By Andrea Pisac - 13 Comments - January 14, 2021 min read

What do Croatians eat, you wonder. Well, in this post you’ll learn a thing or two about Croatian cuisine. I won’t be listing our popular Croatian dishes. Instead, I’ll tell you about Croatian cooking traditions and our eating rituals.

You’ll soon believe me when I say: Croatia is one of the best culinary destinations.

How we choose what to eat

How do you decide which food to put in your belly? Is it because it’s in season? Is it because it tastes yummy and you’ve loved it since childhood? Maybe you’ve read that a certain dark leafy veg does miracles to your health.

Or maybe, gourmet burgers with grass-fed beef in a home baked roll have become the latest fad. So screw health concerns – your mouth is already watering.

We don’t put food only in our belly. We wear what we eat on our sleeve (no spillage pun intended) so that we can belong.

Croatian food secrets | Zagreb Honestly
Happy eating škampi na buzaru (prawn stew) and getting our fingers dirty

This is why eating is a soulful ritual. But our sense of connection doesn’t start around the table. It happens in the moment when we make a food choice.

And we choose food that is in fashion.

We watch food TV shows and scour magazines for the latest restaurant review. And because our primal human need is to feel accepted, we eat what the rest of the crowd eats.

Fashion in food is like that. It’s so suggestible it makes us crave food that we’ve never liked or never even heard of before.

So what does this food fashion expose have to do with the typical Croatian food – you ask? Where are the recipes, Andrea?

No recipes this time. Instead, I want to reveal to you the biggest secret about food in Croatia.

Croatia is the world’s trendiest culinary destination.

And here’s how this happened.

For decades, we’ve enjoyed our local, home-cooked grub completely oblivious to food fashion. When major food trends swept the globe, we kept our head in our simple plate – just savouring the taste.

Now celebrities chefs discover Croatian olive oil, our one-pot meals and laid-back three-hour lunches. And guess what? They say we have it all.

Organic, farm to table, home-cooked, slow food. Whichever foodie buzzword you think of, you’ll find it part of the Croatian cuisine. It has been there for ever, regardless of trends.

So if you have any sense of foodie self-respect, come and sample the Croatia diet. Join us in our traditional eats and ways of eating.

Croatian slow food

Slow food international movement started in 1989 in Italy. It was an outcry against the mind-and-body-destroying fast food junk. It’s no coincidence that the shift first took root in a Mediterranean country.

In this pleasant languid climate, we are famous for taking our time with everything. Our meals can last for hours, even when they are business lunches.

You’d think that indulging so long in feeding would leave us short of time for everything else. But the opposite is true. The slower we live, the more time we have – especially for slow cooking.

Most Croats cook every day and don’t think it a waste of time.

Croatian food secrets | Zagreb Honestly
We are proud of our home-baked pastry. Photo by Dražen Bota, courtesy of Croatian Tourist Board

We also convene at the table for ages. Of course we don’t chew for three hours, but eating is not only about gulping down food.

The feeding ritual also involves table-setting, lots of chatting, even doing the dishes. You get the point? We do everything pomalo. Remember this word for slow because it’s also a Croatian state of mind.

Croatian food at home

Foodie writers rave about the alleged home cooking revolution that we should all get in on. They say that cooking is not only healthy but fun. They sprinkle their talk with a few spices, as in cooking boosts creativity, even sex appeal.

This is all fine for a country which learns how to cook from Jamie Oliver.

But I doubt my mother aimed at charging her creativity when she cooked us lunch at 5 am before going to work. Making sure we ate healthy was neither sexy nor revolutionary. But she did it anyway, and she did it every day.

We often had what is considered traditional Croatian food. These are the dishes you can eat with a spoon like cušpajz – a stew with seasonal vegetables. The foodie buzzword for it is ‘back to basics’ or ‘clean cooking’. If only we knew how trendy we were while gobbling those kale or leek stews.

We still don’t realize that our simple na žlicu (eat with spoon) dishes are the latest foodie fad. Starting with souping which is the new juicing. (We have soup all the time, even when it’s boiling hot outside). And on to 2016 as the international year of pulses. (Grah, i.e. bean stew is our staple dish).

In Croatia, home cooking is a taken-for-granted luxury that we do almost every day.

Croatian farmers’ markets

Up until the 2000s, Western countries lived in a plastic vegetables delusion. No one questioned why veggies came in a package, let alone a plastic one. Then the farmers’ market craze arrived and everyone would shell out twice the price for a bit of dirt on a carrot.

Farmers’s markets mushroomed in big city’s neighbourhoods – for the locals and tourists alike. Everyone seems to be in love with them. Especially their motto: only food grown within 100 miles allowed.

But there’s something else to them. They evoke the bygone times when producers sold food without supermarket chains cutting in.

And so the ‘farm to table’ food trend was born.

It’s swank, chic and, not the least – upscale. But is it revolutionary? No.

Croatia has had farmers’ markets for ever. Even with plastic vegetables sneaking into supermarkets, people prefer shopping at the market. 

Croatian food secrets | Zagreb Honestly
Markets in Croatia are everywhere, even alongside local roads. In Lika, this is how you buy their famous cabbage and potatoes.

It’s how we scour best food and make connections with our food growers. The trick is to make a few farmers ‘your own’ and keep buying from them.

The fizz about plac or pijaca (farmers’ market) in Croatia is like inventing hot air. The only new thing about them is that tourists can’t seem to get enough of them.

Market tips and tricks

There are two types of sellers at Croatian markets: kumice (producers) and nakupci (traders).

If you want to buy real home-grown vegetables, look for these signs:

  • small heaps of a variety of vegetables
  • smaller and unequal vegetables, sometimes bruised or with worms (these are the best)
  • higher price
  • stalls closing earlier

Croatian local and seasonal food

The word locavore made a big entrance in 2005. Maybe you don’t know the word, but you must have heard about the ‘local and seasonal’ hype.

For conscious foodies, eating local and seasonal is a noble resistance against supermarkets’ supremacy. For restauranteurs and food writers, it’s a gastro novelty that keeps food fashion alive.

We don’t have to try hard with this fad. Croatian supermarkets rarely stock good mango, avocado or other exotic food. (though I’d do anything for good guacamole).

In Croatia, it takes more effort to do exotic than local and seasonal. There is only one shop with world spices in Zagreb!

I too make an amazing locavore. I currently have two thirds of my fridge filled up with cucumbers. The supply came from my neighbour, the owner of my local cafe and ‘my regular food producer’.

It’s not a fad – just a phenomenal cucumber season. I’d never buy so many cucumbers at a farmers’s market. But now they’re here, I give my thanks and think of a recipe to use them up.

Croatian artisan food

When you eat local and seasonal, you face another sweet problem – dealing with plenty on and off. In comes the foodie fad of preserving, pickling and fermenting.

Pickles in Croatia

Croatia has excelled in this trendy turn too. Doing zimnica (food for winter) has always been a mark of a good woman. The more she makes, the more variety she challenges herself with – the better wife she is.

Grandmothers are especially famous for jams, ajvars (red pepper relish) and tomato passatas. And pickled gherkins and yellow peppers are a mainstay of every pantry.

Croatian food secrets | Zagreb Honestly
Slavonian zimnica in a pantry. Photo by Mario Romulić & Dražen Stojčić, courtesy of Croatian Tourist Board

Pantry? Yes, we still have those – attached to kitchens or buried in basements. It’s not something you find in the architecture design of Western apartments block.

Croatian Fermented food

Metropolitan cities discovered fermented food through ethnic cuisines, such as the Korean kimchi. Nutritionist said it was healthy, locavors found it convenient so foodies jumped on it.

Back in Croatia, we’ve enjoyed fermented cabbage AKA sauerkraut since the dawn of time. You can buy it in any shop and eat it with a sausage or as sarma in any restaurant. And as home cooking is king here, you’ll also find people pickling their own in large barrels at home.

Small scale at its best

If you’re devoted to small scale and artisanal food, look no further than Croatia. This recently glorified food approach doesn’t get purer than here.

If you get invited to someone’s home, you’ll try the micro scale food. Or what the family made just for themselves – no artificial flavourings, no preservatives. But also no brand.

Here you can expect to try hand-rolled Croatian pasta, or home-cured Croatian meats. On the coast, line-caught Croatian fish is also a delicacy on the menu.

Those who aren’t lucky enough to eat in a Croat’s home – go to deli shops. There, you’ll find an assortment of artisanal labels by Croatian OPGs – family run farms. Visit food festivals and small markets and look for stalls with the ‘OPG + [surname]’ label.

Croatian organic food

The faster we’ve wanted to grow our food, the more we messed it up. Herbicides, GMO, fast-feeding animals and stuffing them with hormones and antibiotics. And so the more we’ve messed it all up, the more we tried to keep some of it organic.

The organic food certification began in the 1990s. By that time everything we ate was quite messed up. Ever wondered why there was no need for ‘organic’ 100 years ago?

When Croatia joined the EU, we too had to join the organic revolution. Fill out tons of papers and pay a fortune for that green stamp. All that so our farmers could get a recognition on the global market.

Standards are good but they often shoot themselves in the leg. Because here’s the deal in Croatia. Our agriculture was never that massive or that messed up like in the West.

Croatian food secrets | Zagreb Honestly
No organic stamp, just goodness. Photo by Hrvoje Serdar, courtesy of Croatian Tourist Board

Small farms are still the norm in Croatia. Even without the organic stamp, these veggies are ‘cleaner’ than the certified, plastic-wrapped ones. And get this. America discovered the free-range chicken in 1980s, while our chickens free-ranged in back yards.

We are also way behind the community gardens trend. We just grow vegetables in a garden. And it’s not only in villages – every suburban house prefers a few beds of veggies instead of a perfect lawn. How boring of us!

Personally, I am guilty of a small foodie fad. I grow tomatoes on my balcony, which makes me more a Londoner than a Zagreb local!

Croatian olive oil

Have you heard of the village Lun on the island of Pag? There you’ll find olive orchards 800 years old. We’ve been making olive oil since ancient Roman times, but no olive tree can last so long to confirm it.

The West invented olive oil some 30 years ago. Since then, we’ve been on a rather schizophrenic fat journey. It was first fat-free, good oils, god forbid dairy fat and killer pork fat. Then we turned around to glorifying butter and celebrating animal fat.

This is quite curious.

In the meantime in Croatia, we’ve greased ourselves with all kinds of fat. Once bad, now good, and vice versa. We excel in olive oil, pumpkin seed oil, pork fat, butter and generally all things full fat.

The funny thing is – we are one of world’s least fat nation.

Croatian food with ancestral flavours

As I read foodie magazines and blogs, I come across yet another trend that confirms my expose. Ancestral food flavours are now in vogue. Say hello to simple cooking techniques and forgotten ingredients and spices.

I bet you tried one or our ancient cooking technique… Croatian peka, or slow roasting under a bell.

Croatian food secrets | Zagreb Honestly
Fish stew from Baranja cooked ancestral way. Photo by Mario Romulić & Dražen Stojčić, courtesy of Croatian Tourist Board

Authentic food rules so it’s a good thing Zagreb is short on ethnic/exotic restaurants.

We now need the restauranteurs to go back to the grandma’s pantry and dig out buckwheat and sour milk. Need gluten-free or vegetarian? Grandma has cooked like that all her life. Kasha, millet, potatoes, beans, chickpeas… eggs… she’d give you meat maybe once a week. And she’d never knead you a soggy white bread.

I am exaggerating. It’s not only grandma who cooks like that. She invented the recipes and she passed them down. Mother and daughter now use them all the time, maybe with a bit more meat. But that’s optional.

Ancestral flavours are our daily dish. We don’t think twice about them. We learned the recipes at home, not on youtube. And lo and behold, we’re as trendy as it gets.

So do I hear you zipping up that bag already? I told you: you can’t miss the world’s trendiest culinary destination.

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  • Hello Andrea,

    Your article is spot on for us Croats that live through the world. In talking to my 75 year old mother – our family has lived in Westren Canada for 55 years- today, she just completed canning 30 jars of apple sauce, 8 jars of yellowed peppers and made 3 homemade apple strudels (including the handmade phyllo pastry) for the winter; just in case company drops over. Tomorrow will be canning mixed pepper salad for the winter and drying apple slices for snacking and of course homemade jam (pekmes) for winter baking.

    We Croats continue living off the land wherever we live. It is in our blood.

    Just yesterday, I made Duveda with all the tomatoes, peppers and onions she supplied me with on my last visit to the garden. 150 bulbs of garlic was braided and ready for the root cellar for daily consumption; and yes, all naturally organic. Now I am off to cooking blitva (Swiss chard) with boiled potatoes and garlic with my piece of grilled fish.

    Soup is a staple in our family. We always talk about “cooking for the spoon”in preparing many delicious goulash soups and sauerkraut stews. Kupus and grah (Sauerkraut and beans with pork hocks) is my favourite – yes, they pickle 25 kilos of cabbage every October in order to ensure the heads are ready for sarma (cabbage rolls) for Christmas.

    Slow food is the Croatian way, naturally. I am thankful I live the experience of eating off the land.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Michael, thanks for you wonderful depiction of the traditional ways of preparing Croatian food that is very much still alive. My mouth is watering at the mention of those apple strudels 🙂

  • Why mention Jamie Oliver so much? Croatian food is OK, but this article makes it sound like you’re unnecessarily insulting all other attitudes to food. Why? No need for it.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ivana. This article is not about insulting other approaches to food, but about illuminating the way food comes in and out of fashion, just like anything else we consume.

  • Hi Andrea,

    Delightful article. I have lived in Montreal, Canada for the greater part of my life. However, I spent many summers, and still do in Croatia, mostly on the island of VIS, town of Komiza. I learned so much from the elders in my family back home and have incorporated it all in my life here in Montreal with my family.
    Family breaking bread together is a weekly thing with us. It’s about the food of course, but it’s about the ritual of family sharing and making memories.
    Your article is spot on. I love your sparkling, refreshing writing style and so appreciate the articles you share with us.
    Thank you. 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Katija. I think it’s the belonging and paying so much attention to the family that makes us so special. I can’t NOT be inspired by this Croatian spirit!

  • My grandmother made the best egg drop soup but I don’t know how she did it. Is there a croatian recipe for that soup? Also I grew up on jeladia —- not sure the spelling—- and she mAde it with pigs feet. She had the best meatballs and spaghetti sauce. Great family memories.

    • Hi Linda, egg drop soup is probably roux soup, or what we call ajnpren juha or zafrigana juha. It’s a soup made just like you would any roux and then you drip whisked egg into it. It is lovely.

  • Thank you for a lovely introduction to Croatian cuisine. I loved all the info about farmers markets, olive oil and fermented products, However I have to take you up on one point and it is the fact that Croatia tops the obesity poll in Europe (2023) for both men and women. Can you enlighten us as to why this is?

    • I am aware of this fact. Unfortunately, many of the traditional ways of eating have been lost while at the same time junk food is gaining popularity with children. Ever since Croatia joined the EU, fewer people can produce their own vegetables on the small scale (too many regulations!) and store-bought vegetables are of poorer quality. Not to mention that meat (often imported too) is cheaper than fresh fruit and vegetables, so lots of people find it cheaper to eat just meat and potatoes (or other types of carbs).

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