Christmas dishes traditionally prepared for winter holidays in Croatia
Christmas is finally at the door, which means it is all about family gatherings, festive food, and Christmas vibes. We’ve covered the traditional Croatian winter cakes and cookies from around the country here, so the time has come to cover the main dishes.
To introduce you to the Croatian customs, we summarized the traditional Croatian Christmas dishes that Croatians prepare for the winter holidays. We bring the top menus from Zagreb, central Croatia, Slavonia, Istria, Lika, and Dalmatia, including recipes.
In this article, we cover:
Dishes that Croatians prepare for the Christmas holidays
When our grandparents and parents were young, Christmas decorations and gifts were related to food and handmade things instead of the overrated expensive gifts. Christmas trees and tables were decorated with apples, oranges, pears, plums, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Children were given dried fruits and nuts, and boys gave girls apples eventually decorated with pine sticks. Spiritual vibes were more valued than the material.
Although the old customs have slightly faded, Christmas hangouts and menu is still a big deal for Croatians. In fact, food is the top 1 priority. We spend Christmas days with our families and friends at the holiday table decorated with božićna pšenica (Christmas wheat), where we enjoy festive surroundings, Christmas songs, and chatting.
Christmas preparations start at the end of November, with the beginning of Advent. During Advent, we start to think about the meals and cakes to cook. We browse cooking books and online sources to get information about the latest trends and exchange ideas with our family, friends, and neighbors.
We discuss where to get the finest groceries if we don’t grow our own food and make homemade products. Walnuts for orehnjača, whole sour cabbage for sarma, turkey for the Christmas lunch – all can be obtained from local producers.
Here are some of our guides on buying food:
Fancy plates and glasses are pulled from the shelves and cleaned for winter holidays. We thoroughly iron festive tablecloths and look around the shops for new Christmas accessories. Even tiny refreshments like kitchen towels or Christmas decorations fill our hearts with warmth and joy.
On Christmas Eve, we prepare dishes we eat on that day, as well as food for Christmas and the days after. The custom is to eat fasting meals on Christmas Eve and richer meals on Christmas Day. Every Croatian region has its specific traditional Christmas dishes. We start baking Christmas cakes and cookies a few days before Christmas Eve and finish the last preparations that day.
In general, meat in all forms should be avoided on Christmas Eve – lighter meals prepare us for the abundant food we enjoy for Christmas. So, we eat fish, dried fish, cod, brudet, squid, or cuttlefish risotto, together with side dishes such as cabbage, potato, cauliflower, or some other vegetables.
On Christmas, we eat meat dishes like svinjsko pečenje (roast pork), purica (turkey), kokoš (chicken), guska (goose) with side dishes such as mlinci and francuska salata (Olivier salad). Some prepare sarma with dried meat and sausages. These dishes can last for several days, so we don’t have to cook after Christmas and can finally chill in a holiday environment.
As we already learned, Christmas Eve is reserved for lighter, fasting meals, mostly fish. Dalmatians and Istrians can’t imagine this day without bakalar (Atlantic cod). Brodet, a dish made of boiled sea fish, seafood, or octopus with spices, is also typical for the coast. Istrians also prepare fish soups or maneštra, a thick soup with pasta and vegetables, including beans, potatoes, chickpeas, and corn.
In Slavonija, it is common to prepare freshwater fish, including trout, catfish, and carp, or fišpaprikaš, a soupy dish prepared from various types of freshwater fish. In central Croatia, we prepare fish, seafood, or shell risotto, lignje (squids), or some other fish or seafood dish served with salads such as francuska salata and grah salata (bean salad).
Here are some Christmas Eve recipes:
- Atlantic cod
- Istarski brodet (Istrian brodet) – view here
- Fiš paprikaš – view here
- Istarska maneštra (Istrian maneštra) – view here
- Lignje s krumpirom (Squid with potatoes) – view here
- Slane srdele (salted sardines) – view here
A Croatian Christmas lunch can’t happen without a rich beef or chicken soup. It contains a nice piece of meat cooked with carrots, onion, celery, and parsley. View our vegetable cheat sheet here. The best thing you can add to the soup is domaći rezanci (homemade noodles), thinly rolled egg dough cut into narrow strips.
As a main dish, Croatians usually eat roasted meat for Christmas. In Zagreb, its surroundings, and central Croatia, we prepare roasted purica (turkey), piletina (chicken), janjetina (lamb), and odojak (piglet). Slavonians prepare turkey, suckling pig, and patka (duck), and Istrians turkey, teletina (veal), and suckling pig.
Dalmatians prepare turkey and veal, but also pašticada, spicy stewed beef stuffed with prunes and bacon. Janjetina s polama (lamb with potato halfs) and sarma, a dish made of minced meat and rice wrapped in sour cabbage leaves, are characteristic for Lika.
As side dishes to meat, we serve mlinci, roasted potatoes and vegetables, francuska salata, sour cabbage, njoki (gnocchi), sometimes polenta (polenta), and various seasonal salads. Istrians also serve fuži, Istrian tube-shaped egg pasta.
Here are some Christmas recipes:
- Bistra juha (soup) – view here
- Dalmatinska pašticada (Dalmatian pašticada) – view here
- Janjetina s krumpirom (lamb with potatoes) – view here
- Patka s vinom (duck with wine) – view here
- Svinjsko pečenje (roasted pork) – view here
We also eat dishes prepared for Christmas on the next day – Štefanje – and a few days later, usually finishing up the leftovers.
It is believed that the New Year’s dishes are a reflection of well-being and fertility. Svinjetina (pork) or a suckling pig and francuska salata are inevitable New Year dishes in Croatian homes. Pigs roar with their snout on the ground and push forward, so eating pork brings progress in a new year. Fat symbolizes prosperity, success, health, and happiness.
Sarma is probably the most consumed dish for New Year’s in Croatia. The round shape of the sarma represents well-being and health. Cabbage or kale leaves are green and look like money, which means your new year will be wealthy.
Here are some Christmas Eve recipes:
Croatian local producers are known for valued wines. Winter holiday celebrations in Croatia can’t do without quality wine. Some mix wine with other beverages; they drink gemišt, white wine with sparkling mineral water, or bambus, red wine with Coca-Cola.
Learn more about Croatian wine:
Many of us are beer lovers and craft beers are becoming increasingly popular. Read about the Croatian craft beer culture here. In addition, we drink hard liqueurs and rakija, a traditional strong liqueur made by distilling boiled, fermented pomace of fruits, plants, or grains, but mostly plums.
The New Year’s menu would not be complete without sparkling wine. To learn more about sparkling wines produced in Croatia and how to choose the right one, hop over to this post.
Tiny tip: Croatians adore Christmas days, but overthinking too much and trying to make the Christmas table perfect can become a nightmare. The main point is to spend time with your closest ones. Learn a few Croatian holiday words and phrases to connect with your Croatians, breathe, and enjoy.
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy Winter Holiday! 🙂
View our other winter holiday posts
- Advent celebrations across Croatia
- Best spots in Croatia to go sledding PLUS where to buy one and winter vocabulary
- Christmas cakes and cookies traditionally prepared for winter holidays in Croatia
- Croatian holiday words and phrases
- Epiphany (Bogojavljenje, Sveta tri kralja) in Croatia
- How to grow božićna pšenica (Christmas wheat) in Croatia
- Nikolinje – Saint Nicholas’ Day
- Silvestrovo and New Year’s Eve in Croatia
- St. Lucy’s Day (Sveta Lucija) in Croatia
- Sveti Stjepan, Štefanje (St. Stephen’s Day)
Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.