In this post I’d like to tell you a bit about the interesting coffee culture of Croatia, and what to do if you’re a tourist without a ready kitchen while in Croatia (hint, it’s not good!)
Croatian Coffee Culture
My morning breakfast is usually a Coffee and a Pastry (In retrospect, as I write this blog 3 months later, that breakfast was primarily responsible for about 15 pounds of weight gain. Kids, don’t try this at home. Or anywhere else for that matter!). While in most places (Well, most places in Eurameritralia at least) this can be accomplished simply by going to a Café and ordering one of each, in Croatia, this requires visiting first a Pastry Shop to get the Pastry, and then a Café to get the Coffee. Talk about singular focus on core competence!
It comes down as follows. Croatia has a culture of ‘Caffe Bars’, which are exactly what they say: A Café and a Bar. They serve all sorts of espresso drinks and juices, that you get in a café, and all sorts of Bar drinks, such as soft drinks and Alcohol. Cafes seem central to Croatian hanging out culture. Come weekday or weekend, rain or shine, there are almost always tons of people hanging out in the myriad cafes in the myraid-er alleyways in Zagreb. If you were in August, you would probably have found me there as well.
What they don’t serve is any sort of pastries, sandwiches or any solid food at all. So unlike cafes elsewhere, where you could get a coffee and a pastry or a sandwich (or a Chatpata Paratha Wrap if you are in India!), here you bring your own food and have it with your coffee. This is made convenient by neighboring establishments called ‘Pekaras’ or ‘Pekarnicas’ (Bakeries) where they sell only Pastries and Sandwiches.
I couldn’t figure out what resulted in this kind of a system. Talk about focusing on your core competence and outsourcing everything else!
The other unusual part of Caffes is that they only do Espresso. There is no concept of Drip Coffee.
If you ever find yourself in a Croatian Caffe Bar looking incredulously at the menu, here is a tiny guide to help you:
- Kava: Espresso
- Kava s Mlijekom: Espresso with foamed Milk (this is the closest equalent to a (wet) Cappuccino/Flat White that I have tasted)
- Kava s Šlagom: Espresso with cream. Depending on where you go this could be Heavy Whipping Cream or just Whipped Cream from a can.
- Cappuccino: Coffee doused in foam.
I soon realized that to get what I considered a Cappuccino, I needed to order the Kava s Mlijekom.
After a week, I was really excited upon finding the 2 places in Zagreb that actually do a Cappuccino the way I’m used to – complete with micro foam and artwork! Express Cafe Bar and Elis Caffe. These 2 cafes have Baristas that partake in the Barista competitions and know their coffee. Also, Croatia is blessed with good milk, so the Cappuccino in these places are really good.
Now that we talked about my favorite subject of coffee, let’s come to the topic of food in Zagreb (and indeed, in many towns in Croatia).
The Food. Uh Oh.
I have to start by saying that I love the country of Croatia. It has a rich history, beautiful cities, an amazing coastline, and an honest and hardworking people. The food here, unfortunately, was the most disappointing bit of our entire stay in this country.
This would be my take on how you would create the cuisine if you were the God responsible for the creation of Croatia. You take middling Italian food, blend in some middling Greek food, and throw in a pile of grilled meat, and you pretty much have it.
Most Croatian restaurant food can be summed up in 3 words, and this restaurant did so very aptly:
That was pretty much the fanfare at any Croatian restaurant we went to. The main difference between the menus of different Croatian restaurants is the paper that it is printed on.
They all have the same set of the following:
- The same 4-5 different varieties of Pizzas, Pastas, and Lasagnas
- The same few grilled meat options (Čevapi)
- The same few seafood options
- The same 2 unappetizing salads (One with Cucumber and Feta Cheese, and one with leaves)
Čevapi is a grilled meat dish which is essentially a Smorgasbord of different meats, with some potato fries on the side and the odd tomato added for garnishing.
Now the list probably looks like a decent amount of variety. But just try the same menu everyday for 3 weeks, and you’ll soon be resorting to hunting around grocery stores and the like. Speaking of grocery stores, I found the very best flavored yoghurt in Croatia. It’s Pista&Almond flavored yoghurt with real Pistachios in it! We spent many an afternoon feasting on just this!
Now I ended up spending 6 weeks in Croatia finishing up my Physical Therapy. As you might guess, the last couple weeks were spent searching high and low for any place that served non-Croatian food. In Zagreb I finally found a few and was happy. In the small touristy coastal towns, unfortunately, unless you’re willing to take a car and go hunting outside the coastal towns for food, you’re pretty much stuck with same ol’ Pizza Pasta etc… I had to make up for the lack of flavor with the view. And make up it did. The Coastal towns are some of the most beautiful towns I have seen in my life…
Now I’m sure that in every town, if you go outside the main areas you might find more variety, and the locals know these places. But as a traveler, you spend most time around the center of most towns, and this was unfortunately the only options we had there…
If you do end up going to Zagreb, these are a few of my picks to get a respite from Croatian Pizza Pasta Čevapi:
- Mundoaka: Not too surprisingly, this was born out of a collaboration between a Croatian and a New Yorker. Awesome fusion options, and decadent desserts. Just a few doors down is Express Caffe, one of only two Zagrebian cafes to offer really good Cappuccinos from La Marzocco machines. Hop on over for your after dinner cup!
- Kisa: A Russian-Georgian-Azerbaijanian restaurant. The menu is not extensive but this is a welcome respite, and the Ambience is casual and laidback. And we often ended up chatting with the waiters here long after the restaurant had closed for the night.
- Wok by Matija: Interesting variant of Chinese food. Tasty nonetheless. (Why was I looking for chinese food in Croatia? You try eating Pizza & Pasta everyday for 6 weeks!)
To be fair, we did get excellent, tasty, Croatian food one evening. It required taking a taxi out of the town center to probably the parts where the locals camp out! The place was called Stari Puntijar. It was in a hotel that was converted from a castle, and is worth going there just for the décor! I hear it’s used by the Government officials for their formal dinners. If you want to sample Croatian food that’s not the staple tourist fare, go there.