There’s no better introduction to the Croatian culture than through food. Filling up on yummy dishes is far better than picking up a souvenir.
But there’s more to eating in Croatia than what you get on a plate. You also need to learn the how’s of feeding, like when and how much to eat, when it’s safe to skip a meal and when ‘no, thanks’ is unacceptable even if you’re stuffed to the gills.
The main meal of the day
So let’s begin with the meals of the day. You will find English words for all three major ones – breakfast, lunch and dinner – but their hierarchy is different than in the English-speaking world.
This is why when I first came to London, I spent my days staggering around from feeling faint to being too full to fall asleep at night. I needed to readjust both my mind and my metabolism to the concept of dinner.
Even today, when I can wait to have my main meal at 7PM, I still believe refuelling for lunch is way smarter. The Brits are surprised at how much we can eat in the middle of the day, but this is exactly what makes us slim.
We eat lunch, we don’t just have salad for lunch.
Croatia’s cult of lunch has much to do with our working hours. When I was a child, my parents worked from 7AM-3PM, so lunch was served as soon as we all gathered back at home.
If we were hungry before, we’d have a snack, but lunch was always the highlight of the day – what fed us physically and emotionally.
These days we’re not immune to fast food and eating on the go. But whenever possible, Croats eat lunch together and at the table. If they skip the ritual on workdays, they make up for it on weekends.
Barge into a Croatian home at 1PM on Sunday and you’ll see us slurping a steaming soup that only whets our appetite. What follows is a real feast usually rounded up with a homemade cake.
All other meals
No matter how busy they get, Croatians still persevere with home cooking. Preparing a healthy lunch on a daily basis is such an ingrained tradition that it even translates into a joke ‘that a girl is ready to get married when she learns to cook’.
With lunch taking most of the foodie focus for the day, other meals can allow for a more relaxed approach.
Take dinner for example, a venerated meal in the English-speaking world. In Croatia, dinner often means eating left-overs from lunch or simply nibbling on some bread and cold cuts. You are not even required to sit at the table or to wait for the family to gather around
With Croatian dinner, you get all the freedom you want. You can be as healthy as you like with your fruit and yoghurt, Nutella naughty by the spoonful, or even cram food into your mouth while standing in front of the fridge. Best part, you can completely skip dinner if you wish so without getting a snarky look.
Breakfast is almost the same. Yes, many families teach kids to start their day with a healthy meal. But adults themselves are often guilty of skipping it. Not because they’re watching their weight but because they eat a meal at around 11 o’clock.
Recharging at this hour has a long history. In continental Croatia it’s called gablec – a meal that used to mark half a day’s shift for workers. In Dalmatia, where days start early to avoid the heat, people eat marenda at that time.
Nowadays work starts later but those who skipped breakfast still take a short break around 11 o’clock to feed their rumbling bellies. Just like in the old days.
Now that you understand this upside-down pyramid of Croatian meals, you can adjust your eating habits to the local ways.
Skipping breakfast is safe because gablec is just around the corner. Dinner is optional and gives you all kinds of foodie freedoms. Lunch, on the other hand, is sacred and certainly not the time to be on a diet. Otherwise you might end up hungry later on.
What’s on the menu
With so many culinary influences, Croatian cuisine is pretty diverse. But if you follow a typical Croatian family, you’ll notice a simple pattern. Throughout the week, simple one-pot meals run the show, while weekends are saved for more elaborate feasts.
The adapted German word čušpajz is a case in point. This stew made of any seasonal vegetable is a mainstay of the mid-week menu. Meat may be added, to the recipe or on the side, but it’s not obligatory.
Čušpajz is a culinary masterpiece that ticks many boxes. It’s healthy, simple, and it lasts for more than one day. At some point, it was actually scoffed at for being so plain. But now even restaurants turn to it, celebrating our unique na žlicu (eating with a spoon) cuisine.
Being a vegetarian, I can sail through the week just fine. I only need to pass on the meat served on the side and I’m fine. But come weekend, I’m in trouble.
Meat roasts and barbecues steal the spotlight. I even get funny looks when I say no to a roast chicken, because allegedly ‘chicken is not meat’. This tells you how rich weekend feeding gets in Croatia.
This abundance also shows up in the way food is served. British people get surprised when lunch is not dished out. Seated against an empty plate, they are too timid to serve themselves and dig in. But the Croatian message is just the opposite: eat as much as you want, no one is counting.
If you spend some time with Croats, you will observe a peculiar eating habit that alone accounts for the nation’s longevity. We are both frugal and lavish with our meals.
Most of the time we eat simple, clean meals like čušpajz. But at special occasions, we go all out with feasting, even overeating.
You’d think such feeding has no logic in it. Especially when you witness a Croatian wedding when a 2nd dinner of roast lamb is served at 2AM. But it does make sense. Because food satiates not only our physical hunger, but out emotional drive for abundance.
Next time you’re in Croatia, try a different foodie approach. Instead of looking for authentic dishes, experiment with locals eating habits. Eat simple to nourish your body. Then go all out, fill up to the gills, to nurture your gourmet soul.
About Andrea Pisac
Andrea Pisac is a writer and cross-cultural expert. She writes about everyday ordinary life in Croatia from an extraordinary perspective on her award-winning blog Zagreb Honestly. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.