Croatia is a country that will astonish and surprise you throughout your journey, with its stunning stretches of coastline, unique cities, fascinating culture and beautiful landscapes of verdant green. But few things are likely to be as pleasantly surprising as the cuisine here, which is hardly raved about on the world stage, but actually deserves a great deal more recognition.
Here at Seafarer, we're going about correcting this in our own way – with a mouthwatering guide that will not only get you hungry but also give you some education as to what dishes you should try.
But before we dive straight into that, there are some aspects of Croatian culinary culture that you ought to get to grips with first.
Influence and ingredients
Many Croatian dishes owe their incredible flavour to the careful manner in which the chef selects the ingredients. Great care goes into this process, and a lot of effort is spent procuring the freshest meat and vegetables. And once everything is present and correct, there is the preparation, which might be considered an Olympic sport for some dishes. Some dishes are required to undergo a process that takes 24 hours to complete before they make it anywhere near your plate.
Influence-wise, the Croatian cuisine scene has – pardon the pun – been a melting pot for various styles from all of its neighbours. You'll spy elements of Bulgarian cookery, such as thick glutinous goulash and beautiful desserts, as well as perfectly prepared pasta and risotto courtesy of nearby Italy. Croatian cuisine has emerged as something altogether different from all of these, however, and it isn't wise to assume you know what's going to be put on your plate before it actually arrives.
So what are you dying to try? Which of the below makes your taste buds dance in anticipation? No matter your likes and dislikes when it comes to food, you won't be disappointed.
This is a relish that is made from aubergine, red pepper and chillies. As you would expect from that list of ingredients, it's a dish that contains a bit of heat, and the spiciness can vary considerably from region to region, and even from restaurant to restaurant. There is a certain joy in wandering from one venue to the next, trying to work out which one makes the best ajvar. Depending on the preparation technique, the dish might even have a touch of sweetness about it. This dish is great as a starter with some bread for dipping.
Picture a cornish pasty, but remove the heavy shortcrust and replace it with a flakey thin pastry. The end result is burek, a dish that is immensely popular not just in Croatia but right across the Balkans. Inside, you may find a variety of minced and grilled meats with peppers and caramelised onion, although bureks that contain just cheese are popular as well. While it might be tempting to find the one with the largest number of ingredients, don't. Croatian cuisine really is at its best when the dishes are simple. While they come in many shapes and sizes, it's worth watching out for the Sigara böreği or 'cigarette burek', which is rolled up like a cigarette.They often contain a variety of vegetables such as spinach, nettle, leek, and courgette.
The mother of all Olympic-standard dishes, pašticada is something you simply have to try during your time in Croatia. Beef is the main ingredient and the preparation process is epic. Firstly, the meat is marinated in a sauce consisting of red wine and garlic for around 24 hours before various herbs and spices are added. The actual cooking – which takes another few hours – then takes place, during which time carrots, onions, cloves and nutmeg are added. Mouth watering yet? Excellent. Finally, the sauce is further enriched with dry plums which cause it to thicken further before it is triumphantly spooned onto your plate. That's good eating.
Wandering the streets of Dubrovnik and Split, you might feel a pang of hunger. Dinner isn't far away, but you're not sure you can wait that long. No problem – seek out an eatery serving Pršut, a dry-cured ham that is especially renowned throughout Croatia. Traditionally, it's cut into long thin slices and served alongside Paški sir, a cheese made on Pag Island that is made entirely from milk produced by free-roaming sheep. Both the ham and the cheese slices – which are usually served on little cocktail sticks – combine to give a wonderfully strong flavour.
It is more of a cookery technique than an actual dish, but if someone cooks you something ispod-style in Croatia, you're in for a treat. Meat – usually lamb or, in the coastal areas, octopus, is placed into a dome-shaped pot called a peka. Various vegetables, herbs and spices are added, before the whole lot is left to cook in its own juices. None of this stirring business or lifting of the lid before it's done. The result is a wonderful tender dish that will send your taste buds into a frenzy. If possible, try to be around when the chef lifts the lid off of the peka. The rhapsody of smells that emerges is always incredible.
Croatia's fondness for Italian dishes coupled with the nation's chefs' playfulness and inventiveness is evident in crni rižot, or black risotto. This seafood dominated dish contains a variety of ingredients including the essential rice, but also a whole octopus that crucially does not have the ink removed from its pouch. As the dish cooks, this dissolves, giving the dish its characteristic dark hue and a taste that is quite distinct from anything else you'll find in the Mediterranean.