Culinary adventures in the Balkans: Or, what does squid ink taste like?
I smiled up at my waiter, ears burning, and asked for my meal in broken Croatian:
“Zelim crni rižot?” I’d like the black risotto.
Black risotto. Black rice. I’d never seen such a thing, but what the hell; Jessi and I were in Dubrovnik, UNESCO world heritage site and the filming place for major scenes in awesomely geeky shows like Game of Thrones (more on that, later). Who knew when we’d be back here again?
So why not eat black rice?
Jessi and I stared at each other over our glasses of cool white wine.
We made small talk. She had ordered her new favorite meal, another, safer, delicious shrimp risotto.
This was her third shrimp risotto in a week.
Seriously, I couldn’t keep this girl away from the shrimp risotto. And it was excellent, so I don’t blame her!
The food in the Balkans has a tendency to become addicting, and the risotto is especially awesome.
Our meals arrived, and Jessi’s was placed in front of her.
And then my gooey, delicious dish of rice.
Black rice, sprinkled liberally with herbs and tossed with big pieces of sumptuous squid.
But why was the rice black? Some types of rice are a naturally darker color, but this rice had very clearly been smothered in something dark.
Traditional Dalmatian crni rižot is made with Arborio rice and, you guessed it: a couple of tablespoons of squid ink.
Our waiter explained that the black color came from the “forehead” of the squid known as a cuttlefish, which really looks something like this:
Check out all that ink! These amazingly versatile creatures can change colors and fit into tiny underwater spaces. Amazing.
And also pretty tasty, ink included.
From fresh seafood to grilled meats and everywhere in between.
Our culinary adventures in the Balkans, from Slovenia to Croatia, with a brief trip into Bosnia and Herzegovina, allowed us to sample the highlights of Adriatic and inland Balkan cuisine. From north to south we saw the influence of a myriad cultures that had left their imprints on the region. Each country, too, had its own unique mixture of kitchen traditions. We were excited to try them all, and to hope that all the walking we did would burn off a few calories at the same time!
Along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, seafood is fresh and abundant. Almost every meal was peppered with fresh mussels, whole shrimp and fish, caught locally. It just doesn’t get any fresher than that!
Dalmatia is also famous for its cured meats, especially cured ham, or pršut. Let me tell you, a good plate of salty pršut is a meal in itself!
The juxtaposition between cheeses and seafood was very interesting, and of course, everything went fantastically with a good white wine–also local. We couldn’t resist dunking our bread into the resulting juices. Yep, we are dunkers at heart.
Fresh pasta was also a frequent menu item, and Croatia especially gives Italy a run for its money in the linguine department.
Cevapcici and Pljeskavica
How do I properly encapsulate the char-grilled, meaty amalgamation that are the twin dishes of cevapcici (chay-vap-chee-chee) and pljeskavica (plee-ess-ka-veet-sa)?
Both are combinations of lamb, beef, veal or pork that are formed into sausages (as in cevapcici) or into a meat patty (as in pljeskavica).
Both are typically grilled up and served with a thick and doughy flatbread known as lepinja, and often with a side of red onions, a yogurty thick cream known as kajmak, and a garlicky red pepper sauce called ajvar. These Balkan staples are very common in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and can be found across the Balkan region. It’s quick, it’s greasy, it’s filling and it’s satisfying. You can’t go wrong with either of these dishes; they are the best kinds of fast food.
Sir, or cheese, is a popular accompaniment to dishes in the Balkans–especially in Croatia. Here are a couple of awesome cheese plates we sampled, with a drizzle of herbs, olive oil, and even walnuts and figs. The cheeses ranged from crumbly mozzarella to tangy blue cheeses, sharp hard cheeses and spongy wedges of fresh goat’s cheese.
Goulash and the German culinary influence
In Slovenia, a heavy German culinary influence permeated the entire food culture. Our first exposure to Slovenian-German-Austrian cross-pollination was in the capital Ljubljana, where our lunch consisted of thick beef goulash stew, cheese custard, and stew with sauerkraut and Kranjska klobasa–or kielbasa sausage.
Local brandies are very popular in the Balkans, and are commonly imbibed as an after-dinner aperitif. The family whose apartment we rented made their own local wines and their local brandy, which is known across Croatia as rakija (rah-kee-jah). Rakija and other homemade brandies really pack a punch, and serve as a nice digestive after a big meal.
I’m not a huge brandy fan, but the local flavors are hard to resist. Rakija comes in a massive variety to suit all kinds of palates, including lemon, sage, honey, blueberry, cherry, walnut and plum.
And in a place where rakija is so abundant and so delicious, we found ourselves toasting with it often! Zivjeli!
What do you think? Would you try a dish made with squid ink? What’s the strangest or tastiest dish you’ve sampled on your travels? Tell us in the comments below!