When it comes to food, globalization has a peculiar side effect. The more universal we become, the stronger our need to discover the local. Burgers and pastas may have swept the world, but when we travel, we look for what is authentic. Traditional food is among the greatest appeals of a destination. And these delicacies thrive on the discovery of ancient recipes concocted with local ingredients.
Many national cuisines become popular by piggy-backing on a wider regional definition. French, Italian and Spanish cooking are all part of the Mediterranean gastronomy. Tasting the flavors and health benefits of one can only move you to try the others.
Now Croatia is becoming recognized as the youngest sibling in that family.
In fact, Dalmatia’s fresh seafood or Istria’s gourmet pasta sit right at the top if reasons to visit. Travelers return from Croatia happy, not only because the food was delicious. Their biggest thrill is discovering a new place through its authentic dishes. Even if some of them resemble the typical menu items in Italy or Greece.
Those who explore continental Croatia will also find the change in restaurant menus surprising. Light, grilled fish gives way to hearty meat dishes. Fluffy sweets morph into fuller, doughier cakes.
What is authentic Croatian cuisine?
Here is the truth: There isn’t one. Croatia’s food is an amalgam of different culinary influences: Italian, Turkish, Central-European. The evidence of the country’s allegiance with various empires (think the Habsburg Monarchy or the Ottoman Empire) is preserved on its plates. From typical recipes to the culture of eating. A delicious hodgepodge that gets repackaged as the authentic Croatia.
Not that there is anything wrong with searching for the authentic. But Croatia’s diverse foodie culture may just be its biggest allure. And it too often gets overlooked.
So let’s dig into three authentic dishes to discover how they got adopted and adapted.
Cevapi: Ground Meat “Fingers” Served with Pita
Photo: Kaleb Fulgham/ Flickr CC BY-NC-ND
Cevapi to the Croatians is what the kebab is to people from Turkey. These two come from the same family, both in language and taste. But as kebab journeyed westwards, only one Turkish recipe took root. The kofta kebab.
Croatia’s cevapi are succulent sausages prepared with ground beef and pork (not lamb). They are grilled and served inside the pita bread cousin, lepinja. This simple dish is one of the most omnipresent meals throughout Croatia. It’s what coastal and continental cuisines have in common. And what connects high-end restaurants with fast food joints.
Cooking perfect cevapi is a thing of great pride. The locals are ready to cross half a city to eat them in their favorite place. Cevapi eateries with cult status never give away their recipe, which further boosts their image. And the perfection is not only a matter of seasoning and grilling the meat. Lepinja too needs to soak up fatty juices without getting soppy. For the total cevapi experience, you must eat the onion served on the side!
Sarma: Ground Meat Wrapped in Cabbage
Photo: Arnold Fang/ Flickr CC BY-NC
Dubbed “the royal winter food,” sarma is Croatia’s must-have grub during the cold months. Though a mainstay in restaurants, the locals swear nothing compares to the grandma’s recipe. Especially when a three-day supply simmers in a large pot.
Sarma is so beloved and widespread in Croatia that no one wonders about its origin. But the truth hides in its name. Namely, that sarma traveled from Turkey, with stop-overs in Bulgaria and Greece. At each stop, the dish had a slight make-over, which is why everyone now thinks sarma is theirs.
While Turks and Greeks wrap meat or rice in vine leaves, the Bulgarians use fresh cabbage. In Croatia, sarma is a winter warmer and for the local diet this means meat. Croats don’t cater to the vegetarians. They wrap ground meat (with a pinch of rice) in pickled cabbage leaves and cook sarma in plenty of sauce. The longer it keeps, the better it gets, they say.
Strudel and Burek: Sweet and Savory Filo pastries
Photo: Coralie Ferreira/ Flickr CC BY 2.0
The origin of filo-based recipes is as complex as a royal genealogy. Savory burek is a Turkish offspring, but apple strudel came straight from the Austro-Hungarian court.
Stretching filo pastry into paper-thin leaves is a challenge to every chef. Unfortunately, with store-bought filo widely available, many restaurants don’t bother making it from scratch. And there are few dishes more scrumptious than fluffy filo oozing with luscious filling. From the sweet cherry, apple, or apricot to the savory cheese, spinach or meat.
On the bright side, homemade filo is still the pride of every Croatian woman. So much so that the locals say: “A woman is ready to get married when she learns to stretch the filo.”
The best way to enjoy filo pastry in Croatia is to have burek with cheese or meat as a stand-alone meal. Every bakery stocks them, but the most authentic route is to find a burek only joint. Any type of fruit strudel makes for a great dessert and it’s a menu item in most restaurants. Of course, rounding a burek lunch with apple strudel might be just a bit too much!
They say Croatia is short on ethnic restaurants. Maybe so, but the cosmopolitan nature of its authentic dishes certainly makes up for it.
Main image: Vicki Burton, CC-BY
Lead image: EyeofJ, CC-BY
Andrea Pisac writes offbeat stories about Croatia at Zagreb Honestly and for other travel publications. Follow her on Twitter.