Croatian cuisine is often called the cuisine of the regions, in recognition of the fact that every region in the country has its own distinct culinary tradition. Croatia’s strong culinary diversity, relative to the size of the country, makes this land an exciting gastronomic adventure.
Given the appeal of its breathtaking coastline and idyllic islands to tourists, it is Croatia’s Mediterranean kitchen that is usually given all the attention. This is definitely deserved, but also unjust, as the country’s continental gastronomic riches are equally amazing.
As summer slowly sails away and autumn is creeping in, the time is right to turn a glance to Croatia’s mainland cuisine.
Most commonly, Croatian cooking is divided into the Mediterranean school along the coast and the plentiful islands, and the continental one to be found on the mainland. Some further divide the continental cuisine into the mountain cuisine of the south, and the “continental cuisine of the northern plains”. These northern plains comprise the regions of Slavonia and Baranja in the northeast, and Medjumurje and Zagorje in the northwest. The cuisine of Like and Gorski Kotor represents the transition from the continental to the Mediterranean style. And then there is Istria which perhaps combines the best of both worlds. Whereas its coastal part is strongly influenced by fish and sea food, the cooking on core of the peninsula leans towards the continent.
While the coastal cuisine is often described to have been influenced by Greek, Roman, and Illyrian tradition, and later by the Italian and French cuisine, the culinary traits of the mainland have been in touch with Hungarian, Viennese, and Turkish gastronomic habits. The plethora of interweaving influences has over the centuries produced an enormous catering diversity.
According to Rene Bakalović, a leading cuisine connoisseur, who is often referred to as Croatia’s first “gastronomad”, this is a major asset for the country.
“There is not in the whole world such a small country with such [culinary] diversity”, Bakalović has said in an interview for Gastro, a national portal about the culture of food.
Starting in the northeast, there are the regions of Slovenia and Baranja which are the country’s bread basket, and home to Croatia’s white bread, pastries, and flat cakes. The cooking in the two regions is said to be similar. Goulash and paprikash, both which are meat stews with either veal or beef, are particularly common. The regions are also known for cold dishes such as smoked ham, cured bacon and sausages, including the spicy local sausage kulen. Pasta, potato, and beans are common, as well as fat meat dishes, and other strong caloric foods. The word is that in the past such dishes were needed to provide the calorie intake needed for a hard day of labour. Some of them are less common today as their preparation takes a lot of time.
Moving to the northwest there are the regions of Medjumurje and Zagorje, also dominated by traditional meat dishes and pastries. Perhaps the most distinct feature of Medjumurje cuisine is the porridge, usually prepared with duck, goose, or blood sausages, often called black sausages. In addition, the region has the greatest variety of strudels [strukli] in the country, made of cheese, but also of apples, potato, walnut, and pumpkin.
Zagorje on the other hand is well known for its turkey with mlinci, a boiled brown pasta dish. It also features a variety of dishes with potatoes and beans. In some of its low-lying areas there is grilled carp, dried or smoked fish. A major delicacy in the region is the suckling pig. Zagorje’s most famous sweets are the pumpkin pie with poppy seeds, and pies made of cheese, walnuts, and jam.
The Istrian cuisine is different on the coast, where it is strongly fish-based, and the core of the peninsula. Istria is widely known for its prosciutto and olives, as well as for its posutice, a type of pasta which goes with various side dishes. Another major asset of Istrian cuisine is its truffles, which are a real delicacy for aficionados. The Istrian turkey is also well appreciated across Croatia. The region also has good sweet-water fish from the mountain rivers, such as the trout from Gacka River.
The cuisine in Gorski Kotar and Lika (central Croatia) is said to have been determined by the living conditions in the mountains, such as the short summers and long winters, which had limited the availability of food in the past. Local specialties include cooked or roasted lamb, potato halves, and different types of cheeses (from cow milk, sheep milk, or mixed). The dishes are typically simple to make by open-fire cooking and baking. Common meals include boiled maize, pickled cabbage, beans, mutton and pork, as well as venison. These regions are also rich with mushrooms.
Zagreb cuisine is closely linked to the central European gastronomic traditions, particularly those of Hungary and Austria. It features the seasonal vegetable soup (beans, cabbage, barley groats), the goulash and paprikash with pasta, roast and cooked meat (such as beef with tomato sauce).
Not only is Croatia’s cuisine endowed with diversity, but this diversity is dynamic. It changes through seasons.
One of Croatia’s major gastronomic stars, Ana Ugarković, author of a couple of cookbooks and a host of a famous culinary show, has been arguing that the secret to good cooking is what might be called a seasonal approach. According to her, each ingredient has to be used at the optimal time. At the launch of her cookbook “Today I am Cooking” she was cited saying that “a good cook must buy into the logic of life cycles in other to prepare a good goulash”.
Indeed, the logic of life cycles applies to the entire Croatian cuisine.