter how hot it is outside).
Then you should do scrambled eggs. I know, I know. It’s such a simple dish, the sort of thing you cook when you really don’t have any culinary skills. Well, not in Istria! You will see all sorts of scrambled eggs varieties here and I have to admit, they are all delicious. No more simple scrambled eggs for this traveler! From now on I only want them with truffle-infused olive oil, or fresh Istrian greens, or asparagus and herbs… Or all of them.
In Istria, as one blogger said:
People understand local ingredients, appreciate the seasons, delight in their olive oils and proudly protect their Grandmother’s recipes in the same way the Italians are famed for.
And I could not agree more with that description. Whatever you have in Istria, it will be accompanied by plenty of top-grade Croatian olive oil. In fact, most Istrians consider it a crime to sit on the table without any olive oil nearby. What can I say, Croatian food is all about the olives!
Unlike the Adriatic Coast cuisine, food in Zagreb is decidedly non-Mediterranean. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they eat their fair share of olive oil, garlic, and oregano here, but in Zagreb food is much closer to other Central European cuisines.
Since Zagreb is also the cultural centre of the country and an economic hub, you can expect a lot of fusion dishes and cool, high-end restaurants. If you enjoy the underground culture, there are some cocktail places that will surely capture your heart.
Artisanal burgers are also getting trendy in Zagreb. The Submarine Burger is definitely the place to go – they only use local organic meat, škripavac cheese (which is a Zagreb-region speciality) and fresh farm veggies.
Read Next: The Best Hotels in Croatia (Zagreb)
Croatians aren’t 100% Mediterranean when it comes to eating hours. For instance, they tend to have a normal-hour lunch, as opposed to the infamous 3 PM Spanish almuerzos.
Lunch is the most important meal and on weekends, it’s a long family affair. People love to do barbecues in summer or to get together for drinks in the yard at dusk. When it comes to dinner, though, it is usually light and chosen to compliment the wine.
Croatian salads, though not a typical dish on their own, are a must in summer. The fresh local produce makes all the difference. And yes, I am also talking about the local olive oil!
The Adriatic coast of Croatia is not just a place to go beaching at. It also provides Croatians with a steady source of fresh seafood. Even in the inner parts of the country, fish and crustaceans form an essential part of the Croatian diet.
With that in mind, let’s look at some essential seafood dishes that you must try in Croatia:
Now what the hell is peka and why should you care about it?
A peka is a bell-like lid. It is placed over a pan with embers on top and thrown in the fire. Halfway through the cooking time, you open the lid, flip the meat around, and add some extra spices
Why is it so important?
Well, this method of preparing meats (or seafood) is unique for Croatia. Secondly, it’s the single best way to achieve a tender, butter-like texture in an octopus. If you have ever tried to DIY a grilled octopus, you know how hard it is to get right. The peka does that for you.
A traditional hobotnica ispod peke or octopus under the “peka”, starts with a fresh octopus or a squid. Some potatoes are also thrown in, plus a mix of Mediterranean herbs. What really makes the sauce, though, is the high-quality olive oil that they douse it in.
The oil, combined with the even but very high heat of the peka, provides for a tender octopus and a rich and flavourful sauce. Some restaurants also throw in honey, which lightly caramelizes over the potatoes… Argh, my mouth waters just thinking about it!
Unlike other dishes in this article, the octopus needs to be ordered in advance. Granted, some eateries have it already prepared. In my experience, though, these are either super touristic places (a.k.a. very much non-authentic), or restaurants that don’t care too much.
The freshly made, just-for-you hobotnica ispod peke has no better alternative!
Once again at it with the oil, but this is a quintessential item in the Dalmatian and Istrian diet. Croatians love them as a side dish or a part of a mezze platter to go with drinks. Sardines are arguably the most popular, along with mackerel and bonito. Tuna, though it doesn’t come from the Adriatic sea, is also a popular choice.
You can also buy fish in olive oil in Crotian supermarkets. Be careful if you plan to bring it home, though. You do not want this spilling all over your clothes!
Croatian food is rich but it’s not unhealthy. You might actually drop a couple of pounds as long as you don’t overdo desert.
So, unsurprisingly, the preferred way to have fish (and meats, too) is grilled. Sprinkle lemon juice, add some veggies with a drizzle of Croatian olive oil on the side, and you have yourself a typical Croatian meal.
Side note: Remember to factor in the calories for your drinks. That delicious rosé isn’t as diet-friendly as you think!
This black risotto sounds deceivingly simple. It’s rice cooked with squid. The squid lets out some ink and colors the rice. But since there are so few ingredients, the black rizotto is actually very easy to mess up.
Virtually every seafood restaurant in Croatia has it, yet it is best enjoyed by the sea. This is where you will have the freshest ingredients thrown in the rizot and that makes all of the difference when it comes to taste.
If you can get a Croatian friend (or, ideally, their mother or grandmother) to make it for you – even better. The higher quality your ingredients, the better tasting crni rizot!
And, as a side note, make sure you check your smile in the bathroom mirror. That stuff can really stain!
PS: Speaking of seafood, if you’re looking to check out Croatia’s best beaches, click here .
Moving away from seafood, this next one is a beef stew that has visitors falling in love with Croatian food. The pasticada is known as the queen of Dalmatian cuisine and for good reason.
This is not a simple dish to make!
First off, the meat needs to be marinated for at least 24 hours (but ideally a couple of days). They just put it in wine vinegar, allowing the acid to penetrate the meat and make it tender.
Then a few hours of braising follow, with red wine being added to the mix.
Finally, you also need to make the gnocchi. Though fresh gnocchi are readily available in Croatian supermarkets, most families prefer making them at home. This makes the process even slower, though the final product is truly to die for.
Foodie and travel bloggers have complained that it’s nearly impossible to find good pasticada in a restaurant. Since the cooking process takes so long and beef is quite expensive, very few restaurants even serve it.
Still, it’s not impossible to find it either. Frank G, of FrankAboutCroatia.com, recommends:
If you’ve got a chance to eat it at people’s house while in Dalmatia, that would be perfect. Otherwise, try it in a restaurant, at least to get the idea of a dish. We’ve eaten a good pasticada in the Vinica Monkovic restaurant, Buffet Fife in Split, and in Adria restaurant in Metkovic.
Another remark I often hear from travellers is that nobody eats, there are only coffee shops. This isn’t true, of course, but street food is much more scarce than the US, for instance.
Why? Well, most Croatian food is prepared at home. Families have a glorious tradition of eating together and it doesn’t make sense to get fast food before.
One important and notable exception is called fritule. Or, in other words:
Fritule are small balls of fried dough, a delicious hybrid between mini donuts and churros. You can get a bag of them for around 10 to 15 kn (which is around 2$) and it is plenty to keep that snack craving in check.
Most fritule come with raisins inside – make sure to ask for them (unless you are allergic to raisins, of course). You could also get different toppings. Most Croatians just go for powdered sugar but there are also different jams and preservatives, as well as Nutella.
Yet another word of warning: these are not light in any shape or form. They make for a delicious snack but you might need a nap afterwards.
This is another staple of Croatian food. Though, technically speaking, most pastries are originally Bosnian, there is no way you can miss them. Croatian bakeries are just about the homiest, most welcoming places you will go to in the country.
After partying, it’s a must to grab a warm burek. The warm and cheesy pastry is sure to keep the hangover away! Of course, you could also have a kebab (the locals love their post-disco doner kebap) but that is much less authentic.
Another staple of Croatian food that you will find in bakeries (especially in coastal Croatia) is krostule. These are loose knots of dough, deep fried and sprinkled generously with powdered sugar. They are a quite good competition for the fritule (though the latter has a special place in my heart).
If you have a sweet tooth, Croatia will not disappoint.
Sugared orange peels, arancini, are the first candy to pop to mind. These were definitely inspired by Italian food culture. You can get them virtually everywhere in Croatia, especially in the coastal regions. Buying them in the supermarket is one option, or you could get artisanal ones.
If you are really one for the challenge, try making them yourself. You have to cut the orange skins really thin, soak them in hot water for at least a full day (these skins get treated with all sorts of nasty chemicals), then boil them in simple syrup and add crystalized sugar.
It sounds deceivingly simple but good, crunchy, flavourful arancini take practice. Try to find a Croatian grandma to teach you – it’s a fun thing to prepare for your friends back at home too!
Fancy sampling a recipe older than the United States?
Well, paprenjaci are black pepper cookies that date back from the 16th. They don’t really have a lot of black pepper in them, mercifully. The ones you will try today are much more reliant on nuts and honey!
This is the traditional Christmas cookie in Croatia. Families would also make them for other special occasions. The Croatian national carrier even hands them out as edible souvenirs.
If you would like to try your hand at making them, arm yourself with patience. This is 100% a Sunday afternoon activity. Want to get super fancy about it? Try getting a wooden mould to decorate them. Once again, it’s a really cute thing to prepare for your friends back at home.
Croatian cuisine is super diverse and that’s because the country is a melting pot of cultures. You will notice the Italian influence, but there are plenty of Central European dishes, ingredients, and techniques that also came in. Not to mention that Turkish influence was also quite strong at one point of Croatian history.
Mix this all up, and you might understand why Croatian food culture is so rich. But there is one element that brings it all together:
Here is the thing:
Olive oil is amazing for you.
It tastes delicious, that is for sure, but it’s also one of the healthiest foods on the planet. In fact, some researchers think that the Mediterranean diet is so successful at preventing chronic disease exactly because of the olive oil.
In some parts of Croatia, high-quality olive oil has achieved a cult status. It’s in restaurants, sold on the streets, on every kitchen table in every Croatian home. In fact, I recently took a trip with a Croatian friend and the biggest thing she said she missed was the olive oil.
Olive oil is pretty great as is. But why Croatian olive oil? More and more people are seeking it and it has been receiving international recognition. What exactly is this all about?
For starters, you have tradition. The coastal regions of Croatia have always been olive-producing lands. Olive oil traditions here date back to Roman times (but quite possibly before that, too).
The microclimate in Istria especially has always been perfect for growing olive trees. The soil is fertile and the location was great for trade as well. This is why Istria has been an olive oil production hotspot since ancient times. Did you know that olives are even the symbol of the region?BUY THE FINEST CROATIAN OLIVE OIL
The island of Pag is home to the world’s oldest olive tree alive. It is over 1,600 years old and grows in an area near the small village of Lun – the ‘Lunjsko polje’.
These lands are covered in trees that are still being grown and harvested the old-fashioned way. The families of Lun preserve their forefathers’ traditional recipes. If you are an olive oil nerd, or simply a huge foodie, you should come and visit. Lun olive oil was even mentioned in the first cookbook in the Western world – the one by Marko Gabi Apici.
Istria has longer-standing traditions in olive oil production. However, Dalmatia is the one that gets all the praise. Dalmatian olive oil was first noticed in the 19th century when the Ministry of Agriculture in Vienna declared it better than Italian and French.
Since Croatia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at this point, it received plenty of support to help develop olive oil production. This second push was very important for Croatian olive oil as it permitted production to become bigger and better. Today, Croatian olive oils constantly win specialized competitions and this is both because they are rooted in tradition, and because of all the modern technologies being used.
We already agreed Croatian food is super diverse. Try as much of it as you can. Different regions often have very distinct traditional dishes – don’t miss out!
But if there is one thing you can say about Croatian food as a whole – it is olive oil, olive oil, olive oil. As cliché as that may be a for a Mediterranean cuisine. Dip your bread, pour it over salads, use it in stews or for grilling, there is an olive oil for every purpose. Croatian food is completely based around it!
And finally, remember to venture out of what I just told you. The best way to learn about Croatian food is to go out there and eat your heart out. Of course, a steady gym schedule would not hurt you either. You know, just in case the fritule start showing.