Upon arriving back in the US after spending May in the capital city of Croatia, I realized how different cultures around the world are from the US. I also gained a better understanding of the aspects that shape these cultures, food landing a spot at the top of the list. The city of Zagreb, Croatia has become a hub of heterogeneous fare with a diverse array of restaurants flanking each street. However, Purgers (locals of the Balkan city) continue to widely sell, prepare, and enjoy traditional Croatian delicacies.
The traveler seeking authentic Croatian food must sample these traditional foods in order to truly understand the essence of Croatian culture. Each morning, the scent of freshly baked bread fills the warm air above the sun-struck cobblestone streets of Zagreb. Restaurant doors are propped open one by one along Tkalčićeva Street.
A stout, middle-aged man with a coarse beard leans up against the wooden frame of an outdoor patio. He wears an apron and puffs a cigarette.
“Dobar dan,” he mutters, offering an inviting grin. A few winding streets away, the Dolac Market is buzzing as vendors set up flowers, produce and handcrafted decorations. The air is saturated with a fragrance of fresh bell peppers and green onions.
Zagreb’s largest outdoor market, Dolac, is located steps away from the city’s cathedral. Spreads of fresh produce, cheese, and meat are cloaked by a sea of red umbrellas that constitute the local market. Atop one wooden planked table in the middle of the buzzing maze, jars of honey are organized in rows.
“Here,” exclaims a tall man with dark olive skin as he extends a calloused hand holding a slim white spoon. “Take this,” he says.
Amber syrup drips down the handle. The man is Željko Grobotek, beekeeper and owner of Mladi Bagrem, a local honey production company.
Grobotek explains, “my honey comes from different flowers grown in many parts of Croatia. The honey you’re eating comes from the mountains.” He points in the direction of Upper Town, where mountains are evident in the distance.
Adjacent to a strip of souvenir vendors above Dolac Market is Restoran Lanterna na Dolcu. Thick chestnut doors open up into a dimly lit indoor seating area, bordered by white concrete and exposed brick walls.
Here, hungry travelers can order traditional gnocchi with beef steak and homemade truffle sauce. Grown and distributed throughout the country, fresh truffles are a fundamental element of many Croatian delicacies.
Ivan and Tomislav Švagelj, who opened the restaurant in September of 2010, collect produce from Dolac each morning to ensure high-quality, fresh ingredients. They have come up with unique ways to serve Croatian fare, incorporating multiple flavors into each dish.
They say, “to every traditional recipe we add our original ingredient.”
Polished wooden booths stretch the length of Skalinska street, forming the outdoor seating area for local restaurant, Nokturno. While one booth holds elderly women puffing cigarettes over bowls of gnocchi, another is occupied by a young mother pinching spaghetti noodles between her thumb and forefinger to feed her young son.
Croatia often yields a cuisine which resembles that of traditional Italian, because of its close proximity to northern Italy. The Skalinska pizza – made with hand-tossed dough, fresh tomatoes, cheese, arugula, and peppers – is one of multiple Italian/Croatian fusion dishes on Nokturno’s extensive menu. All ingredients are harvested locally.
Further along Skalinska street stands La Struk – a restaurant that prepares different varieties of the Croatian delicacy, štrukli.
La Struk offers multiple different types of štrukli, both sweet and savory – served warm and lightly toasted upon the edges. The štrukli’s foundation is made from a special dough and cottage cheese. Its flaky outer texture compliments its creamy core. The dish can be baked or boiled and topped with additional ingredients – like La Struk’s signature pumpkin seed pesto.The restaurant is small, but its pristine white walls make the space appear open. A quiet garden terrace extends behind the kitchen. The atmosphere is calm, with few birds muttering soft chirps.
A few steps up the cobblestone street from the holy sanctuary Kamenita Vrata, a round arch shelters glass doors that lead into the Restoran Trilogija. Inside, identical arches continue successively to the restaurant’s rear wall. The high ceiling is patterned with worn red bricks.
Here is where the traveler can sample pljukanci with boskarin beef – a traditional dish combining hand-rolled pasta with creamy sauces and meat.
“All of our beef is imported from Istria,” says server Krešimir Leder, “It comes from the big bulls with the big horns,” he explains with a nod and a chuckle.
The assortment of restaurants peppered throughout Zagreb can be a maze to the unfamiliar traveler. However, food is an essential aspect of culture. In order to gain a thorough experience abroad, it is necessary to sample authentic new foods. In tasting blends of diverse flavors that make up this unique cuisine, travelers will gain a new perspective of Croatia.
This article was originally published for the Travel Writing in Croatia study abroad Maymester hosted by the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication (The University of Georgia).