According to many, peka is a Croatian national dish. This is one of the oldest roasting techniques that connects us with prehistory.
But, what is peka?
The word peka comes from peći, which means to roast or bake. When we say peka in Croatia, we mean two things. A roast meal of either meat or seafood with potatoes and assorted veggies. Peka also refers to a bell-shaped lid (usually steel or cast iron) that sits on top of a tray with food.
Roasting peka style uses embers and hot ashes from above, and the heat from the hearth from below.
Croatian peka produces incredibly, soft, moist and aromatic food. This is because the ingredients stay under the lid for about 2-2.5 hours. And during this time, they both steam and roast.
Many people connect peka with Dalmatian food. But the tradition of roasting under the bell is widespread across Croatia. We have different local words for the peka technique, such as čripnja, sač, pokrivač, pokljuka.
All of them speak of our primal fascination with open fire and the magnetic force of the hearth. A central space in the house where food was always sizzling, keeping the family warm and fed.
In the past, the peka was fired up daily for baking bread. Roasting meat was reserved for extremely rare occasions and annual feasts. Nowadays, enjoying a succulent lamb or veal roast comes as a given, but let’s keep in mind the modest beginnings of any kind of food made peka style.
What makes peka special
We have covered the meaning of peka. And if you ever tried veal or lamb peka, you know how tender and aromatic the dish tastes.
But what really makes peka special is the ritual of cooking. Peka is always made for a large number of people. It marks a special occasions, when family and friends come together to feast.
Remember, even if you eat peka in a restaurant, you will have to order in advance. Peka takes time, so don’t count on having it on the a la carte menu.
Peka requires a traditional open-flame hearth. Grilling, for example, can be done quickly with only an armful of woods. But, peka needs a strong, long-lasting fire and a burning hot firebox.
The ideal hearth for peka is made from chamotte, also known as fireclay. This material soaks up the heat and slowly releases it underneath the tray.
To ensure constant heat from below and above, peka masters keep making fresh fire. You will see glowing embers on top of the lid. But a proper peka hearth is large enough to have more wood burning in the corner.
Speaking of wood, the best choice is beech or hornbeam. They burn slow and produce the strongest heat.
Traditional peka recipe
So what do we usually cook under the peka dome? The most common choice is veal or lamb. It can often be a whole chicken, and in terms of seafood, nothing beats octopus peka.
But meat or seafood is never roasted alone. Peka recipe is nothing without potatoes. I know many vegetarians who will gladly devour potatoes peka style, even when they roast in the same tray with meat.
We also add other vegetables, such as carrots, peppers, onions and garlic. Mix in twigs of rosemary or thyme, and deep, full-bodied aromas are guaranteed.
Half-way through, a splash of white wine goes in to seal the deal. Now, imagine all these flavours singing together in the peka oven. This is why potatoes peka style are never just bulk.
In fact, when it’s time for peka, it’s also time to splurge with calories. There will be so much delicious gravy in that tray that bread will jump right in on its own.
To be a real Croatian with you peka, do mop up that gravy with bread.
Here are some more traditional Croatian recipes from my recipe library.
Before you cook and eat your peka
To create the authentic Croatian peka, consider two things.
First, it takes a huge amount of practice to master peka roasting. My recipe is as detailed as it can be, but peka requires you to use your intuition. And the only way to hone this skill is to make it time and time again.
Here’s why. Veal or lamb peka takes about 2.5 hours. But during this time, you will have to take the embers off and check underneath the lid. You need to turn both the meat and the potatoes once. And sometimes, you might have to open the lid twice.
You can't measure the temperature of the embers. And you don’t see what’s happening inside. So, develop your intuition and don’t forget to peep inside.
Second, connect with the history and tradition of peka dishes. I know veal peka is the most popular Croatian dish. But, this is not food for every day.
Reserve it for feasts and important rites of passage. Think the Assumption of Mary, a christening or confirmation, a wedding. Whenever you eat peka, pay utmost respect for the ingredients.
After all, peka is never about food alone. Use the ritual of eating peka to celebrate and to give thanks to life. Most of all, get together with your loved ones and enjoy the feast.
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- 2 kg veal (shoulder/flank) or lamb (shoulder/ribs/leg) (4.4 lbs)
- 1 tbsp salt
- 100 ml vegetable oil/2 tbsp lard (1/2 cup )
- 1 kg potatoes (2.2 lbs, quartered)
- 2 carrots (roughly chopped)
- 1 large onion (quartered)
- 1 bell pepper (quartered)
- 3 cloves of garlic (halved)
- 1 tsp pepper
- 2-3 twigs thyme
- 100 ml water (1/2 cup )
- 100 ml dry white wine (1/2 cup )
- Make the fire 1 hour before assembling the peka. Use beech or hornbeam wood because they produce the longest lasting embers. Make sure that the firebox (usually made of chamotte/fireclay in the case of peka) is very hot. Once the fire turns to embers, clear some space in the middle for the pan.
- Rub salt into the meat. Grease the pan with lard/oil and place the meat in the middle.
- Prep the vegetables and arrange them around the meat. Season with pepper and thyme (or any other Mediterranean herb, such as rosemary or sage). Pour the water in, too.
- Place the pan on the hot firebox and cover with the peka lid. Put one third of the embers on the lid and roast for 30 minutes.
- Put the remaining embers on top and around the peka lid and roast for another 30 minutes.
- Open the lid, pour the wine in and turn the meat around. Do the same with the vegetables if you see signs of charring. Put the lid and the embers back on. Roast for another hour.
- Open the lid and check if the meat is tender. The meat needs to be fall-off-the-bone soft, and the liquid needs to be well reduced. Both the meat and vegetables should have a golden colour. You might need 30 more minutes to achieve that.
- Peka takes at least 2-2.5 hours, and you might need to open the lid twice to achieve the desired result.