Street Food Is Dead, Long Live the Street Food

When you think of street food, you probably imagine an awesome (level Asian) street vendor in a remote village who has Mortal Combat cooking skills and Anthony Bourdain sitting in front of him. And your presumption is (mostly) correct.

But, let’s move from Asia to Central Europe, more precisely – Croatia. I would like to share my thoughts about the (non)existence of Croatian street food.

In Croatia, we have all preconditions to deliver wonderful street food. In continental part, we have fields full of vegetables, herbs and we’re serious carnivores. On the seaside (the Adriatic), beautiful and healthy seafood, Mediterranean spices and delicious lamb on islands.

“When the moon hits your eye…”
When I arrived in Zadar last summer, I noticed some strange things considering food in particular. There are pizza places all over the town, on every damn corner. Oh, sorry, you could also see the boring corn on the cob on hot spots.

Since I’m a regular buyer and visitor at Zadar fish market, I know there’s a lot of tasty “cheap” fish and shellfish like sardine, mackerel, shrimp or mussel. And that’s basically all that we as tourists need and want when we hit the city. Fast local, traditional dishes — buzara with mussels or shrimps (affordable and simple as hell, dish with just a few local ingredients), brudet (magical Dalmatian fish stew), deep fried sardines, mackerel grilled on gradele rack with some parsley, garlic and olive oil — all with some fresh homemade bread and cheap but decent local wine.

But instead, we’re stuck with pizzas, puffed pastry fast food and pretty expensive restaurants or taverns.

I’ve asked myself a few questions and decided to find answers or at least fail trying. The big four is:

  • Are the locals lazy? 
  • Bureaucracy thing, maybe? 
  • Do they lack a profit perspective? 
  • Is it a cultural and historical issue?

Work less, earn more
There’s a stereotype that Dalmatians are lazy and all they do is drink bevanda and rest under an olive tree* all day. Well, they have, as I have learned, a custom called — mala noć (little night — rough translation, similar to the siesta). But that doesn’t make them lazy, just more relaxed and laid-back. They like to be self-sustainable, and by that I mean, to have their own restaurants, wineries, and apartments for rent. They (mostly) live all year from income earned in the summer.

Their apartments are built by people from other, less developed parts of Croatia, or Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s similar with restaurants and bars, where most of the employees are seasonal workers and they’re not from Dalmatia. We have something here, but in my humble opinion, nothing to call them lazy. They have just learned how to work less and earn more. And, not to forget — there are many Dalmatians working their socks off.

* The song Maslina je neobrana (“Olive Isn’t Harvested”) is actually a sad song sung by klapa (Dalmatian traditional a capella choir), but many use it for mocking Dalmatians. It’s like — “Eight fancy dressed guys singing about olive not being harvested. Are you f***in’ kidding me? Go and harvest it!”

Bureaucracy, bureaucracy everywhere

Well, first I thought it might be about food safety regulation issues or insufficient local government support, but then I ran into a festival called Night of the Full Moon, and ate a lot of brudet, grilled fish and buzara.

There were thousands of tourists. And, as I have mentioned, we (tourists) just love this simple combo of fish and wine.

So, I reached for answers in Istria (Dalmatia’s northern neighbor). I contacted chef David Skoko from Batelina. Konoba Batelina is a place where David transforms fresh underrated fish and shellfish to a culinary masterpiece.

David tells me that there are, in fact, some regulations which allow people to prepare and sell food at fairs and festivals, but permits are mostly issued on daily basis or during fairs — short-term permits. And, yes, they are issued by the local government.

With minimal regulation corrections, the government can provide better conditions for small entrepreneurs, increase self-employment and we can have all-year-round quality street food. — said David Skoko.

I also reached out to get information from Maja Žebčević Matić from City Museum of Požega, the person behind the Museum in a Pot project, who brought us forgotten Slavonian food to the table. Maja also pointed out some interesting things.

Until recently (90’s), you could buy roasted ox during a music festival, but now that’s banned. — Maja Žebčević Matić explained.

Ok, so there are bureaucracy issues related to selling food in the street.

Shut up and take my money!
Walking every night through Zadar with thousands of fellow tourists, I noticed that almost everyone is eating, drinking or licking something. Restaurants, bars, popcorn stands, pizza corners, even corn stands are full. For example, one night* I walked along the seafront and saw simple deep fried fish at one stand. There was a waiting line with thirty-plus people in it. I guess we can draw an easy conclusion from this example.

There is a profit perspective!

*Unfortunately, it was just one night, but it provided important information for later observations.

History, tradition and culture
From a historical viewpoint, Croatia has a history of street food offered during fairs, public celebrations, kermesses, festivals etc. Maja said so.

For example, in Požega, during the fair, an innkeeper would sell sixteen pigs and lambs on a spit in one day. And in the 19th and 20th century there were lots of taverns like that. In the 18th century, you could buy meat dish called vinogradarski ćevap (“vineyard ćevap”) in the street. It was eaten on the site or taken home, same as the aforementioned pig or lamb. — Maja Žebčević Matić

David also mentioned that his late grandfather told him that “when Istria was under Italian occupation, you could buy barbecued clams and oysters at Pula market. Also, workers could find tripes and maneštra soup at the train station.”

We can collect pieces and get the full picture — street food was alive and well during the 18th and 19th century. They both agree that street food in this form vanished from our streets around mid to late 20th century.

What is the future of Croatian street food?
Demand for fast food is high, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Croatia or in Tuần Châu — you can’t escape corporate fast food. But, you can fight it.

As chef Skoko said, “we’re under a huge impact of the media, global gastronomy and locals who’re collecting food experience all over the world. Things are changing, and whatever direction it will lead us to, it will be better than this status quo!”

I want to believe that we’re at the beginning of something new, fresh, local and tasty in Croatia. And that’s exactly what Maja’s Museum in the Pot is trying to do with exhibitions all over Croatia. They want to raise public awareness and activate tourist boards to straighten  the position of traditional street food in their cities.

To sum it up… Things we need to do to bring street food where it belongs:

  • Decrease bureaucracy. Increase motivation for young food entrepreneurs.
  • Educate, educate, educate! From 7 to 77 years old.
  • Learn from the past. Implement in the future.

We are creating the cultural identity of Croatian street food right now! — chef David Skoko

Lada Radin

A veterinarian and scientist on the inside, researcher and traveller by nature. Occasionally writes, gardens, takes photos and dances on the tables (which she hasn't done in a while). In constant search for new tastes and scents.