Croatia is one of the hottest travel destinations on the planet. A new cookbook helps bring those Adriatic vacations home.
Traveling to Croatia is more popular than it's ever been. And Ino Kuvačić, the Croatian chef-owner of lauded restaurant Dalmatino in Melbourne, Australia, knows exactly why.
His new book Dalmatia: Recipes from Croatia’s Mediterranean Coast tells the story of the country’s enchanting coastal region through its tapestry of dishes: meat wrapped in grape leaves from sunny vineyards, monkfish plucked from the sea, pastries shaped like juicy peaches and so many more. Kuvačić grew up in Split, a town that jutts into the Adriatic Sea, known for its parks, beaches and Roman ruins. Formative summers spent on the tiny island of Šolta, picking olives and lingering in the family kitchen, helped solidify his connection to Dalmatia’s maritime culture and cuisine.
The landscape is a key element to the food of Dalmatia, offering a bounty of fresh ingredients from field, forest and the pristine sea. Kuvačić’s book is an excellent companion to any Croatian vacation—or just as an outlet for those who, like us, live vicariously through cooking. Here’s a glimpse at the recipe journey inside:
Eat fresh-as-can-be seafood, steps away from secluded Mediterranean beaches.
The beaches of the Dalmatian Coast are spectacular. The shore twists into little coves and peninsulas, scrub-covered islands dot the coastline, pebbly beaches quickly rise into seaside cliffs and pine forests. The water quality of the Adriatic makes this region a perfect Mediterranean getaway—and a great area for seaside dining. Required eating: salata od hobotnice, the ubiquitous octopus salad that tops menus all along the coast.
“This is one of the most popular dishes served in restaurants and konobe (traditional Croatian eateries) along the Adriatic coast,” writes Kuvačić—and why wouldn’t it be, with some of the world’s best octopus within arm’s reach? Fishermen still catch octopus barehanded, and some even offer tours to learn the traditional method (and learn how to prepare your harvest for dinner). Here, the chef creates a sturdy summertime salad with waxy potatoes, cherry tomatoes, fresh cucumbers and olive oil.
Explore the bounty of Dalmatia's fishing villages.
Zatan, Korcula, Hvar, Rovinj—Dalmatia has no shortage of charming seaside towns, and no shortage of local bistros serving fresh fish. Split’s sprawling fish market is perhaps the most famous (notably free of flies, thanks to the sulfur springs nearby) but you’ll find fishermen hawking their hauls in villages all along the coast. The day’s catch can include squid, octopus, clams, mussels, shrimp, tuna and more—try the seafood simply grilled with olive oil and lemon, or prepared more elaborately in dishes like the decadent classic crni rižot (black risotto).
“There are some dishes in Croatia,” writes Kuvačić, “which we call specijaliteti, which means they are just special.” Crni rižot, jet black with briny cuttlefish ink, is one of them. Saute freshly caught cuttlefish with aromatics until almost caramelized before assembling the risotto in a cooking liquid of tomato, fish stock and white wine. For home cooks who can’t, sadly, pluck a cuttlefish straight from the sea, jarred squid ink is a fine substitute.
Sample cosmopolitan dishes in Croatia's ancient cities.
Croatia’s cities should not be missed: Zagreb, the capital founded by a medieval Hungarian king; Zadar, a stronghold of the ancient Illyrians; Varaždin, in the north, known for its baroque architecture. But perhaps the most-visited is Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Site still surrounded by thousand-year-old walls. Located near the Bosnian border at Dalmatia’s southern tip, this city has been at the nexus of countless empires: Greek, Byzantine, Venetian, Hungarian, Ottoman—even Napoleon’s France exerted its influence here, as evidenced by the city's beloved Dubrovnik “crème caramel.”
Those who think custardy desserts are dominated by Western Europeans may be surprised by rožata, Croatia’s answer to panna cotta. “One of Dubrovnik’s most famous dishes,” according to Kuvačić, these miniature puddings are named after the rose liqueur that flavored the traditional recipe. Kuvačić’s version—always on the menu at his restaurant—uses a sour cherry spirit instead, based on a recipe he learned from his aunt in Split.
Find more recipes and stories from the Adriatic in Dalmatia: Recipes from Croatia’s Mediterranean Coast by Ino Kuvačić, $25 on amazon.com.