Croatian Christmas food is simple, hearty and delicious. In fact, it’s no different from the food we eat throughout the year.
All the elements are there. Something to eat with a spoon (na žlicu), something nourishing to warm you up and something comforting to fill you with love.
What makes our Christmas menu different is the ritual. There is the sparing Advent leading up to the feast. Then there is the fasting Christmas Eve food. And finally, we enter a week of rich celebratory food which begins with Christmas and ends on the New Year’s Day.
Let’s review what to eat and when.
Croatian Christmas Eve food
Once we light the first Advent candle, Croatians begin the for weeks of eating light and mostly meat-less food. At least this is what the generation of our grandparents did.
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Advent is the time of giving away the riches and giving off of oneself. This charitable character of Advent also includes eating less before Christmas feast begins.
Since the weather is cold, the dishes include hearty stews, but with little meat. We often say we add just enough meat to give the pot a deeper flavour and smell (samo da zamiriši). Think thick beans soup, jota (sauerkraut and beans stew) or beans and barley stew.
This simple Advent menu culminates with the fast on Christmas Eve.
A typical Croatian Christmas Eve dinner includes fish. On the coast, we have our praised bakalar (salted cod stew) usually prepared with potatoes (bakalar na ribarski/fishermen style).
Cod is not our native fish. It was imported from north seas by Croatian fishermen. The cod we eat here is always dried and salted. This pungent fish is so strong that even a sliver will pepper a pot for a large family.
In inland Croatia, most families will have a dish with freshwater fish. Carp and catfish are the staple ingredients. And one of the most popular dishes is a spicy stew called fish paprikash.
Croatian Christmas dinner
Eager to begin our Christmas feast, some families break the fast after midnight on Christmas Eve. Once they come back from midnight mass, they will lay out the table.
This is when we show off our best Christmas recipes. Plus, this is the time to enjoy succulent meat roast and side dishes tossed in fragrant fat.
In Croatia, the central meal on Christmas Day is lunch, not dinner. It is a tradition to eat some kind of a bird - a roast turkey, duck or goose. One of the best known meals is a roast turkey with our authentic flat pasta called mlinci.
Mlinci are flavoured with roast drippings and very hard to resist. The homemade kind is the best - check out my recipe here.
There is a reason why we celebrate Christmas with a bird. And why, as the feast continues, we enter a new year with a roast piglet.
A bird walks around the yard and flicks dust behind itself. On the the other hand, a pig uses its snout to root through the dirt always facing forward. The metaphor behind this? Leave the old year behind and look forward to whatever awaits in the new year.
Other Christmas foods
For us, the holiday food galore lasts from Christmas to New Year’s day. And sometimes even to Epiphany (6 January). In this time, we’ll savour some of our best meals.
Sarma, for example, is made in the biggest pot in the house. We adore sauerkraut and will eat it almost every day, in various combinations. As stuffed sauerkraut rolls (sarma), as braised sauerkraut with a smoked ham hock (pork knuckle)... or even just plain, raw as a salad.
On New Year’s Eve and Day, we’ll serve a roast piglet. Again, we’ll make enough to last us a few days. This means our pork roast is usually eaten cold, with French salad on the side. Beware of this ‘salad’. Although made with just vegetables (potato, carrot, peas and gherkins), it has a ton of mayonnaise. Not that this stops us from indulging in it.
Croatian Christmas desserts
When it comes to Christmas sweets, we favour a variety over one particular Christmas cake.
Most Croatian families bake more than they can eat. Women start baking tiny, intricate biscuits about a week before Christmas. We are talking about 10 or even more types of cookies, biscuits and other petite fours.
When the feast begins, we exchange trays of sweets with friends and neighbours. It’s a great way to taste something new each year.
Still, there are some Christmas desserts that have stayed with us for decades. One is the walnut and poppy seed roll, a.k.a. potica or povitica. This is a perfect winter dessert - yeast dough, enriched with butter and nuts, and spiced with lemon or orange zest. Everything you need to get through the cold.
Children's favourites are angel wings - in Croatian krostule, hrštule or hrustule. These crispy bites are fried and then dusted with powder sugar. A shot of rakija is added to the dough, but alcohol evaporated in the cooking.
The other two favourites are vanilla crescents (vanilin kiflice) and peach cookies (breskvice). Both take skill and dedication to make. They are tiny and evenly shaped, and look and taste fabulous.
Kiflice are dusted with powder sugar so they look as white as snow. They might look plain, but these are the best-tasting biscuits that we remember from our childhood.
Breskvice brighten up the monochromatic winter tones with their ruddy colour. They are a challenge that most Croatian chefs are happy to tackle. Because they are so pretty, these cookies are often given away as gifts.
Croatian Christmas drinks
Finally, no feast is complete without a great drink. All throughout December, we enjoy plenty of mulled wine. You can get it from street vendors, in bars or make it at home.
The great thing about homemade mulled wine is that you get to choose your favourite wine variety. And if you are wondering which wine is best for mulled wine... well, the answer is: the wine that you love to drink.
What is on your Christmas menu?