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croatian food culture

Croatian Food Culture: 9 Local Dishes You Must Try

The sun-soaked Balkan nation, with its miles of Mediterannean coastline and picturesque holiday islands, sits at a crossroads of western and southeast Europe, and the rich Croatian food culture demonstrates this. A melting pot of history, tradition, location, and family life, there’s more to Croatia than the cuisine, but it’s a good place to start. 

Bordering Slovenia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, and sharing its Italianate Istrian Peninsula with northeast Italy, Croatian culture and cuisine is heavily influenced by surrounding nations, as well as the sizzling Mediterannean climate and sea. Croatian gastronomy spans everything from delicate seafood to hearty stews, age-old traditions to family recipes, and we’re here to explore it all. 

Our guide looks at nine culinary delights that you need to try for a true taste of Croatia. From jota to goulash, if you’re ready to eat your way down the coast, you’re in the right place. Let’s get into it. 

Jota

croatian stew
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Widely regarded as Croatia’s national dish, Jota is a popular Istrian stew with strong Italian and Austrian influences but Croatia’s unique Balkan twist. Made from dried beans and smoked meats like ribs or pancetta, Jota is distinctly garlicky with a tangy hint from the sauerkraut which forms the base of most recipes. 

Potatoes and turnips are usually added to the stew and it is especially popular in Istria and the northwest. The old dish has long been considered a poor man’s meal, using simple ingredients that are easy to farm and store. Jota likely appeared in the early seventeenth century but it’s recognized as a stealthy wartime meal in literature. Jota is now eaten as a Sunday lunch by Croatian families or in the winter as a warming stew. 

Brodetto

fish stew
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Also called brudet, this fisherman’s stew originally hails from the Marche region of eastern Italy which sits between the Apennine Mountains and the Dalmatian Coast across the vast Adriatic Sea. Packed with seafood and stewing in a tangy tomato base, Brodetto is a signature dish along the Adriatic, stretching from Istria, Kvarner, and Dalmatia in Croatia, down to Montenegro and over to all of Italy’s Adriatic cities. 

Fishermen would traditionally cook their Brodetto over an open fire, tossing in whatever catch of the day they had at their disposal. Vinegar was and remains a key ingredient, once preserving the dish as it stewed for a few days and now gifting the signature sharp taste of the broth. In some parts of Italy, the stew is spiked with pepper but Croatian variations balance sweet and sour flavors. 

It differs by region but Croatia Brodetto usually comprises plaice, mullet, prawns, mussels, and clams, with the saved plaice and mullet bones are used for infusing the fish stock. Brodetto is no longer a dish reserved for fishermen, rather it is served up at seafood restaurants up and down the country, from fine dining institutes to family-owned konobas (taverns), usually alongside crusty bread for dipping.

Crni Rižot  

croatian food
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Literally translated as “black risotto”, this inky rice dish is one of Dalmatia’s most iconic. It might look otherworldly, but its surprisingly uncomplicated and undeniably delicious. Crni rižot is made with cuttlefish ink, rather than the squid or octopus ink that is used in Spain’s “Arroz Negra” or some Italian pasta dishes. Cuttlefish are cephalopods like squid but are contained in a distinct, elongated shell, fragments of which you’ve probably seen scattered around beaches all over Europe. 

Cuttlefish might be shellfish but they’re meatier and provide more ink than squid, making for a rich and flavorsome risotto. Crni rižot usually comprises cuttlefish chunks, scallions, and rice, which is colored with ink and sometimes topped with roasted cherry tomatoes and a drizzling of olive oil. The rice absorbs the strong seafood taste of the ink and it is served all along the Adriatic Coast, especially in Dalmatia. 

Crni rižot is usually eaten as a starter or first course as it is easily digestible. Far from a poor man’s dish, it’s not uncommon to find this one on fancy resort hotel menus and in harbourside bars, but it might be traditionally eaten as a fasting dish on Christmas Eve in Croatian households too. Crni rižot originally hails from Venice, where it’s known as ‘risotto nero di seppia’, but the Venetians had a heavy presence in Dalmatia from the 14th to the 17th centuries hence Croatia’s stronghold over modern variations of the dish today.

Boškarin

croatian food beef
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Directly referring to the type of white grey long-horned cattle farmed in Istria that is a symbol of the region, Boškarin is a delicacy served in top restaurants and konobas in Istria. More refined palettes will enjoy the carpaccio slices of the beef, but Boškarin is also served in a savory sauce with pasta and gnocchi, as cold cuts and steak, and also as Boškarin tail soup.

The breed of Istrian oxen had almost entirely disappeared at the turn of the century, but thanks to the Federation of Istrian Cattles Breeders, populations have been saved and are continuously on the rise. Today there are 350 cows and 8 bulls in Istria where the species is indigenous. They are still exclusively farmed for gourmet purposes thanks to their reigning legacy as a true Istrian delicacy. 

Boškarin is unique with its grey coats, white muzzles, and strong, muscular physiques. They were once farmed heavily for their milk but this is less common today due to the rarity of the species. Boškarin meat has a peculiar and distinct flavor and smell, which pairs well with robust red wines and high-quality truffles, olive oil, and even seafood. 

Fritule

Fritule
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Now, despite what you might think, it’s not all meaty stews and seafood delights in Croatia. If you have a sweet tooth, you’re in luck, because they sure know how to do desserts too in the Adriatic. Fritule are delectable dough fritters, made particularly around Christmas time, resembling little donut holes or ball-shaped Churros, but uniquely flavored with rum and citrus zest. The original recipe includes raisins, but variations are always topped with sugar. 

Fritule are relatively uncomplicated to make and have a crispy outside and soft inside thanks to the yeast dough and shot of alcohol in the recipe. Croatian rakija (grappa) instead of rum is often used as it prevents the dough from soaking up the oil in which the doughnut balls are fried, while citrus notes from lemon and orange zest add to the festive feel of the dessert. 

Some recipes call for extra alcohol for flavor such as Maraschino, rose liqueur or a clear fragrant liqueur of your choice. Fear not, these tasty pastries are still kid-friendly as the alcohol evaporates during frying. 

“Quick Fritule”, which some Croatians might tell you is “fake Fritule” use baking powder and yogurt to help the dough expand without yeast, and also apple to make them softer. Yet, the oldest and most authentic Croatian Fritule recipe uses potatoes which are mashed into the yeast dough with raisins as a substitute for flour which was hard to come by when wheat was harder to grow in Croatia. You’ll find Fritule piled high in bakeries and markets during the festive period, but they are also widely available in specialty cafés all year round.

Peka

peka tray
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Getting its name from the way it is cooked, Peka is a roast meat tray, usually made with lamb and potatoes, but sometimes with veal, chicken, and octopus too, which is stewed under a terracotta or iron lid over burning embers. The word “peka” means “bell-shaped lid” but the dish is also called “ispod čripnje” meaning “under the bell”.

Assorted veggies like aubergine, courgette, sun-dried tomatoes, peppers, and carrots can accompany the meal, according to the season, along with dousings of white or red wine depending on the meat used. The key to making this succulent meat roast is the long cooking time and the method of using hot ash to roast the treats in the tray, a prehistoric roasting method and one of the oldest culinary techniques in Croatian gastronomy that can be traced back 5,000 years. 

The tray stays under its lid for over two hours, both steaming and roasting the contents. The result is soft, moist, and aromatic food. Most people associate Peka with Dalmatia but the tradition is widespread across the country. This way of cooking is not only for meat but used by Croatians for centuries for bread, pastries, and cakes. It evolved as an adaptation from primitive baking methods into an affordable option for families who could not afford ovens. Now, Peka is served on special occasions and as a Sunday dinner. 

Fuži and Pljukanci

pesto trofie typical genoa recipe
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Fuži is a homemade quill-shaped pasta that is a staple in rural Croatia, made by cutting five by five-centimeter squares of pasta dough and wrapping each piece around a wooden spoon handle. Usually served with truffle cream or rich red meat sauces like beef, boškarin, and wild game, Fuži originates from the Italianate Istrian peninsula and so is also popular in Italy. 

Despite the name sounding closer to fusili, Fuži more resembles large and loose penne, while the Istrian Pljukanci is much more similar to Italian trofie. Pljukanci is also hand-rolled but more elongated than Fuži, often compared to green beans in shape. Pljukanci is characteristically chewy and filling, and often served with green pesto, but also truffle creams. 

Unbeknownst to many, Istria’s Motovun forests are abundant in truffles, with some of the highest concentrations of the fungi in the world. Italian Tartufo might be more famous, but the Croatian variations are thought to have a stronger aroma and are less expensive, hence their generous appearance in many signature Croatian dishes.  

Pašticada

venison stew traditional italian recipe and glass of red wine
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This slow-cooked Croatian stew is a staple for cold autumn and winter nights and is relatively easy to make, but requires long meticulous preparation. Made with chunks of venison or beef, plenty of onions, carrots, and potatoes, the unique ingredient to this goulash is coffee prunes, soaked up with dousings of red wine. 

Pašticada is typically cooked for big celebrations and is an essential dish at weddings, christenings, and birthdays. It originates in Dalmatia but forms an important part of rural diets in the northeast. The chosen meat should be marinated overnight and the goulash itself must stew for at least three hours. Pašticada is often served over polenta or with potato dumplings.

Zelena Menestra

croatian stew
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Hailing from Dubrovnik, Zelena Menestra is a green stew that can be traced back as far as 1480 in writings. The traditional dish comprises collard and curly cabbage with quartered potatoes, but it is best stewed with a good piece of dry prosciutto on the bone over an open fireplace, as called for by traditional Konavle recipes. 

Zelena Menestra pairs well with prosecco, but also with red and white wines on colder days. It’s eaten between October and April and is not considered a summer dish, best savored around Christmas. 

You won’t find Zelena Menestra on the menu at tourist restaurants, but family-owned tavernas and Croatian households will serve it up by the bucketload in winter. However, it’s not uncommon to find deconstructed versions of the Dubrovnik dish in the shape of pizzas on menus nationwide, with the typical tomato base topped with ham, greens, and even potatoes in honor of Zelena Menestra. 

Is Croatian food spicy?

Croatian food is characteristically aromatic, with plenty of pepper, salt, paprika, and the mixed vegetable seasoning that’s popular in the Balkans called Vegeta. However, other spices like chili or cayenne pepper, and hot spices in general, are not something that Croatians traditionally incorporate into their food. You’ll struggle to find really hot food wherever you go, and it definitely won’t be signature Croatian dishes bringing the heat. You will find, however, plenty of international restaurants serving up South Asian delicacies in more touristy cities of Croatia if you’re after your spice hit.  

What is a typical Croatian breakfast?

A typical Croatian breakfast consists of polenta or cornbread, spread with lard and sprinkled with paprika, always accompanied by strong, black coffee. Modern Croatians tend towards eggs too and cold cuts and pickles are also common as a breakfast treat. Pastries and jams are sold in cafes and restaurants at breakfast time, and hotels will offer full continental spreads and cooked plates. 

What do Croatians drink?

The national drink of Croatia is rajika, a strong spirit that’s likened to brandy and vodka and made from fermented fruits, nuts, and plants. It’s popular in all Slavic nations and the most common domestic alcohol in Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. Rajika is strong and Croatians don’t drink it by the pint load but rather at the start of a meal with dried figs. Herbal rakija, known as traverica, is a popular palette cleanser, but Croatia is also dotted with fruitful vineyards and Croatians will pair their meals with fine local wines.