The Filo Dough Legend

By: Andrea Pisac

People travel for new experiences. And new experiences travel best through the tummy. No wonder the first thing you want to sample in a new country is its authentic cuisine.

By the way, have you checked Taste of Croatia’s section on Things to try?

Croatia’s most widespread culinary item is strudel. Whether you’ve read a guidebook beforehand or just happened to walk into a bakery, the strudel awaits.

I am deliberately not categorising strudel into either sweet or savory; starter, main or dessert. Can you guess why? This little bundle of joy is so versatile it will do two things to you: first sweep you off your feet, then confuse you.

Štrudla sa višnjama / Sour cherry strudel (sweet)

Strudel comes in many variations: apple, cherry, cheese, poppy seed, pumpkin, spinach, cabbage, potato… It makes you dizzy (with delight). But it also comes disguised under many different names: štrudl (or štrudla), savijača, pita, burek, bučnica, zeljanica, krumpiruša. I know, it’s confusing.

But let me make things simple.

All you need to know about strudel is this: it's made with exquisite filo (phyllo) dough. No matter which filling melts in your mouth, no matter the occasion or the meal course, strudel is king because of its paper-thin layered pastry. Soft and elastic on the inside and crispy on the outside.

Filo dough’s ingredients are incredibly simple – flour, water and a small amount of oil and white vinegar – but its technique requires great skill and patience. Perfect filo is beaten to activate the gluten and progressively kneaded between resting. It is then stretched on a table into a thin large sheet, and once the filling is added, rolled with the help of a table cloth.

So remember: filo dough. Because now I’ll confuse you some more. 

Sirnica or whey cheese pita (savory)

If you get invited to a Croatian home for Sunday lunch, you’ll probably be served some kind of strudel. If you eat out in the most basic restaurant, you’ll encounter strudel on the dessert menu. Croats will tell you it’s their authentic dish. If you probe further, you’ll find out its origin goes back to the Austro-Hungarian times. After all, apfel strudel is the Austrian national dish, is it not?

There’s nothing strange about cultural culinary influences. Croatia, just like Hungary, Slovenia, Bosnia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, belonged to the once powerful Habsburg Monarchy. It’s to be expected that strudel travelled and spread all over the old Empire. When you taste home-made cherry strudel, you’ll wish your own country had belonged to the strudel-land.

Makovnjača aka poppy seed strudel (sweet)

But wait. When your new Croatian friends take you for a late night snack after a night of drinking and buy you a burek, confusion sets in again. Burek is savory and, in Croatia, usually made with ground meat or cheese. A few bites in and you’ll wonder: isn’t this filo dough too, and if so, why is it called burek and not strudel?

I’ll tell you why. Burek arrived from the rival Ottoman Empire. Croatia, just like Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Macedonia, once also belonged to the burek-land. And there filo dough was used with savory fillings.

Bosnia has best preserved the tradition of savory filo dough. They call it pita. And with different fillings, pita gets various names. Pita with cabbage is zeljanica, pita with cheese sirnica, with potato krumpirusa and with meat burek.

In Bosnia, only pita with meat is called burek. And in Croatia every savory filo is  burek. You just specify with which filling. I’m sorry but I just don’t know how to keep the filo business any simpler. It’s as convoluted as its many delicious layers.

Croats will show off burek as their traditional dish. Trust me, when you taste it, you’ll wish you could too. Even though it actually comes from the Ottoman Empire, burek has been around for 500 years. And this must be enough to lay down the foundations of a tradition. But most Croats feel slightly off when they’re lumped into the Balkan company.

The fear from being called Balkan, hence primitive and uncivilised, is the single reason why you find strudel and burek a complicated business. If Croats don’t like the Balkan label, imagine how much the royal Austrians dread it? So much so they concealed the following fact: Orient is the real cradle of filo dough.

Now it’s one thing to have culinary cross-overs, usually results of a country’s imperialist rule. But it’s a whole different game to realise that your national dish is made with the enemy’s dough.

But why worry yourself with so much culinary geopolitics? Especially when you can sink your teeth into the next mouth-watering strudel or burek.  And in Croatia – a crucible of both Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires – you can enjoy both. Just eat – no one has to know they’re made of the same dough.

Call me too philosophical but I’ll say it anyway: politics divides people but filo dough unites them!

Filo categorisation for the advanced:

Zagorje and Međimurje, two north Croatian provinces, are famous for bučnica – pumpkin strudel. You’ve probably gathered that strudel is usually associated with sweet filo and pita/burek with savory. Well, bučnica messes things up further. Although pumpkin is always part of the filling, it can be enriched with poppy seeds and sweetened cottage cheese (Međimurje) or with salty cottage cheese (Zagorje). When you go to a bakery, you’ll never know which version you’re buying. Tough luck! But if you’re eating a home-made bučnica, just ask the cook where s/he comes from. That should be your clue.

The filo dough galore

Filo trivia:

Andrea Pisac from Zagreb Honestly appartments

Andrea Pisac is a fiction writer and a cultural anthropologist. She writes about everyday ordinary life in Croatia from an extraordinary perspective. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter or follow her blog Zagreb Honestly.  You can also rent her central Zagreb apartment which comes with an added value – a great Zagreb host.