25 Jun

Regional party food from Croatia – no nationalism required


Today marks Croatian Statehood Day, so The Melting Pot thought it’d be a great opportunity to speak to a couple of Australia’s talented Croatian cooks. So we did… only to find that Statehood Day, a public holiday in Croatia that celebrates the country’s independence, doesn’t actually attract much attention from Croatians living in Australia. Perhaps that’s because they don’t get a day off work to party… and boy do they like to party.

Neda Matesic, 56, from Georges Hall in Sydney, immigrated to Australia in 1968 and says Croatians love to get together and feast, usually on a pig or lamb roasted on a spit. “Croatians really love eating, and they love eating lots of meat,” she says.

Christmas and Easter, birthdays and Catholic Saints days are celebrated with whole beasts spit-roasted for four or five hours, basted with their own juices. It’s all served with Mediterranean salads of shredded cabbage or sliced potato dressed with extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.

Like Neda, Bozena Jakicic, 57, loves Croatian cuisine’s simplicity. She came to live in Melbourne’s Yarraville 15 years ago and can’t understand why people here add so many things to their food. Too many ingredients mask the true flavours, she finds. “Croatians don’t use a lot of spices or herbs, just a little salt, pepper and parsley.”

Bozena grew up in Zagreb, Croatia’s inland capital city, and says that the cooking there is much heavier than it is on the coast. “I can’t imagine a week without potatoes. My family could serve potatoes five times in a day: baked, fried, boiled… any way.”

Neda spent her early childhood on Pag, an island in the Adriatic Sea beset by a notoriously fierce wind called the bura. “We used to wear underwear made out of wool, and we wouldn’t take it off the whole winter because it was so cold,” she says.

The bura covers the rocky island in salt, a phenomenon that results in lamb and sheep’s milk cheese highly prized throughout Europe. The country’s famous hard cheese, paski sir, even has its own blog.

Neda tells us that while Croatian food is simple, it’s also diverse and regional. Locals in the northern part of the country cook with plenty of cream, in similar fashion to the Austrians and Germans, while the southeastern area near Bosnia is influenced by Turkish cuisine. Coastal areas like Parg, which is in the Dalmatian region, enjoy Mediterranean tastes, with fish and other seafood featuring at the top of the food pyramid.

For Bozena, Easter is a very special occasion. She will cook sweetbreads, a ham, boiled eggs and spring onions and take them to church to be blessed before bringing them home and adding them to the family’s Easter feast. The blessed food cannot be thrown in the rubbish, so it must be eaten or placed in an open fire.

Cooking on an outdoor fire is a popular Croatian custom. As well as the favoured spit roast, Croatians also love to gather around a peka when slow cooking chicken or cuts of meat. The peka is a dome-shaped lid made from metal that goes over the food before it is placed in a fire, then covered in hot coals. It is a traditional way of cooking that Bozena’s friends in Melbourne still enjoy.

Below, Neda kindly shares a traditional seafood dish from her island home as well as a favourite family treat. This seafood broth is typically enjoyed by her family on a Friday, when it is a Roman Catholic tradition to eat fish.

Bozena also shares some recipes that she likes to cook for her family and friends: traditional stuffed cabbage rolls called sarma, as well as strukli, a dish cooked regularly in most Croatian households.
– story by Kim Kind

Brudet (seafood broth with polenta)
Serves 6

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon tomato paste
400g can chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon Vegeta*
1/4 cup (60ml) white wine
1kg mixed fish fillets*, cut into small pieces, and shellfish (such as prawns, mussels, clams, calamari)
Chopped parsley, to garnish

2L water
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups of polenta (not instant)
2 teaspoons Vegeta*

1) Place the olive oil, onion and garlic in a saucepan and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add tomato paste, chopped tomatoes and Vegeta and sauté for about 5 minutes or until the onions and tomatoes soften. Add the white wine and seafood and a little water: 1/2 (125ml) to 1 cup (250ml) to bring the soup to a consistency of your liking. Let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

2) To make the polenta, place water and olive oil in a heavy saucepan (to stop the polenta from sticking) and bring to the boil. Slowly pour the polenta into the water. Keep stirring and turn the heat down to low. Add the Vegeta. Continue stirring for about half an hour on a very low heat. It should start to thicken.

3) When cooked, let polenta sit and cool for a few minutes. To serve, place spoonfuls of polenta in bowls, ladle seafood broth over the top and garnish with parsley.

* Neda uses smoked cod for her seafood broth, but any boneless fish fillet is fine. Vegeta is a Croatian condiment, available from select delicatessens.


Madjarica (Mađarica)
Neda’s four sons love this layered chocolate slice.

600g self-raising flour
2 eggs
50g unsalted butter, melted, cooled
300ml sour cream
1 cup sugar

1L milk
200g good quality dark chocolate, grated
6 tablespoons corn flour
1 cup sugar
50g unsalted butter

1) Mix flour, eggs, butter, sour cream and sugar in a bowl until combined into a dough. Knead until dough is shiny and not sticky.

2) Divide into 5 balls, and roll out each ball into 20 x 30cm rectangles and about 5mm thick. Bake one at a time on baking paper on the back of a tray in the oven at 150C  or 10 mins (do not overcook). Lift baking paper to remove pastry and set on the benchtop to cool.

3) While pastry is cooling, prepare the filling. Mix together 1/4 cup (60ml) of the milk with the corn flour. In a heavy-based saucepan, heat the rest of milk over medium-low heat with the chocolate, sugar, butter and the corn flour mixture. Stir until it thickens.

4) Pour some filling & spread over each pastry sheet, pressing so sheets stick together. Spread the same filling over the top sheet. Refrigerate for several hours before slicing.

Sarma (stuffed cabbage)
Makes 15 cabbage rolls

Sarma is a traditional, heavy dish that is usually served for special occasions. This recipe makes enough for a crowd and, since they taste even better the next day and the day after, you’ll have tasty leftovers!

2 tablespoons fat or oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
600g dried meat or bacon, chopped
3 gloves garlic
120g rice (longrain or any other type), uncooked
500-600g minced beef
1 egg
1 large head of sour cabbage (sauerkraut)*, root trimmed, leaves separated
1 large bay leaf
2 teaspoons paprika powder
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 tablespoons tomato paste

1) Heat the oil in a large frying pan over high heat, and fry the onion and 100g of the dried meat (or bacon). Add the garlic, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and add rice, minced beef and egg. Stir the mixture well.

2) Place a cabbage leaf on your palm and place approximately a heaped tablespoon of the meat mixture in the middle of the leaf. Fold up the bottom of the leaf (where the root is), then fold in the right side. The remaining left side of the cabbage needs to be tucked into the roll carefully.

3) Place 2-3 pickled cabbage leaves on the bottom of a large pot. Add the rolls and then the remaining dried meat or bacon, ensuring it covers the cabbage rolls.

4) Finally, add the bay leaf, paprika and peppercorns and cover the rolls with water. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook the sarma for at least 2-3 hours. Add a small amount of water when needed to offset any evaporation.

5) Add tomato paste and gently shake the pan. Serve with mash potatoes and a spoon of sour cream.

* Whole heads of sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) can be found in select delis and some supermarkets. It is very important to use good-quality, medium-sized sauerkraut that is not too sour or salty.

Bozena’s Zagorski Strukli
Štrukli or zagorski štrukli is a traditional Croatian dish served in most households across Zagorje and Zagreb. There are two types of štrukli: boiled or baked.

Whichever way the štrukli is cooked, the preparations are the same. A pastry is rolled out flat and very thin to cover a tabletop. A mixture of cottage cheese with eggs, sour cream and salt are spread thinly across the pastry. Then the pastry is rolled lengthways from both sides into two joined rolls, and finally cut into 10–20cm lengths.

For baked strukli, these lengths are placed into a baking tray, generously covered in clotted cream and baked for roughly 45 minutes until slightly brown on top.

For boiled strukli, water is boiled and the štrukli pieces are placed into the pot. Onion and parsley are fried until slightly brown and poured into the kuhani štrukli. The štrukli is then boiled for roughly 20 minutes.

250g plain flour
150ml water
1 teaspoon oil
1 teaspoon salt

500g fresh cheese  (ricotta or farmers cheese)
2 eggs
1-2 teaspoons salt

6 tablespoons sour cream
1 egg

1) Preheat oven to 185C. Combine pastry ingredients, then roll out pastry into a large square on a floured surface. For the filling, combine ingredients in a bowl, season with salt to taste, then spread onto the pastry.

2) Using plastic wrap, wrap into a large cylinder and close the ends. Cut into slices about 5cm in length. Place the slices in boiling water and cook for about 4-5 minutes.

3) Take out the cooked pieces and put them into a heatproof bowl with about 2 tablespoons of reserved cooking liquid. Pour over with the topping and bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown.

* You can also use ready-made filo pastry.

Photos: Josip Jelacic statue by Fearless Fred; Dubrovnik al fresco dining by Natasha de Vere and Col Ford; Croatian flags by Jason Paris; Strukli by Parfe DunjaSarma by Gunes Akdogan