Croatia is located where Central and Southeast Europe meet, with a coastline along the Adriatic Sea.
Croatia has been inhabited since prehistoric times and was once part of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t until the late 6th or early 7th century that the Croats arrived, though there are mixed ideas as to where they originally came from. Some say the name ‘Croat’ may be Iranian. There is actually a lot of interesting history here, with Croatia forming a union with Hungary and later becoming part of Yugoslavia. As of 1991, Croatia is an independent country. If you would like to read more, you can read about Croatia on Wikipedia.
What Do People Eat in Croatia?
Croatian food shares similarities to that of other countries in the region, but the way these dishes are prepared or the ingredients used are usually different. There are four main regions, with different dishes which may not even be known in other parts of the country. Plenty of dishes are common all over the country, such as black risotto made with squid ink and seafood, stuffed peppers, and sarma (stuffed cabbage leaves). Croatians also enjoy burek and cevapi, which I made for Bosnia.
Along the Dalmatian coast and on Croatia’s islands, seafood, green vegetables, and olive oil are popular, and commonly used seasonings include garlic, rosemary, and parsley. This part of the country has very similar food to Mediterranean countries. The most popular Dalmatian food is probably pašticada served with njoki.
Istrian cuisine is similar to Dalmation cuisine, but has some unique dishes such as manestra, a bean soup, and fuzi, a hand-rolled pasta. Fritaja is an Istrian dish that I made this week.
The region around Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, has cuisine more similar to that of central European countries, with a heavy emphasis on meat, potatoes and other root vegetables, and cabbage. One popular dish from this region is roasted turkey with mlinci pasta. The ‘pasta’ is actually dried flatbread which gets soaked in the juices from roasting the turkey. It’s something I would like to make one day!
Slavonian dishes are usually based on pork, with paprika being a popular seasoning. Strukli originated in Slavonia, but it’s now popular in Zagreb.
What I Made
- Abšmalcane Mahune (Green Beans with Bacon and Breadcrumbs)
- Fritaja (Asparagus Omelette)
- Sarma (Stuffed Cabbage Leaves)
- Pašticada and Njoki (Braised Beef and Gnocchi)
- Baked Strukli (Cottage Cheese-Filled Dough)
Abšmalcane Mahune (Green Beans with Bacon and Breadcrumbs)
I started with this simple side dish that I thought sounded delicious. It’s essentially just boiled green beans, tossed with a breadcrumb and garlic mixture that’s been toasted in butter. I used bacon too, though that is optional. This is probably my favorite way to enjoy green beans! The leftovers, topped with an egg, made a great breakfast, though I don’t know what Croatians would think about that!
I used a recipe from Info Zagreb as a guide, though I was a bit loose with the measurements. I also did not cook the beans for as long as the recipe stated, because I don’t like them to be completely soft. That’s just my personal preference though!
Fritaja (Asparagus Omelette)
When I first came across this dish during my research, it was described as scrambled eggs with wild asparagus, mushrooms, sausage, and/or prosciutto. It seems like this is the kind of dish that people customize to their liking, though asparagus is the one ingredient that always seems to be included. Some sources depicted an omelette or a thin frittata rather than scrambled eggs, and I really wasn’t sure what was more correct. A lovely person from the Croatian subreddit helped me with some of my questions and said that they are not sure what is most correct either, but that when they make it they aim for an omelette and end up with scrambled eggs! So, I decided both ways are probably acceptable.
For my fritaja, I did not use a recipe but instead took inspiration from what I found online. First I cooked some bacon, then I took that out and cooked asparagus and onion in the bacon fat. I added back the bacon, poured over a beaten egg mixture with a dash of cream (and of course salt and pepper), and allowed it to cook. I put the lid on to help the top set. I didn’t add cheese or anything; the white in the photo is just some egg that I must not have beaten well enough!
I planned to attempt to plate this as an omelette/frittata but knew I could just fall back on the scrambled egg idea if it didn’t come out in one piece. But it did! This made a delicious breakfast.
Sarma (Stuffed Cabbage Leaves)
Stuffed cabbage leaves are a popular dish in many European countries, particularly in the Balkan region, as well as in the Middle East. Although they are not unique to Croatia, many Croatians on Reddit thought I should make them, and this was a dish I had already been wanting to make for a while, so I added it to my list.
I used a recipe for sarma, the Croatian version of stuffed cabbage leaves, from Chasing the Donkey. The cabbage leaves are stuffed with a mixture of ground meat (I used pork), bacon, garlic, parsley, rice, Vegeta, and paprika. The cabbage is supposed to be pickled, and other recipes mentioned using sauerkraut made with whole cabbage leaves. I couldn’t buy a whole pickled cabbage, so I cooked my cabbage as per the instructions on another website, in boiling water with vinegar. There was also supposed to be sauerkraut in the sauce but there was just an empty shelf where the sauerkraut was meant to be at the grocery store, so I used the inner leaves of my cabbage instead. I was halving the recipe, so I did not need too much. I also didn’t have Vegeta, which is basically a seasoning made with dried vegetables, so I used some Mrs. Dash salt-free seasoning since it has some of the same ingredients. Vegeta also contains MSG, which I don’t have, so I just added some extra salt. These changes mean my sarma probably tasted a bit different than intended, and my wrapping skills leave something to be desired, but I enjoyed the end result.
This would have been really good with some fresh bread, but I was feeling low on energy that day, and then I thought I’d just make some mashed potato, but the sarma took longer than I expected, and in the end I just ate them on their own. Still delicious!
Pašticada and Njoki (Braised Beef and Gnocchi)
Pašticada is a very popular dish, consisting of beef braised in a sweet and sour sauce. Croatians on Reddit declared it to be their ‘best beef dish’, so I knew I had to make it. The sauce is made up mostly of red wine and prošek (a sweet Croatian dessert wine, which I substituted with sweet marsala). There’s also garlic, onions, prunes, nutmeg, rosemary, bay leaves, and cloves, and the recipe I used includes carrot. Some recipes include apples and figs in the sauce, but I decided to choose a simpler recipe. I was advised on Reddit that this dish should be sweet, and to make sure I use dessert wine and prunes, so I felt those were the important things to look for in a recipe! Ultimately, I do think the recipe I used could have used more prunes because it really was not very sweet. I added some sugar until I felt it had a good sweet and sour balance. Maybe I should have added the apples and figs!
As for the meat, I used a top round roast, which is the typical cut used. I cut little holes in the meat and inserted garlic slices and bacon, then it marinated in a red wine vinegar mixture overnight. When ready to cook, I browned the meat on all sides, sauteed the vegetables and prunes, then added the meat and other ingredients to the pot and let it all cook for just under 2 hours. This was a little less than the recipe called for since I had a smaller piece of meat.
I removed the meat from the pot, pureed the remaining sauce, and made a caramelized sugar mixture to add (I had to add more sugar after this to get it tasting sweet). The meat was meant to be sliced, then go back in the pot to simmer with the sauce for 30 minutes, but I was concerned it was overdone and skipped that step. In retrospect, maybe it would have helped the beef become more tender, because although it wasn’t terrible, it was a little on the tough side.
Ultimately, I don’t think this turned out the way it was meant to, though I would be willing to try it again!
As for the njoki, it is just like Italian gnocchi, made with potato, flour, and optional egg, and it seems to be the most common carb to serve with pašticada. I’d never made it before, and thought this would be a good time to try. While it turned out edible, I think I really needed more flour in the dough because it just tasted like mashed potato. At least they didn’t fall apart!
For the njoki, I used this recipe from Serious Eats where the potatoes are baked instead of boiled. The idea is that you’re not introducing a bunch of moisture to the potatoes this way, which can be a bad thing when making gnocchi. I plan on trying this again and improving, though we’ll see if I get around to it before Italy week.
Baked Strukli (Cottage Cheese-Filled Dough)
Strukli was another very popular dish among Croatians on Reddit. It’s made by rolling your choice of filling in very thin dough, then cutting the rolled-up dough into parcels and baking or boiling. There are many variations on the filling, both sweet and savory, but the most traditional is based on cottage cheese.
I was a little apprehensive about attempting this, because it involves making phyllo pastry, or at least something close to it. I’ve watched The Great British Bake Off (or Great British Baking Show because Americans like to be special and have special names for things) and I’ve seen the contestants struggle with phyllo. And they have way more counter space than I do!
Ultimately, I decided I would give it a go. I cleared off my coffee table as that seemed the best space to attempt to stretch out the dough. The dough is made from flour, salt, egg, oil, vinegar, and water. I had to add quite a bit more water than called for in the recipe for the dough to come together, but it finally did. After a short rest, which I assume is to let the gluten relax and make the dough easier to handle, I began attempting to stretch my dough out until it was paper thin. I didn’t stretch it as far as expected, but I still did get it pretty thin before it started to tear too much.
I made the cottage cheese filling, which also contained eggs, sour cream, butter, and salt and pepper, then spread it on half the dough. I rolled up and sealed the dough roll in increments with my hands before cutting. The sealing is supposed to make it so that when you cut the dough into pieces, the filling will stay inside. For me, this did not happen. Filling was oozing all over the place. But I went on with the recipe!
I put the dough pieces in my baking dish and topped with sour cream and heavy cream. It was meant to just be sour cream which I was meant to pour over the strukli, but Croatian sour cream must be different because mine is not at all pourable. So I combined it with heavy cream and poured that over the strukli. I sprinkled on some cheese and then baked until done.
This came out tasting really good. It also wasn’t as difficult as I had anticipated, and even though my filling was leaking, there was still plenty inside and the dish was delicious. One of my favorite dishes of this challenge so far!
If you would like to try making this, I used a recipe that was suggested to me in the Croatian subreddit, from Honest Cooking. I did not put any parsley on top, which I think is what is in the recipe photos, because I was specifically told not to put ‘parsley or whatever that green stuff is’ on top. Of course, it does make for a nicer picture but I wanted to stay as authentic as possible!
I really enjoyed this week! Even though everything was good, the strukli was by far my favorite dish.
Next week, I will be cooking food from Cuba.