The Foods of Croatia & Serbia
These two countries have taken fare with Mediterranean, European and even Middle Eastern origins—and made it distinctively their own. Read on to learn about key ingredients and delicious preparations from these rising cuisines.
The troubled past of Croatia and Serbia, part of the former Yugoslavia, has been well documented, but two things the countries share is a love of good food and a diverse culinary history influenced by their many neighbors. These cuisines are gaining increasing attention thanks to rising tourism from North America as well as growing Croatian and Serbian communities in the U.S. Chicago has the second largest Serbian population in the world with an estimated 500,000 people, and New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania all have substantial Croatian and Serbian populations.
Here we take a look at these separate yet intertwined cuisines to discover both familiar and exotic flavors and dishes.
CROATIA’S CULINARY TREASURES
From its sun-drenched 1,100-mile-long Adriatic coastline to the graceful Baroque palaces in the capital of Zagreb, the flavors of Croatian cuisine recall its former rulers such as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires as well as clean, modern Mediterranean-style cooking.
Visit these companies’ websites for Croatian specialty products:
Food Match: Croatian fig spreads, pepper spread and olive tapenades; foodmatch.com.
Grand Prix Trading: Croatian jams; grandprixtrading.com.
O&Co: White and black truffles, olive oils and specialty foods from Croatia; oliviersandco.com.
Vinum USA: Croatian and Slovenian wines mostly from small, private vineyards; vinumusa.com.
Although Croatia gained its independence in 1991, the Republic’s long history includes some tangled relationships with neighbors (including the early Greeks and other Mediterraneans who traveled the area) that affected its cuisine. Those historical influences along with current neighbors make it almost impossible to say that there is a national Croatian cuisine. There are, however, many delicious regional dishes especially those found on the Istrian peninsula and Dalmatian coast.
Istria’s Italian Influences
Located across the Gulf of Trieste from Venice, Istria’s cuisine has a lot in common with that of its Italian neighbor. For example, risotto and pasta are popular in both areas. On the Croatian coast, these starchy dishes are typically prepared with local extra virgin olive oil, fresh seafood, vegetables and/or mushrooms. When in season, wild fresh asparagus is a culinary obsession with locals. In inland areas, pasta and Arborio rice dishes are more likely to be topped with a hearty ragu of game meat or fowl. Black and white truffles are another specialty item Croatia shares with Italy. Truffles are often added to omelets and pasta or thinly shaved over prsut, the sweet, silky Croatian version of prosciutto, produced in Istria and on the Dalmatian coast.
Dalmatia’s Simple Fare
South of Istria, the sheer drama of the Dalmatian coastline—with its panoramas of sapphire blue waters and medieval walled towns—cannot be rivaled. Dalmatian cooking is characterized by healthful, simple preparations of local ingredients without additives or much fat, reflecting the Mediterranean, Italian and Turkish influences in the region. Many foods are grilled or roasted without much adornment. Besides olive oil, garlic is a common addition to dishes with fish, meat, greens and salads. Seafood is a dietary staple: The Adriatic’s 400 species of shellfish and fish include squid, mussels and sweet shrimp, as well as orata, red mullet and swordfish. Crni rizot, or black risotto made with cuddle fish and its ink, is a popular specialty. Another favorite is fresh salata ob hobotnice, or octopus salad, tossed with celery, julienne basil and more. (See April Prepared Food Focus for recipe) Like many vegetables, blitva, or beet greens, are usually steamed or boiled. These bitter greens are seasoned with oil, garlic, salt, pepper and a few drops of lemon juice. Ajvar, a condiment made with roasted eggplant, bell peppers, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, is found throughout Croatia. It is spooned onto slices of bread, served as a side dish and used in sauces. Hearty Inland Foods Denizens of Croatia’s interiors have a love of meat—pork, beef, lamb and veal, including sausages and kabobs. In Zagreb, Okrugljak, a rustic, 100-year-old restaurant, features a menu with dishes from northern Croatia’s Zagorje region. They reflect central European influences, with braised meats, cabbage dishes and strudels, both savory and sweet. Paprika is a common seasoning. Other regional dishes include veal scallops Zagreb-style, or Zagrebački odrezak (pictured above), thin slices of meat topped with ham and cheese, then rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. Zagorje strukli is a strudel of thin dough filled with fresh cheese and baked with cream.
New Wines and Spirits
In the mid-1990s, the wine industry began to flower and today there are more than 80 winemakers using local grape varieties, says Ilya Shchukin, vice president and a co-owner of Vinum USA, an importer of top-tier Croatian and Slovenian wines. Shchukin estimates that since 2003 the amounts of Croatian wine imported in the U.S. have increased from a couple of hundred cases a year to more than 5,000. The three key local grapes are: deep, ruby red teran (terana) and its subtype refošk (refosco), which produce high-acid wines that are often blended with merlot and cabernet; sweet and aromatic muškat (muscatel); and malvazija (malvasia or malmsey), white grapes that produce wines that can vary from pale hay to rich golden colors. The best Croatian malvazija is crisp and fresh-tasting, an ideal complement for lighter fare and seafood. After dinner, finishing with a glass of rakija, the generic name for distilled brandy made from fruit, is common. Many regions produce distinct varieties, of which the best known is šljivovica, made with plums. Near the town of Zadar, in Dalmatia, cherries are used to make maraska or maraschino cherry brandy. Dalmatians as well as residents in other regions of Croatia also distill travarica, a grape brandy infused with up to 20 herbs, which is a potent digestive or, as the locals say, a cure for whatever ails you. —J.P.
THE FLAVORS OF SERBIA
Although it is slightly smaller than the state of Maine, the Republic of Serbia has a powerful location in Southeastern Europe bordering Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. Just as with Croatia, its cuisine differs from other Eastern European fare because of its influence by the Greeks, Turks and Middle Easterners, as well as Austro-Hungarians. For example, many pies and pastries from Serbia claim Turkish and Ottoman roots, such as tulumbe—a choux pastry often fried and soaked in syrup. Other noodle, meat or fish recipes like karadjordjeva—a rolled veal, pork or ham dish pan fried with schnitzel—have Austro-Hungarian flavors.
Vegetables in a Meat World
Grilled meats are the cuisine’s centerpiece, and Serbian holidays and special occasions would not be complete without a whole grilled pig or lamb cooked on a spit over an open fire. However, many Serbs are delving into vegetarianism, thanks to religious fasts, notes Danijela Popovic, a New York City composer and concert pianist and Belgrade native. Popovic makes a vegetarian version of sarma, a popular Serbian dish of stuffed sour cabbage and minced beef and pork, as well as gibanica, a traditional baked phyllo pastry pie with cheese and egg. Cabbage is ubiquitous in the Serbian diet and takes many forms. Kupus, mild chopped cabbage with oil and vinegar, is found throughout the country, while in the south cabbage takes a spicier persona and is similar to Korean kimchee. Peppers are also popular, as is the roasted pepper spread ajvar whose flavor ranges from hot to mild to sweet and has origins in Macedonia. “Serbia and Macedonia are so close culinary-wise,” says Mike Lippart, general manager, sales and marketing, Fast-Pack Trading, Inc., a Garfield, N.J.-based importer of foods from the Balkans. “The products we carry from Macedonia are the same products one would be getting from Serbia, or Bulgaria, or Bosnia, for that matter, and are 100 percent natural,” he notes. The company does well with its Va Va brand of ajvar and liutenica, a spicier version of ajvar.
Artival: Confections/dragees; artival.co.yu.
B&S Sremska: Smoked sausage; eurofoodmart.com.
Domaci Kajmak: Homemade cheese spread; eurofoodmart.com.
Foodland: Fruit, jams, marmalades and juices; foodland.co.yu.
Harczak: Canadian Style bacon (svinjska prsuta) and sausage; eurofoodmart.com.
Igda Impeks: Mushrooms and fresh and frozen fruit; igda.co.yu.
ITN Beograd: Fruit, vegetables and herbs; itn.com.yu.
Jugprom: Frozen fruits and vegetables; jugprom.com.
Knjaz Milos: Mineral water; fastpakstore.com.
Marni: Mushrooms; marni.co.yu.
ML Company: Aseptic fruit purées; healthylifefruit.com.
ProPolis Plus: Bee products; propolisplus.com.
Sicoberry: Raspberries; sicoberry.com.
Takovo Eurocream: eurofoodmart.com.
Mixed Grill’s Popularity
Vegetarianism may be increasing, but meat dishes such as cevapi or cevapcici from the southern city of Leskovac, which are small rolls of mixed grilled, minced meat eaten with warm bread and onions, are widely popular for their flavor and delicate size. At Kafana, a new Serbian restaurant in New York City, cevapi is the best-selling menu item along with the mixed grill. Since its May 2008 opening, Kafana has attracted a mix of American locals and Serbian expats, notes Owner Vladimir Ocokoljic. Lalich Delicatessen, a Serbian specialty deli in Chicago, also offers cevapcici as well as its own aged smoked hams and bacon. The deli offers a variety of smoked meats, pickled cabbages and roasted pig and lamb.
Imports on the Rise
Since the turbulent 1990s, Serbia has steadily been integrated into a wider economy, according to Business Monitor International, with the outlook on its food and drink market noted as favorable. As the world’s health standards become stricter and as production methods become more sophisticated, more Serbian suppliers are seeking HACCP certification, and are taking measures to produce organic products, piquing U.S. interest. Marni Wild Forest Mushrooms, in Krusevac, is one of those companies. Marni will be exporting to the U.S. its wild mushroom products preserved in virgin sunflower oil, as well as other packaged mushroom products. According to Zorana Djordjevic, foreign trade director at Marni, “Serbian mushrooms have a special and strong flavor because of the local climate and large forested, mountainous areas, which are virtually free of pollution.” She also notes that, thanks to the efforts of the USAID Agribusiness Project and SIEPA, the Serbian Investment Export Promotion Agency, Serbian products and cuisine are gaining momentum in the U.S. In addition to mushrooms, Serbia’s fertile soil and favorable climate make it ideal for fruit production. Its fruit processing industry exports juices, concentrates, purées, jams, frozen and dried fruits. While the majority of Serbian exports go to the European Union, U.S. companies like Fast Pak, are noticing the potential of Serbia’s distinct fruits, particularly high-quality black plums and peaches. “In the near future," says Lippart, "we are going to delve deeper into fruit compotes and preserves and find products that are delicious and uniquely Serbian.” —N.P.D.
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