Life in multicultural environment gives us access to typical dishes from many different countries across the world.
However, the problem with all these foods is that they all taste similar – for example Asian dishes prepared in Europe taste somehow European. That is, they taste nothing like those dishes prepared in their countries of origin. And I keep wondering why – is it because Europeans would not be able to embrace the original flavours or because local ingredients are sourced for their preparation, thus making it impossible to achieve the original taste?
In Croatia you can taste international cuisines too, but you can also dig deeper to discover the true local gems made to perfection. These may not be easy to find in the sea of cheap fast food establishments, bakeries and other dull eateries flaunting pizzas and pan fried ‘schnitzel’ with french fries. While many visitors are looking for instant pleasures, hoping to get a quick, tasty and affordable meal while on the go, few of them take time to look for something less mainstream. Even the late Bourdain wondered why people act this way in his famous statement: ‘ Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobils through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s?
Why are we depriving ourselves of a valuable experience of the society, family values and cultural heritage of the country we are visiting? Is it the fear of the new experiences or complete lack of interest?
Unlike many other travellers, Anthony Bourdain practiced eating with locals diligently everywhere he went. And he mastered this skill to the extent that he became able to make a living out of it. You may say now: ‘ But he was a rich guy so he could afford anything and everything.’ Yes, but this is only partially true – Bourdain was indeed well off, but the places where he had most memorable gastronomic experiences were generally cheap local restaurants or even street food stands. In other words, through humble ‘mystery meat’ dishes, grilled fish heads and other culinary wonders, he learned about the world around him and found important pieces of each country’s cultural jigsaw.
Each time I pack my suitcase I remind myself that I should be more like Bourdain when I travel. This means, I should do my homework and prepare for my trip, so that I know what I should look for. But I should also act spontaneously sometimes, if something good draws my attention.
So, what have I learned about Croatia? Even though it is a relatively small country, it has remarkably different culinary traditions in each one of its regions, originating from the mindsets of its inhabitants, specific local ingredients and historic circumstances. The Dalmatian culinary tradition consistently follows the typically Dalmatian minimalism, which mirrors the carefully selected few top quality ingredients, such as the freshest fish, which are prepared in a way that preserves the authentic, natural flavours of those ingredients. Charcoal-grilled John Dory, dentex, gilt-headed bream or red mullet, a seafood-packed brodetto, octopus salad and the black cuttlefish risotto are just some of the signature dishes in Dalmatia. Meat lovers will definitely find their favourites in the spit-roasted lamb, veal roasted under a baking lid and the traditional ‘pasticada’ – the aromatic slow-cooked beef stew served with home-made gnocchi.
The contemporary Istrian cuisine reinvents the simple folk dishes and converts them in culinary pieces of art: omelettes (i.e. frittatas), the Istrian signature dish, confirm this. The foundation of a great omelette are good free-range eggs, fried to a point of perfection. The peasant and burgeois cuisine of Istria are intertwined with luxury dining, which comes as no surpise considering the fact that they are based on gourmet delights, such as high-quality hand made pasta, oysters, crabs and the freshest whitefish, white and black truffles, wild asparagus, Istrian prosciutto and pancetta, sausages and ‘Ombolo’ as well as game dishes.
Meanwhile in Slavonia, the local gastronomy stars include a variety of fish and meat dishes cooked in a pot above an open fire, such as ‘paprikash’ stews, as well as spit-roasted pork or ox meat and a carp grilled on a stick. It is quite a challenge to survive in Slavonia as a vegetarian or vegan, considering the typical menu, however the friendly and hospitable Slavonians will make everyone feel welcome, regardless of their food preferences. The central Croatia will welcome you with traditional specials from Zagorje: savoury buckwheat kasha, corn sponge cake and roast turkey with baked home-made pasta. Lika and Gorski kotar are the regions boasting long hunting tradition, therefore game can often be found on menus there. Venison or wild rabbit is pierced through with pancetta sticks and marinated for a couple of days before cooking. It is usually heavily spiced and slowly simmered above fire to be later served with bread dumplings.
In a nutshell, the elements of typical Croatian cuisine can be found across a number of European cuisines – in Italy, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Turkey and other countries on the Balkans – but with a local twist. A local twist worth tasting.