Traditional Croatian cuisine reflects widely diverse cultural and geographic influences. Some are a result of Croatia’s proximity to the sea and fertile farmland, and some are the result of foreign occupiers who imported their tastes and recipes. Croatians are very proud of their gastronomic traditions, and while there are regional differences, you’ll find that freshness, grilling, and daily baking are consistent across the country.
Until recently, there was little menu variety within the region. By summer 2009, it had become clear that a new breed of chefs had infiltrated Croatia’s dining scene with food-forward trends and preparations. In cities large and small, menus offering dishes made with local produce, meats, and fish were being prepared using sophisticated methods like sous vide, infusion, and vertical presentations. In cities like Dubrovnik and Zagreb, there has been an explosion of ethnic restaurants offering Croatians the opportunity to sample global cuisines including Thai, Mexican, Japanese, and even Southern American. The new culinary outlook has given new life to Croatia’s dining scene, which is now innovative and exciting. In Istria, the development of the country’s first quality rating system for wine and olive oil production has opened the way for new export possibilities.
These are long overdue accomplishments, and they’re making a significant contribution to the development of a new Croatian culinary tradition.
Meals & Dining Customs
Croatia’s old dining tradition is still strong, but it is changing as citizens shift their work hours, eating habits, and culinary awareness.
Breakfast & Gablec -- Western-style breakfast (doručak: eggs, pastries, meats, cereals) is served at larger hotels and restaurants throughout Croatia. In smaller towns and in homes, a glass of rakija (fruit brandy), a cup of coffee, and bread or a roll hot from the local bakery comprise the usual early-morning meal.
Around 10am Croatians who farm or start work early often stop for gablec (marenda on the coast), literally “breakfast eaten with cutlery.” This meal is a smaller version of lunch, Croatia’s main meal, but it sometimes substitutes.
Gablec was common in the former Yugoslavia because back then people started work and school around 6 or 7am, which didn’t allow time for breakfast. They were hungry around midmorning and a meal of homestyle food and sarma (stuffed sour cabbage) or gulaš (goulash) werecustomarily offered in factories, schools, and local restaurants.
Lunch -- Lunch (ručak) generally is Croatia’s main meal. It often begins with a bowl of soup followed by an entree of roasted meat, vegetable or salad, potatoes or noodles, and dessert. Croatians eat lunch anywhere from noon to late afternoon, and if they eat dinner at all, it usually is a light meal.
Dinner -- Dinner (večera) for Croatians often consists of a very thin-crusted pizza or a shared plate of snacks, such as čevapi (spicy grilled sausage), pršut (smoked ham) and cheese, or grilled sardines, usually served well after 8pm. If they aren’t eating at home, Croatians most frequently dine at restorans or konobas, both of which serve a wide range of dishes but differ in levels of formality, with restorans being the fancier of the two.
Coffee & Ice Cream -- Drinking coffee is a social event in Croatia. People sipping espresso are a common sight on almost every street in every town at every time of day. Sometimes Croatian coffee shops are cafes attached to restaurants or pastry shops, and sometimes they are freestanding shops that serve only drinks (alcoholic or nonalcoholic). Ice cream shops—almost as ubiquitous as coffee shops—serve coffee and mostly nonalcoholic beverages, plus a huge array of frozen concoctions ranging from basic cones to multilayered sundaes, as well as a selection of cakes and pastries.
Tipping -- Tipping in Croatia is becoming more commonplace, especially in upscale restaurants. In the past, tipping was welcome but not expected. Today, an extra 10 or 15 percent is the norm in upscale establishments and big cities. Tipping is rare and not expected in informal restaurants and in smaller towns, but most people leave any coins they receive in change for the waiter. Croatian waiters do not depend on tips for living wages.
Couvert -- Adding a couvert to the bill is a relatively new practice in Croatian restaurants and it is not uniformly imposed. The couvert is a “cover charge” that is a prima facie charge for bread, which is brought to the table automatically in most places. Menus usually list the couvert and its cost, which can range from 5kn to 20kn or more.
Dining is a national sport in Croatia. Generally, food is surprisingly good in all regions of the country. Beyond the ever-present offerings of pizza and grilled meat and fish from north to south, each part of the country prides itself on specific traditional dishes.
Continental Croatia (Zagreb, Bilogora, Zagorje, Podravina, MeĐimurje) -- Food traditions in this region have roots in seasonal climate, fertile farmland, and the rural lifestyle of the common people, plus the lavish gastronomy of the nobility (Austro-Hungarian) who lived in castles dotting the terrain.
Consequently, cuisine in this part of Croatia is more substantial than in other regions. For example, the need to store meat safely inspired lodrica ili tiblica (big wooden bowl), baked meats kept in bowls full of lard in cool places for later use. Smoking and drying, also methods used to preserve meats, extended to cheese (prgica), still a popular item in regional markets. Žganci, a kind of grits topped with cheese, sour cream, yogurt, or bacon, is a common breakfast dish. Turkey or duck with mlinci(baked noodles), sarma (ground meat in cabbage leaves), and krvavice (blood sausage with sauerkraut) are popular mains.
Favorite desserts in this region are štrukle (phyllo filled with fresh cheese, apples, cherries, or other fruit) and palačinke (crepes filled with honey and walnuts or jam). Knedle sa šljivama (potato dumplings stuffed with plums) are on almost every restaurant menu. In Međimurje, prekmurska gibanica (yeast cake layered with fresh cheese, apples, walnuts, poppy seeds, and raisins) is a must-try sweet after dinner.
Gorski Kotar & Lika -- The area southwest of central Croatia (including Plitvice Lakes National Park) is a combination of forests, hills, and pastures where winters are long and summers short. The food is similar to that of continental Croatia, with a few notable additions. You’ll see a lot of roadside stalls selling homemade cheeses and fruit brandies as well as spit-roasted lamb and pork. Look for janjetina (lamb) or janjetina baked under a peka (a metal, bell-shaped lid). Lika-style sauerkraut is another specialty that consists of marinated cabbage and smoked sausage served with potatoes boiled in their skins. Pijane pastrve(drunken trout) is fish cooked in wine sauce and served with potatoes and veggies, while lički lonac (Licki pot) is a stew of cabbage, potatoes, root vegetables, and meat.
Slavonia & Baranja -- Cuisine in the eastern part of continental Croatia has a Hungarian influence: The food is quite heavy and seasoned with a lot of paprika. Specialties include čobanac (meat goulash seasoned with hot paprika, garlic, and bay leaves), ribli paprikaš (paprika-based stew with a variety of fish), punjene paprike (paprika peppers stuffed with minced pork, rice, and bacon), and freshwater fish grilled on a spit over an open fire.Kulen (spicy paprika sausage), and rezanci(broad egg noodles topped with sweetened walnuts or poppy seeds) are other regional delights. And the red stuff served with meat is called ajvar, a kind of red-pepper tapenade that can be mild or hot. The most popular wine in Slavonia is the white Graševina.
Kvarner & Istria -- These two regions offer the most diverse cuisine in Croatia, perhaps because they combine both inland and coastal tastes. Here stews prepared using a peka (domed metal lid) are slow-cooked under hot ash. In the Kvarner, try Creska janjetina (lamb from the island of Cres) and škampi (shrimp cooked under the peka); or try game stews infused with bay leaves that come from the mountainous part of Cres island.
In Lovran and along Kvarner Bay, maruni (chestnuts) are used in almost everything, including kroštule (fried strips of dough made with flour, eggs, lemon zest, and grape brandy). On Pag, try Paški sir (Pag cheese), lamb, and pršut (Dalmatian ham), all infused with a distinct Pag flavor because of the animals’ diet of local herbs.
Istria has the most refined cuisine in Croatia, and it is also the source of some of the country’s best wines. Try riblja juha (fish soup), riblji složenac (fish stew), kuhane kozice (boiled prawns), crni rižoto sa plodovima mora (black and white seafood risotto), and any dish with tartufe (truffles), including Istarski fuži sa tartufima (Istrian fuzi with truffles). A special Istarski fuži sa gulasom od divljači(fuzi with game goulash) is worth trying. Wines from this region are Malvazija and Vrbnička žlahtina (whites); and Teran(red).
Dalmatia -- Freshness and simplicity are the watchwords that most aptly characterize Dalmatian cuisine. Main meals typically start with pršut and Paški sir, both often scattered with olives that have different flavors, depending on the Dalmatian village that grows and processes them. Oysters (kamenice) from Ston on the Pelješac Peninsula are also prized, as is anything from the sea. Ribana žaru (fish grilled with olive oil) and served with blitva (boiled Swiss chard and potatoes) is a common main course, as is školjke i škampi na buzaru (shellfish and shrimp stew). There are as many recipes and spellings for buzara as there are restaurants, but common ingredients in this sauce are olive oil, garlic, parsley and wine. Pašticada (beef stewed in red wine with prunes) is another good choice.
Wines to seek out in this region include Bogdanuša, Pošip, Grk and Vugava (whites); and Plavac and Babić (reds).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.