Whether doing a ‘self guided’ or ‘guided’ motorbike tour in Croatia, local gastronomy is an important part of the whole experience. Choosing what restaurant to go to, what are traditional dishes or should you order seafood vs meat dish in a particular part of Croatia, may really be a big task. To sort it out, we’ll try to explain the basics of Croatian gastronomy that very much depends of the area.
First thought on food in Croatia: Meat or seafood?
If you think that Croatia’s cuisine fits into Central European, you’re just half right. Due to fertile farmland, climate and strong influence of both Italian and Austro-Hungarian culinary, tradition of food making in Croatia evolved in two major directions. That’s why in northern Croatia, dishes are more ‘meat-oriented’ (freshwater fish can also be considered as traditional in northeast- Slavonia) and along the Adriatic coast seafood- a Mediterranean cuisine, dominates. It is additionally flavoured by special Croatian herbs. Almost every region has it own ‘thing’ meaning there are some dishes that characterise certain parts of Croatia, and are best when tried exactly on spot. Turkish, Greek and Italian influence is also visible throughout Croatia, so you can try pizza, pasta (Italian), sarma (Turkish) or čevapčići (national dish of Bosnia and Herzegovina- also Turkish legacy) almost everywhere and are considered as standard food.
If starting your motorcycle adventure in Zagreb and heading towards the Adriatic coast, our suggestion is to leave seafood for later, and start with traditional continental appetisers and main (meat) dishes. That said, fresh cream with selection of cheese, several sorts of continental salami (Kulen, Kulen’s sis, Samobor salami) and not to miss, famous ‘Štrukli‘ are the way to go. Smoking and drying methods are still commonly used for preserving larger amounts of meat throughout the year; so it is easy to find smoked ham, smoked ribs from tiblica (wooden barrel) or even smoked cheese. Many kinds of home made soups are usually available too (with beef and chicken soup being the most common).
Main course can really vary starting from shepherd’s bean stew (‘čobanac‘) or hot freshwater fish stew in east; roast turkey with pasta tatters and buckwheat mash in north, schnitzels with special pasta called ‘Grenadir marš’ around Zagreb etc. Also in Zagreb, you got to try veal cutlet stuffed with ham and cheese, simply called ‘Zagreb style cutlet’. If you don’t like the ham-cheese combo, mushroom or dry plum sauce stuffings are often too. Potato is regularly used as a side dish- cooked, steamed, baked or roasted, depending of the meat you’re having.
Salads are very common- starting from standard ‘seasonal ones’, to the ones more traditional- kidney beans and potato salad with pumpkin seed oil and onion for example.
There are also many traditional deserts of which Samobor’s custard cake is the most famous; followed by ‘orehnjača’ (nut roll), corn cake, potato dumplings filled with plums, cheese pastry and ‘Kajzeršmarn‘ (try to pronounce it!) which is very similar to a pancake. Already mentioned ‘Štrukli‘ can be served as a desert as well.
Something in between
When leaving continental part and moving towards the Adriatic’s, you’ll need to pass either through Lika or Gorski Kotar. As the area is more then 50% covered in forest, expect wildlife food– deer steaks, wild boar, venison stew etc. Be sure not to miss lamb if you’re riding around National Park Plitvice Lakes- that part is called Lika and is very famous for it, roasted or ‘under the bell’ (‘pod pekom’), with sweet tasty potatoes as a side dish. As an appetiser, order famous ‘Škripavac’ cheese, traditional Lika product, declared as protected cultural heritage. If you’re into stews, ‘Licki pot’ is a great choice- combination of cabbage, potatoes and meat.
For deserts you’ll be able to choose between cakes made of different wild forest fruits– blueberries, cranberries, blackberries or famous ‘paprenjaci‘ biscuits.
Naturally, coastal gastronomy in Croatia pretty much relies on seafood. But, in different parts of the coast (Istria, Kvarner and Dalmatia), different tradition is respected.
Starting from north (Istria), you can enjoy the most refined cuisine in Croatia. Aside from fish stew, black and white seafood risotto and seafood in general, Istria is home to a very special sort of mushroom- truffles. Home made Istrian fuži with tartufi (truffles) are the way to go here. If you don’t like the specific taste of truffels and still appreciate home made pasta ‘fuži’ (or anther sort, ‘pljukanci‘), be sure to try fuži with game goulash. Home made bread dipped in special Istrian olive oil can be a perfect start to any of these main dishes.
As you go south, Kvarner offers totally different taste- with Island of Pag being the most famous for its cheese and lamb – due to the influence of local herbs and animals’ diet, both are worth trying. Don’t forget chestnuts (maruni) there- along the Kvarner bay, you’ll find all kinds of food with-or made from chestnuts.
In the very south (Dalmatia), almost every dish will start with prosciutto, olive oil and sheep/goat cheese– but often with a different taste- depending of the village or area where it was produced. After, if you’d like to stick with meat- ‘Dalmatinska pašticada’ (beef roasted in wine and spices) is a must-try. On the other hand, if you feel like trying some seafood- start with octopus salad or fish soup, and continue with a selection of grilled, baked or boiled fish, calamari, shrimps, lobsters or famous ‘buzara‘ (technique of preparing shrimps or shellfish, usually mussels, in a mix of typical spices and olive oil). When talking about fish- there are many to choose from, but the most popular are sea bass, sea bream, scorpion fish, John Dory, sole and small but really tasty- ‘srdela‘. Fish can also be prepared on a special kind of grill called ‘gradele‘. Boiled Swiss chard with potatoes (‘Blitva’) is most common side dish, but there are also many types of vegetables available. Garlic, parsley, olive oil and wine are most used ingredients here. If you’d like to try shellfish (especially oysters), make a stop in Ston as it is one of the best areas for growing oysters in Europe. Seafood stew is called ‘brudet‘, and there are many kinds of pasta and risotto in sauces too.
Pancakes, ice cream or cheesecake can be ordered as a desert almost everywhere- but if you’d like something more traditional, try ‘rožata‘ in Dubrovnik.
…and those were just the basics. You will find many variations of dishes mentioned above, so be sure to try several different ones. Also, food in Croatia is much associated with local happenings (fair, concert..) where you’ll most likely be able to try ‘kotlovina‘ (pork chops in special sauce with potatoes) or barbecue (usually pork, chicken and vegetables) for main dish in continental parts or ‘srdele na gradele’ (sardine fish grilled) as main dish in coastal part. As a sweet desert, ‘krafne‘ (kind of donuts) are popular in continental and ‘fritule’/‘kroštule’ (another variation of donuts) in coastal part of Croatia- a desert that will just make you come back for more! So anywhere your Adriatic motorcycle tour takes you, we’re sure your gastronomic expectations will be more then satisfied! Ride safe and full, ‘dobar tek’ (bon appetite)!