Located in the heart of Europe, Croatia has a unique and eclectic cuisine, shaped by the country’s tumultuous history of occupation and diverse cultural influences.
Even though Croatia is a relatively small country, its regional diversity and eclectic culture have resulted in a rich national cuisine. The Adriatic coast absorbed the Mediterranean flavours – recipes inspired by Greek and Italian cooking, reflected in the use of fish, herbs and pasta. Inland, however, meat takes centre stage.
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There’s nowhere better to experience the versatile flavours of Croatia than its capital, Zagreb. Ana Marija Žužul, editor of Croatia: The Cookbook (2018), and actor and foodie Petar Cvirn shared their top picks for must-try dishes and the best places to find them in Zagreb.
Thinly rolled pastry filled with cheese and covered with sour cream, štrukli is the ultimate Croatian comfort food. Whether it is boiled or baked, this signature northern dish is a perfect choice for cold, winter days. Stari Fijaker, a restaurant in the heart of Zagreb, is Petar’s top choice for sampling štrukli, not least because it evokes memories of old fairytales. “With wooden furniture and tablecloths still found in Croatian homes, one feels like an estranged cousin welcomed to the family table during a feast,” says Petar, adding that this restaurant is a place he often takes his acting colleagues to while visiting Zagreb.
Meat lovers rejoice – nothing else melts in your mouth quite like this dish. The intriguing bell jar cooking technique sees the meat baked under a clay bell, which allows all of the juices to flow together and interact. “A bit of a warning: if you wish to try the delicacies at Tač restaurant, make sure you book it in advance. This is a favourite place for locals, and weekends are fully booked,” says Ana Marija. During the week, however, you don’t have to worry.
Those who prefer the taste of the sea can also experience the delights of the bell jar cooking technique. According to Petar, you will be able “to take in the Adriatic” at Korčula. “Octopus under the bell with potatoes is rich with flavours of the Mediterranean, and the best one is definitely in the centre of Zagreb, at Korčula restaurant,” he says. In addition to the painstaking cooking techniques and first-rate ingredients, Petar recommends Korčula for its atmosphere, which somehow captures the spirit of Dalmatia in the heart of urban Zagreb.
Many have tried and failed to translate buzara. This Croatian recipe sees seafood (most commonly shrimp) cooked in a mixture of olive oil, wine, garlic, fresh herbs (normally parsley) and occasionally breadcrumbs. The most important thing to know is that this traditional Adriatic meal is not to be eaten with any airs or graces: eat it with your fingers and forget your table manners. “The best way to eat it is to suck the shell of a prawn and dip the home-made bread in the saltwater stew,” says Ana Marija. She suggests trying it at Marenda. “It’s a secluded family business, always crowded, yet no tourists,” she says of the restaurant, whose name in Croatian describes a lunch break.
If you want to enjoy the taste of the Adriatic but don’t want to get your fingers dirty, you can always enjoy a light but nutritious fish soup. “There is something that feels like home at Konoba Ponistra. Not only the meal but the family atmosphere there,” says Ana Marija, describing the experience at the secluded Dalmatian-inspired eatery. “Along with the soup, I would usually order home-made bread called pogača (a traditional bread similar to focaccia).” This combination goes best with a local wine. To try a twist on the classic meal, go for the exquisite anchovy soup.
Influenced by neighbouring Italy, Istrians have, over the centuries, developed their own distinctive takes on classic Italian pasta. Fuži, thin home-made pasta, is usually served with game or truffles. To take a culinary voyage to Istria in Zagreb, head to Trattoria Canzona. “Art lovers have no problem locating Trattoria Canzona, which is in proximity to the legendary Meštrović Pavilion (also known as the Home of Croatian Artists),” says Petar. “Sitting in an indoor replica of an Italian square, the guests can taste home-made pasta and a little bit of Istria, all in one dish”.
Tajer transports diners farther north, offering a diverse choice of dishes from the wine-rich northern region of Croatia. This food might seem heavy, but “Croatians are experts in making sausages and serving the heavy meals in the healthiest way,” says Petar, joking. Yet, filled with vitamins, sauerkraut complements this meaty meal with freshness and tang. The modern surroundings of Tajer, owned by Dražen Ladić, the renowned Croatian football goalkeeper, make it the perfect place to sample traditional food with a contemporary twist.
Although it is a German derivative, this dessert is quintessentially Croatian – any cook worth their salt here will set their sights on making this dessert flawlessly. These puffy, cloud-like meringues reminiscent of the French classic îles flottantes are hard to get right. And although you might want to taste the most traditional ones, Ana Marija recommends trying them at Noel, which is known for adding contemporary flair to traditional dishes. The chef here, Goran Kočiš, adds a unique twist to the recipe inspired by his eastern Croatian heritage.
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