The complete foodie guide to Croatia

The food of Croatia, region by region

by Pete Dreyer 12 October 2017

Beautiful Dubrovnik might get all the headlines for its stunning scenery, but the intrepid foodie can find culinary delights throughout the whole country. Pete Dreyer takes a look at the five areas most famous for their food.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

If you like to travel and love to eat, you’re bound to have picked up on the incredible gastronomic reputation Croatia has gained in recent years. The country’s place at the crossroads of Europe has blessed it with a food history that is simply unmatched anywhere else on the continent. Ancient Greeks, Illyrians and Romans called it home in antiquity – in fact, you can still visit Emperor Diocletian’s palace in Split – while Byzantines, Venetians, Ottoman Turks and more have all made their mark on Croatia since, leaving the nation with arguably the most diverse food scene in Europe.

From the rolling hills and olive groves of Istria in the west to the turquoise coasts of Dalmatia in the south, and vast, castle-dotted plains in northern Slavonia, Croatia is a nation of beautiful contrasts. Each region has a fiercely independent and unique food scene serving up its own range of dishes based on its own influences. Istrian cuisine has a strong Italian feel, for example, but as you move inland into continental Croatia you’ll find heartier fare, with Hungarian, Viennese and Turkish influences becoming more prominent.

Diversity is already a big feather in the Croatian culinary cap, but it’s that diversity combined with the country’s amazing produce that makes it a must-visit food destination. Croatia is already famous for some of the best fish and seafood in the world, but there’s so much more to taste – award-winning olive oils and cheeses, amazing fresh and cured meats, glorious vegetables, wild herbs and even the rarest of truffles. For years, Croatia has been the hidden treasure of Europe, but now the secret is starting to come out. So, ready for a visit? Join us as we take a trip across this foodie paradise.


Fuži, an Istrian pasta, is often handmade and served simply
You can find truffles year-round in Istria, but the region is most famous for the large white variety

The Istrian peninsula in northwest Croatia is widely regarded as one of Europe’s richest gastronomic destinations. Istria has much in common with Kvarner and Dalmatia – they share the same stretch of coastline after all – but with Venice just a short distance across the Adriatic, it’s no surprise to find clear Italian influences at work here too. Maneštra for example, a bean soup typical of Istria, has much in common with Italian minestrone, while Istrian pastas like pljukanci and fuži are popular and delicious, served with a variety of different sauces.

Istria shares Italy’s bounty of incredible produce, too – the boškarin beef symbolic of the region is renowned as some of the best in the world, and in the spring, sprightly stems of wild asparagus pop up across the countryside, and are put to use in lots of local dishes. Croatia doesn’t produce a lot of olive oil compared to its neighbours, but what it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. Istrian olive oils have won numerous gold awards over the last few years, and the area has been voted the best in the world for olive oils twice.

The region is also home to a bounty of wild truffles, and Istrians get to enjoy these gems year-round, often in omelettes, risottos, and with fuži. Not only is Istria the only place in the world (aside from northern Italy) where you’ll find white truffles, it’s also home to the largest truffle ever found – a 1.3-kilogram monster that holds pride of place in the Guinness Book of Records.


Kvarner scampi are famous for their large size and juicy, sweet flesh
One of Croatia's most famous cheeses, made from sheep's milk, comes from the island of Pag

Head south from Istria and you’ll find Kvarner Bay, its rugged, windswept coastline giving way to a series of beautiful islands, heady with an abundance of wild lavender and sage. Fish and seafood are plentiful here too, but look out for Kvarner’s scampi, which is especially coveted for its delicate, sweet flavour. Keep an eye out too for šurlice – a pasta unique to Kvarner, that often appears at celebrations like weddings and christenings, alongside scampi or lamb stew.

Head inland and you'll find yourself in the lush forests of Gorski Kotar. The majority of the region is covered in woodland, so earthy delights like mushrooms and game are plentiful here. Kvarner is also home to lots of unique wines and brandies, enriched with the region's signature aromatic herbs.

Anyone with a bit of a sweet tooth would be well advised to hunt down a piece of rapska torta on their visit to Kvarner. These cakes are saved for only the most special occasions, and take three days to make! With a rich filling of ground almonds, Maraschino cherries, orange and lemon peel, it's more than worth the wait.

Northern Dalmatia

Continue down the inlets and islands of Croatia’s western coast and you’ll reach the archipelago of Northern Dalmatia. The island of Pag – famous for it’s hard, salty sheep’s cheese – is a must visit for food fans. As the ‘Bora’ wind sweeps in from the sea it deposits salt across the island, and as a result the sheep eat a unique diet of salty, aromatic herbs year-round. That saline climate makes for a distinctive cheese, but also for superb lamb – often roasted on a spit – and delicious prosciutto in the form of Croatian prust.

You’ll also find lots of natural sea salt on Pag – considered to be some of the purest in the world by experts. These days, about 2.5 million square metres of the island belong to sea salt production, where seawater is channelled into pools and evaporated through blustery coastal winds and beaming sunlight, leaving behind beautiful flakes of pure white gold.


Peka is usually made with octopus and potatoes, but can also include fish, lamb or veal
Pašticada, a celebratory beef stew, is a labour of love – but well worth the effort

In recent years the Dalmatian coast has become incredibly popular among tourists, who have found familiar Mediterranean food along its crystal waters. Of all Croatia’s coastal regions, Dalmatia has the finest reputation for seafood, offering Adriatic specialities like turbot, John Dory (often called Saint Pierre in Croatia), zubatac (dentex) and škarpina (scorpio fish), as well as some of the world’s best bluefin tuna, most of which is exported to Japan to become premium-grade sushi. Croatia prides itself on the quality of its sardines and anchovies (often grilled or simply marinated), but shellfish lovers should pay a visit to the village of Ston on the Pelješac Peninsula which has been renowned for its unique oysters since Roman times, or make the trip to Lastovo to taste its famous lobsters.

As you head south down the coast you’ll find some Greek influences in the cooking, but the simplicity remains much the same, with dishes revolving around seafood, fresh herbs and fresh vegetables. Swiss chard is especially popular here, and everywhere you go you’ll find blitva – a simple yet universally loved side dish made from potatoes, Swiss chard, garlic and olive oil. If seafood isn’t grilled, it’s often cooked in a bouillabaisse-style stew (called brudet) or eaten with risotto or polenta (called palenta). There’s also peka, an iconic dish of octopus, fish, lamb or veal cooked under a bell-like lid.

If seafood isn’t your thing, fear not – there's plenty more to eat. Soparnik – a peasant's pie made with Swiss chard from inland Dalmatia – is protected as part of Croatia’s national heritage. The region is also famous for pašticada – a very traditional beef stew. The preparation is incredibly long and detailed, with the meat being stuffed with garlic, cloves, carrot and bacon, marinated, then roasted with bacon, onions, prunes and a bevy of herbs and spices, before being served with gnocchi. Pašticada is often reserved for special occasions, so if you ever get the chance to try some, grab it with both hands!

Zagreb and central Croatia

Mlinci is a local pasta flavoured with turkey dripping
Štrukli are traditionally filled with cottage cheese and eggs, but today come in a variety of flavours

Where Croatia’s western coastline has an obvious Mediterranean feel, the inland regions have a long and storied history with the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the food is reflective of that. Meat dishes are far more common inland, but don’t assume they’re all heavy stews with potatoes and cabbage. Many are accompanied by fresh seasonal or root vegetable sides, or come in the form of hearty, peppery soups with homemade noodles or dumplings.

Croatia’s capital Zagreb is where you’ll find the greatest variety of dishes. While it might not follow the trend for street food found in other major cities, it more than makes up for it in its restaurants. Heaving platters of locally made charcuterie and cheese tend to be served at the beginning of a meal, often accompanied by famous Samobor mustard and a glass of Bernet – an aromatic red wine liqueur.

Similar to German spätzle, central Croatia has mlinci – a local variety of pasta that is boiled and then baked in the oven alongside roast turkey, soaking up all the delicious juices. Look out for Kotlovina, too – a combination of meats, sausages and vegetables simmered over an open fire on a special metal plate for hours on end, allowing the flavours to meld together. In fact, sausages are a shining example of Zagreb’s food scene, particularly in the winter. They’re often homemade and flavoured with garlic (češnjovke) or made in a similar way to black pudding (krvavice).

That’s not to say vegetarians will go hungry, however; pasta dishes, cabbage stews and simply prepared wild mushrooms are among some of the most beloved dishes in Zagreb. Štrukli is another speciality of the capital worth looking out for, and another of Croatia’s protected national heritage dishes. These versatile filo parcels are traditionally filled with cottage cheese and eggs, then usually served with fresh cream, but they can be enjoyed at any time of day, both sweet and savoury. In Zagreb the flavours of Štrukli are incredibly varied, and make up a large part of the city’s burgeoning food scene.

Room for dessert? Try the unusual sounding bučnica, made with grated marrow, sugar and cream. There’s also the paprenjak, a famous biscuit made with honey and black pepper. Watch out for makovnjača and orehnjača (traditional poppy seed and walnut rolls) too, which often appear on celebratory occasions like Easter and Christmas.


Čobanac – a Slavonian stew containing beef, pork and lamb
Kulen is Slavonia's most famous cured meat, flavoured with paprika

Head further east into Croatia and you’ll come to Slavonia, where the Viennese vibe makes way for food influenced by nearby Hungary. Paprikaš, for example, is a Hungarian-style stew made with paprika, bacon, potatoes and peppers – you’ll find it everywhere in Slavonia, served with anything from pork and venison to freshwater fish such as catfish, carp and pike. The carp that emerge from the right bank of the Danube river are an incredible example of freshwater fish at its best. After being cleaned and seasoned, the carp are skewered on a large fork and cooked over a hot grill, going from river to plate in just a number of hours. There's also Čobanac, a very meaty stew (containing pork, beef and lamb) with dumplings traditionally eaten by the region's shepherds.

If there are two things that run through Slavonian cuisine, it’s pork and paprika, and the two come together in kulen – the region’s famous spicy pork sausage, which has also been protected as part of Croatia’s culinary heritage. Red paprika gives kulen a deep red colour, as well as its distinctive smoky, spicy flavour.

Header image courtesy of Maja Danica Pecanic / Croatian National Tourist Board.