Croatia’s Regional Cuisines
by Goran Zgrablić, owner of Eat Istria
Croatia is geographically positioned on the crossroads of four cultural areas that formed modern Europe: Latin, German, Slavic and Turkish. Therefore, it is not surprising that it has a long-standing gastronomic tradition, with wide-ranging influences from the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire, to the more recent Austro-Hungarian monarchy. As you move from one region to another, from the continental interior to the Adriatic coast, the magnitude of these various influences changes.
The final result is that there is no such thing as Croatian cuisine, but only cuisines of our country’s various regions, all of which are as different as German cuisine is to Italian. Here is a quick overview of the most important gastronomic icons and traditional dishes, in other words “must-tries” characteristic for five main Croatian regions: Istria, Kvarner, Dalmatia, Zagreb and Slavonia.
EDITOR’S NOTE: See Goran’s FOODVENTORY for more explanation and additional photos of Croation culinary terms in this article.
Istria is the perfect combination of the rural and urban, of the tourist-infested coast and quiet, romantic inland — and its cuisine reflects this duality. From the sea, we have excellent fish and shellfish, and the forests and hill regions provide meat, mushrooms, artisan cheeses, and fruit. The trademarks of Istrian cuisine are various kinds of indigenous pasta fuži, pljukanci, Labinski krafi, wild asparagus, truffles, pršut (the famous dry-cured ham), some of the best olive oils in the world, Lim oysters, and local wine varieties like the white Malvazija and red Teran, but also great brandies like biska or medica.
Kvarner is the pioneer of organized tourism in Croatia, but also the region with some of the best Croatian restaurants stretched along a rather small area. Apart from the excellent seafood, especially the famous Kvarner Bay shrimps, there are plenty of local specialities and culinary icons, like Lovran chestnuts and cherries, Pag cheese, Rabska Torta, island lamb, and Žlahtina wine.
Dalmatian food is fascinating in its simplicity and the purity of flavours. It is direct, strong, genuine and rudimentary, just like the people. Naturally, the highlight is the seafood prepared in countless ways (but nothing beats the simple gradele-style grill), but there are also fantastic things like meat prepared under a peka baking bell, local cheese and dry-cured ham, eels and frogs from the hinterland, olive oil from Oblica, herbal brandies, prošek sweet wine, Mediterranean desserts based on figs, almonds, carob, lemon and oranges.
Zagreb’s cuisine consists primarily of meat, pastry, vegetables and dairy products — all from the rural areas surrounding the capital city. Some well known typical dishes are štrukli (a light puffy strudel), baked turkey with mlinci (pasta borken in tatters), sir i vrhnje (cottage cheese mixed with sour cream), kotlovina (slow-cooked stew), various sausages, kremšnita (fluffy custard cream pie), strudels etc. Cakes and coffee are an important part of Zagreb’s lifestyle!
Slavonia is known as the place where the food is most plentiful, rich, tasteful and, just plain hard core — in a good way! The influence of neighbouring Hungary was strong, so paprika is the number one spice here. Slavonia is the most important part of Croatia when it comes to agriculture and cattle raising. Meat products are the centre of its cuisine and tradition. Kulen (a spicy sausage and the Pride and joy of Slavonian cuisine, since it is the first Croatian food food with a protected designation of origin), kulenova seka (dry-cured sausage), čvarci (similar to pork cracklings, but better), paprikaš …the list goes on and on. But, importantly, no part of the animal is wasted. There are also excellent dishes with freshwater fish such as carp, pike and catfish. Traditional desserts are a highlight as well.
Here are a few regional recipes from Croatia:
KRPICE SA ZELJEM (Pasta with Cabbage)
Total cooking time: 1 hour. Serves 5 persons
Pasta is made in many areas in Croatia, where it has an important role in everyday cuisine. For example, the recipe below is a typical pasta dish of Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and its surroundings. It is usually served as a side dish with grilled pork ribs, meatballs or Wiener Schnitzel.
500 grams (2 cups) finely-ground flour
1 tsp. salt
1000 grams (2.25 lbs.) cabbage
500 grams (1 lb.) sliced onions
50 grams (1/4 cup) sugar
150 ml (3/4 cup) canola oil
salt & pepper to taste
Mix flour, eggs, salt and a bit of water to prepare the pasta dough, making certain it’s not too soft or too wet. Use a pasta machine to make pasta sheets of 1.5-2 mm thickness. Cut out rhomboidal-shaped pasta (krpice) whose length is around 2 cm.
Slice the cabbage and mix it with a tablespoon of salt. Carefully caramelize the sugar in a heavy bottomed pan. Add a bit of water, oil, onions and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Squeeze the cabbage to remove the water and add it to the pan. Simmer until the cabbage is tender. This process may take 20-30 minutes.
Cook the krpice in salted water until they are al dente, drain and mix with the cabbage. Season with salt and pepper.
PLJUKANCI & ISTRIAN ŽGVACET
(Istrian Pasta and Goulash)
Pljukanci is the traditional pasta of the Istrian peninsula. It is a very basic and economical dish that is usually flavored with freshly-sliced Istrian sausages that are fried in olive oil and then simmered with Istrian Malvasia, the symbol of Istrian winemaking. You can try this recipe at home with some Italian-style sausage. Here we give you a recipe for Žgvacet, a traditional Istrian meat stew (goulash) that is a perfect companion for our beloved pljukanci — maybe the simplest pasta to make in the whole world.
500 grams (2 cups) finely-ground flour
water & salt
1 free range chicken (a rooster is even better!)
3 garlic cloves
400 grams (14 oz.) canned crushed tomatoes
150 ml white wine
4 tbsp. flour
1 tsp. marjoran leaves
1 tsp. basil leaves
50 ml extra virgin olive oil
salt & pepper
Bring the water to boiling point. Put the flour in a bowl, add salt and slowly add hot water. Be careful not to add too much water, since the dough must have a firm consistency. Mix the dough with a wooden spoon and then, later knead it with your hands. Tear a small piece of the dough (size of a peanut) and roll it between the palms until you get one-inch-long pastas that look like small worms. Arrange the Pljukanci in a floured baking tray and leave them to dry for at least an hour.
Cut the chicken in chunks and flour the pieces thoroughly. In a pan, heat the olive oil. Add the floured meat chunks and fry them on low heat until they get slightly yellow or brown. Only then add onions and salt. Simmer for 5 minutes, until the onions get soft. Add tomatoes and pepper, cook for another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take care that the Žgvacet does not remain dry! Finally, add enough water to cover all the meat, along with the marjoran and 1 tbsp. flour diluted in wine. Leave the mixture to simmer on low heat for at least an 1.5 – 2 hours or until the meat is tender and the sauce thick and rich. Finally, add basil.
Cook the Pljukanci for only 3-5 minutes in plenty of salted water. Drain the pasta and mix with Žgvacet.
Goran Zgrablić: Apart from having a PhD in laser physics, Goran Zgrablić is also a gourmet vagabond and passionate wine lover with a degree from the Italian Sommelier Association. He offers cooking classes and wine tours through his organization Eat Istria. Programs are offered in English, French and Italian – languages Goran speaks fluently.
Currently, Goran splits his life between Trieste, Italy and his hometown Pula in Istria, Croatia. He is the author of the Istrian food and wine blog Manjada and is a founder of Taste of Croatia, the independent gourmet guide to Croatia – where he mostly writes about Croatian wines and wine regions. He also writes restaurant reviews for a major Croatian newspaper and has been compiling the Vinologue Istria – an enotourism guidebook.