Croats are passionate about food. They’ll spend hours discussing the quality of the lamb or the first-grade fish and why it overshadows all food elsewhere.
With such a delectable blend of cuisines – Italian, Slavic, Austrian, Turkish and Hungarian – foodie culture is on the rise here. Inspired also by the Slow Food movement, there’s an emphasis on fresh, local and seasonal ingredients and the joy of slow-paced dining.
Wine and olive-oil production are prize-winning industries, and there’s a network of signposted routes around the country celebrating these precious commodities. Here’s what to eat and drink in Croatia.
Chow down on ćevapčići
These rissoles made of ground meat – usually a combination of beef, pork or lamb – flavored with garlic and paprika are a staple of Croatian restaurants and takeaways. Try them with a fluffy flatbread called lepinja, served with chopped onions and ajvar (red pepper relish).
Where to try it: You’re rarely far from somewhere that serves ćevapčići, from the rustic roadside tables at Zlata Dragove on Dugi Otok to the posh version on offer at Craft Beer Bar & Grill in Stari Grad, Hvar.
Burek is found in most bakeries in Croatia © arina7 / Getty Images
Pick up a burek
A staple street food throughout the Balkans, burek is a delectable filo pastry pie filled with cheese, spinach or meat. Bakeries sell them in coils or in huge rounds cut into pizza-shaped tranches.
Where to try it: It’s hard to find a bakery (pekara or pekarnica) that doesn’t sell burek. If you’re in Dubrovnik, stop by Babić Bakery just outside Ploče Gate.
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Whet your appetite with pršut
The notorious bura wind that occasionally howls down Croatia’s coast makes this prosciutto-like air-dried ham so distinctive. In Istria and Krk, it’s just dried by salty air, but in Dalmatia, you’ll usually find it smoked.
Where to try it: You’ll find pršut all around Croatia, but if you’re in Restaurant Knez in Omiš, you have to order their homemade Dalmatian version.
Tuck into a meat feast of pečeno meso
Juicy spit-roasted and baked meat – pečeno meso – showcases janjetina (lamb), svinjetina (pork) and patka (duck), often accompanied by pečeni krumpir (roast potatoes).
Where to try it: The island of Cres is renowned for its lamb, which you can feast on at Konoba Bukaleta.
Croatia has at least 130 unique grape varieties © monticello / Shutterstock
Explore one of Croatia’s wine routes
The quality of Croatian wine is excellent, with more than 300 wine regions and at least 130 grape varieties found nowhere else in the world. The choice is huge: teran and malvazija in Istria, graševina in Slavonia, žlahtina in Krk, plus so many in Dalmatia – plavac mali, grk, pošip, dingač, babić, just for starters.
Where to try it: Zure winery in Korčula makes exceptionally good white grk to go with superb plavac mali.
Sink into štrukli
This cheesy, creamy dish is a particular favorite of the Zagorje region, but it’s long been adopted and adored by the whole country. Cheese-filled pastry is smothered in cream and baked, creating fabulous comfort food.
Where to try it: Le Bistro at the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel has perfected the art of štrukli making since 1951.
Dive into a bowl of brudet
Also known as brodetto, brodet and brujet, this seafood stew is traditionally what fishermen would make to use up their leftover fish. At least three types of firm-fleshed fish – usually scorpion fish, red mullet, rockfish or eel – are cooked in white wine, garlic, onions, tomatoes and herbs, plus some shellfish to add even more depth. It’s served with polenta to soak up all those flavors.
Where to try it: You’ll have views of Zaton Bay north of Dubrovnik to go with a rich bowl of brudet at Gverorić-Orsan.
The cast iron pot used to make peka seals in flavors and juices as meat, octopus or vegetables cook for up to three hours © Stjepan Tafra / Shutterstock
Order a peka
Take a cast-iron bell-shaped pot called a peka, fill it with chunks of meat or, closer to the coast, octopus, along with potatoes, vegetables and garlic. Cover the peka with embers and let it cook for hours on an open fire. The result is the most succulent meat you can get. If you see a restaurant offering dishes cooked “ispod peke,” get in.
Where to try it: If you’re in Mljet, order one in advance – as you’ll need to do at most places – at Kod Ante in Saplunara Bay.
Spice it up with fiš paprikas
The neighboring river-rich regions of Baranja and Slavonia were once part of Hungary, so it’s not surprising to find paprika taking center stage in this staple dish. Freshwater fish – usually carp, pike or catfish – is simmered in wine, onions, tomatoes and, of course, fiery paprika to make fiš paprikas. It’s usually served with homemade noodles.
Where to try it: Just across the Drava River in Osijek is Čarda kod Baranjca, which has several versions of fiš paprikaš to choose from. All are delicious.
Vegetarians and vegans
A useful phrase is “Ja ne jedem meso” (“I don’t eat meat”), but even then, you might be served soup with bits of bacon in it. That is slowly changing, and vegetarians are making inroads in Croatia, but changes are mostly happening in the larger cities. Osijek, Zagreb, Poreč and Split have dedicated vegetarian restaurants, while Dubrovnik also has vegan ones.
Vegetarians may have a harder time in the north (Zagorje) and the east (Slavonia), where meat is the primary focus. Specialties that don’t use meat include maneštra (minestrone-like soup) and juha od krumpira na zagorski način (Zagorje potato soup). Along the coast, you’ll find plenty of meat-free pizza, pasta and risotto dishes.
A year in food
While local food and wine festivals go into full swing come autumn, there’s never a bad time to eat well in Croatia.
Asparagus comes into season in Istria and gets its own festival. Korčula celebrates its food and wine in an April festival, and Istrian winemakers throw open their cellar doors on the last Sunday in May.
Dine on freshly caught seafood by the sea and beat the heat with gelato.
Food festivals showcase truffles (in Istria), chestnuts (in Kvarner) and homemade rakija and wine (just about everywhere). Don’t miss Dubrovnik’s Good Food Festival in October.
Time for Christmas and carnival treats, including Zagreb’s superlative Advent festival and Rijeka’s carnival.