“Food has power. It could inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight, and impress. It had the power to please me.”Anthony Bourdain
With all travel comes exploring the culinary delights each destination has to offer. It is oftentimes the highlight of a trip. This, though, only happens if you leave your comfort zone and find a little bravery. To have an adventurous palate takes some guts, especially in certain cultures. It is about partaking in what is important to the region you are visiting.
Many cultures and people speak through their food. It is a sense of pride and often steeped with tradition. Food is intricately tied to a countries history. If we listen, that food speaks to us, and we learn. As we travel, we are not only there to see the sights but most importantly to experience the culture and the people. Without the food, we miss a huge element of who these people are. We miss part of their voice, their story, and their spirit. Croatia cuisine was exactly that and one we did not in the least prepare for.
In the planning of our trip, we had not heard much about Croatian food. We had incorrectly assumed it would be lots of meat and potatoes. It was not that we heard the food was bad; we just had not heard anything at all. In our ignorance, we did not research what to expect about the food. That was a mistake as it was beyond anything we anticipated.
There was a hint
There was a story in the news just before we left. Magic Johnson, the legendary basketball player, had just returned from Croatia. He was traveling on a yacht to various cities, so quite a bit out of our league. Upon returning, he spoke of Croatian cuisine. “The food was fantastic, and the country was just beautiful.” He went on to share; it was some of the best meals he ever had. Based on his wealth, I bet he has eaten at many amazing places. This was intriguing and got dismissed as we assumed he was likely exaggerating. He wasn’t on any level; we could not agree with him more!
Croatia Cuisine a Cultural Melting Pot
From our very first meal in Zagreb after we landed to our last meal in Dubrovnik 14 days later, we were in awe. A diverse variety of foods and traditions come from the many surrounding countries that are infused into Croatia’s style. Croatia has been around since ancient times, and the roots travel back there as well. It was at a crossroads of many aggressors and was on a major merchant route which brought many spices and exposure to different cultures. There is early Slavic along with a hint of Turkish, Hungarian, and Austrian throughout the country. The various coastal regions have strong influences from the Venetians, Romans, and Greeks. This is obvious in every coastal city and small town.
With many other influences mixed in, you will consistently find something new. Croatia’s flavors never disappoint, and there are plenty to try. From simple snacks to decadent dinners, you will have no trouble finding something. With wonderful wine regions and many homegrown breweries, there will find great beverages to accompany those meals. You will almost feel guilty eating and drinking so much until you remember how little you have spent. Don’t worry; it’s vacation anyway. You can splurge in Croatia, and it will barely make a dent in your wallet except in Dubrovnik.
Two Distinct Regions
Though some describe many subregions of cuisine, it can be broken down into two distinct zones, the north and the coast of Croatia. The food of the coast encompasses lots of seafood, fish, mussels, along with fresh seasonal vegetables. That said, there is a lot of meat, including beef, lamb, and pork, found on the menu. The north region, which is predominantly the Istria region, has deep Italian roots.
As a matter of fact, Istria was part of Italy until after WW2 when under the Allies Treaty of Peace with Italy, Istria and Dalmatia was given to the Nation of Yugoslavia. This caused a mass exodus that started in 1943, but the Italian influence is still very present. You will find lots of pasta, meat, charcuteries, olive oil, truffles, and of course seafood if near the coast in this region.
When we speak of haute cuisine, we all know those can come at a hefty price, and for the majority of us, budgeting is the name of the game while traveling. So how does one go about getting the full culinary experience in Croatia if they have to watch every penny you spend? The answer is that you don’t. You will learn quickly that everything in Croatia is relatively inexpensive, especially food and drinks. Because of this, you will have no issues splurging at times to experience all the foods you wish to try. From traditional, exotic, or simple treats, the only thing you have to worry about is what to try first of the incredible choices you see on the menu.
Tip – each person in your party chose separate dishes so that you can try as many different options as possible.
Our Experience with Croatian Food
Over our years of travel, some of the best interactions with the locals are around food. It is always amazing how locals light up when you ask what do you suggest? What is traditional? What is your favorite? A dower waiter, all of a sudden, becomes engaged. This was the case in our first meal in Croatia.
We had landed late morning in Zagreb, but it was too early to get a room, and except for some airplane food, we were pretty hungry. When we inquired at the hotel of a place with traditional local food, they did not hesitate for a second and said Sofras. It was a Bosnian restaurant to the core. The décor and the servers were in full traditional dress. We immediately got the sense this is not a place many tourists visit.
Our server seemed a bit less than friendly when we first sat down until we started asking him what he recommended. We basically let him pick for us as we didn’t even know what some of the menu’s English meant. The menu was huge too. He even picked out the beer. Our expectations were not high, but that was the beginning of an array of delectable experiences that lasted the full next 14 days.
Bosnian/Slavic cuisine is strongly influenced by the Ottomans, which is quite prominent in mainland Croatia, and you will find certain core aspects. Flavorful colorful bell peppers, cabbage, grilled meat, especially lamb and beef, meat pies, flatbread called somun, beans, cucumbers, carrots, and onions. The flavors use a lot of paprika and garlic. They have one of the most delicious creams called pavlaka and kajmak, which they pour over their meat pies.
Our Second Night in Zagreb wanted something more reflective of mainland Croatia cuisine. We found ourselves at Vinodol in the main restaurant district of Zagreb. The hotel suggested it, and the reviews seemed to back that up. It was a large, diverse menu but representative of much we saw in the weeks ahead. Here are a few of the choices from the menu.
Onto the Istria Pennisula
Istria brought us culinary delights we never imagined we would ever experience, and it started with our very first meal. Lunch in the tiny medieval village of Boljun in this little tavern called Boljunski Konoba set this incredible region’s tone. Our first exposure to truffles was here, and one we would repeat at almost every meal over our time in this marvelous region.
Truffles from Croatia have gained enormous respect. They remained a well-kept secret for the most part until recently. With nearby nations such as Italy and France with such a reputation for truffles, Croatia stayed off the radar. Anthony Bourdain put Istria truffles on the map. It still, luckily, a place you can find these magnificent fungus tubers on a menu at meager prices.
Truffles, especially white ones, go for thousands of dollars a kilo and have an extremely short shelf life. They are a delicacy that few can afford. Neither of us had ever tried a real truffle, only truffled flavored oils. This was going to be a very rare and unique adventure.
In the heart of truffle country is the splendid medieval walled hill town of Motovun. This is where trained pigs and dogs hunt in the Motovun forest for this hidden gem, the truffle. The forest is in the beautiful Mirna River Valley below the town. The climb up the steep hill is work, but the rewards are beyond worth the effort.
While there, we had a meal of a lifetime, a Konoba Mondo. Our decision was based solely on google reviews when it was time for lunch. The village was tranquil with maybe 4 other tourists visiting. The restaurant was quite large with two levels and a large outdoor patio dining area; it was just two other guests and us. We wondered was this the right choice. But then we saw a signed picture of Anthony Bourdain with the owner and some staff. It seemed a good choice at that point.
And it was! The best choice ever.
There are black and white truffles. Though still delicious, black truffles have a much longer season, have a better shelf life, and are not coveted comparatively. Black truffles are both cooked and used as a garnish. White truffles are special and a rare treat with an abridged season and short shelf life. They are only used as a garnish. These rotten-looking fungi are incredibly pungent (that is how the dogs and pigs find them ) musky, earthy aroma with a slight garlicky taste.
Following how charmed our trip was, it turned out White truffle season started that week. The restaurant had a special white truffle-only menu for the occasion. Every course had white truffles freshly shaved onto the dish. Maybe because it was so quiet, or maybe their shelf life was ending, but the white truffles just kept coming. We were in awe. They were absolutely delicious!
Our meal that lasted a couple of hours included craft beers, two appetizers covered in white truffles, two main courses covered in white truffles, two glasses of local wine, and a chocolate dessert covered in white truffles topped off with an espresso. No, the coffee was not covered in truffles, and it was compliments of the house. It was heaven, the meal, the drinks, the ambiance, and the service. What would that cost in the states? Probably three or four hundred dollars or even more based on the volume of truffles we received. Our total was around $130. One of the most highly sought-after and coveted food items globally, and we could fully experience and afford it too! Not only did we get to experience them in many dishes, but we had loads of them for a fraction of the price.
Truffles Joined Us on the Rest of our Journey
After we left Istria, we never saw truffles on the menu again as we went down the southern coast. In those few days in Istria, we had truffles at breakfast on eggs, at lunch on pasta, and at dinner on everything! Their smell will always be associated with incredible memories.
But the smell stayed with us in other ways too. Why? Joelle had purchased several black truffle salts for gifts. One of them rolled out the bag, and when Ryan closed the trunk, it sliced the salt container. That rental car smelled like truffles for nine more days until we returned the car. It was much more potent than the real things. It seemed imprinted in our nasal passages long after we returned to the states.
Croatia Cuisine from the Sea
We left Istria, heading down the coast. The food made a remarkable turn, and we found ourselves surprised and fascinated. This is where you will find Croatia’s large seafood selection. Seafood is usually a higher-priced item when dining out. However, even the fanciest seafood feast will find reasonable prices.
Shrimp, mussels, and their much-loved squid dishes will give you unique takes on standard seafood meals. Black seafood risotto is very popular in this region which is blackened with the ink of a squid. Fresh seafood is on every menu. You can find the best variety along the vast coastline in any of the famous cities on the water, so you don’t need to worry about missing your chance to try some. There will be plenty of local delights caught daily. Always ask as the staff will tell you what is fresh and what is not.
What we found, no matter how simple or fancy the restaurant is presentation was beautiful. At times a work of art. They take enormous pride in presentation.
Our Big Splurge
We try to enjoy one higher-end meal during each trip. Joelle is drawn to Michelin Star restaurants and has been to four in her life, so it is a rare event. Ryan has been to one. We did not even look for any in Croatia, but one night in Zadar, we visited this lovely restaurant on the waterfront the hotel suggested. They had this fascinating Chef’s seven-course dinner that had us intrigued.
We went for it, along with some lovely wine, and had an amazing meal that clearly was our chef’s masterpiece. The plating of each course was so spectacular you felt bad eating it. The seven courses didn’t even include dessert, but in the end, they brought us each a beautiful one as a special treat at no cost. That was our one big expense (it was less than a meal at Ruth Criss steak house, though), but since our overall food budget was dramatically lower than we expected, we still came way under budget. It was an exceptional example of the wonder of Croatia cuisine.
Hearty Croatia Cuisine
Some more popular dishes found everywhere in our travels were risotto, gnocchi, beef, and lamb. Depending on where you go and what you get, risotto and lamb are the more pricey items on menus. Those dishes were found in abundance across all of Croatia with much lower prices than we usually see. Ryan definitely made the most of that. All of those dishes are rich, hearty, and in fair to generous portions. In Pula, we ate at a popular local restaurant in a residential neighborhood. We allowed our attentive server to pick out our meal, and it was a ton of meat. There was a lot left behind. We never left a meal hungry.
A fun story; as we left that place and we were the only non Croats in there, our server stopped us and offered each of us a complimentary Grappa shot. Three glasses of grappa appeared, and our fun, jovial server joined us to the word Zivjeli, cheers in Croatian. These are moments that make the trip extra memorable.
Fast Food Croatia
We had noticed in our travels so far that there seemed to be really only two kinds of “fast food” places in Croatia. It was pizza or sandwiches. You can’t turn a corner without seeing an Italian place or, at a minimum, have it on the menu at most any place you go to eat. We didn’t give it much thought at first, but as we descended the Dalmatia coast, it was hard not to notice they were everywhere, and lots of locals seemed to partake.
At first, we were like, well, we can get pizza at home. It took us until halfway through the trip in Trogir that we decided to give this dominant dish a try. Oh my, was that a treat. Ryan will say it was hands down the best pizza he has ever had in his life, and he has been in Italy. The setting didn’t hurt, sitting on the water in an ancient medieval town, but it was incredible pizza. Italy remains very prominent in Croatia cuisine, especially along the Dalmatia coast.
Want to learn more about magnificent Croatia? Go to our Croatia Country Page. Click here.
So what should you eat or avoid during your Croatian visit? Well personally, like always you should try everything. Be adventurous and get out of your comfort zone. We have tried so many new things and have loved almost all of them. Try the fancy, the odd, the local favorite, and the super cheap dive or street food. Order different things and share them with your travel companions. If you don’t like something, you aren’t going to lose out on a lot of money.
Remember to look for the local treats and specialty dishes from each town you visit. Ask your hotel, the museum staff if they aren’t busy, or really anyone you strike up a conversation with where and what they recommend. If you see a line in a local bakery, pop in and see what they are buying.
Take advantage of the low prices and truly taste everything that Croatia’s diverse culinary palate has to offer. Wash everything down with the local drinks, which are also very reasonably priced. We are confident that you won’t be disappointed, and it definitely won’t break your budget.
Want to learn more about Croatia cuisine watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode dedicated to Croatia. You will want to be on the next plane there! We watched it the night after our visit to Motovun. We recall his statement on how clueless he was about what Croatia had to offer and called himself a “f*$@ing idiot” for not knowing better. It can found on HBOMAX.