Although chicken soup is admittedly universally Croatian, let me begin with a personal story. My grandmother Marija makes the best chicken soup (or actually hen soup) I have ever eaten. It’s intensely yellow, very strong, almost sour. It has always been my favourite part of holiday meals. When I got engaged to my husband, we decided to make a little family cookbook (in Croatian: kuharica) which will comprise favourite meals that our grandmothers and mothers make, and give it to our wedding guests as gifts. Grandmother Marija’s chicken soup was an obvious choice. This is when her vague soup recipe finally got pinned down, and the secret ingredient revealed. The moment when I bought a huge eight-litre pot and managed to recreate it is still one of my biggest culinary accomplishments.
Soup seasoning – Vegeta
Although chicken soup (in Croatian: pileća juha) is eaten in many countries, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be typically Croatian at the same time. It certainly is not unique or originally ours, but its ingredients comprise typical flavours of Croatian cuisine. First of all, it is almost a liquid version of Vegeta. If you haven’t heard of Vegeta, it is Croatian vegetable stock in powder form, which is often the main and only seasoning Croatian home cooks use. It was invented in 1959 and since then it has been among most famous Croatian food products. It’s made of salt, spices (it is not revealed which ones), dried vegetables (carrots, parsnip, onion, celeriac, parsley) and flavour enhancers. Although chicken soup is a stock in itself, Vegeta is always added to make the flavours stronger.
Vegeta by Podravka / CC BY-SA 2.0
Homemade Vegeta / from the private album of Iva Antoliš, SpeakCRO teacher
Recently people have been more concerned about additives and preservatives, so making a homemade version of spice mixes has also become popular. Therefore, if you can’t find the original Vegeta in your country (although, it is being exported to many), you can get a similar taste profile with this recipe (in Croatian: recept):
50 g of celeriac root
50 g of leeks
1 celery stalk
50 g of carrots
50 g of parsley root
1/2 bunch of parsley leaves
25 g of coarse sea salt
½ bunch of lovage
Blend clean and dry vegetables and mix well with sea salt.
Let it rest together for an hour, and then put into clean and dry jars.
Put more salt on the top, and keep in the dark and dry space.
After you open a jar, it should be kept in the fridge.
How to make a soup?
Once you have Vegeta, either homemade or store-bought, you can prepare the soup. Although I keep describing it as chicken soup, it is preferable to make it with a hen. There is a saying in Croatian: ‘’old hen, good soup’’. Admittedly, it certainly has a metaphorical meaning, but it is also true in a literal sense. If you can find at least a young hen, your soup will certainly be more flavoursome. You will see that the original recipe states that the hen should be cooked with skin on. It does give a lot of flavour, but it also can make the soup fatty. In case you don’t like rich soups, you can solve this problem by letting the soup cool down, removing all the fat that comes to the surface and reheating it.
one hen or chicken (or half a chicken + chicken bones), with skin
1 head of garlic
a few carrots
a parsley root
a celeriac root
parsley, celery and lovage leaves
vegeta and black peppercorns
- Put meat, onions, garlic and all root vegetables in a pot of cold water. Add Vegeta, salt and pepper. Let it cook until it comes to the boil, and remove the foam that might create at the surface.
- Once it has boiled, reduce the heat and let it simmer until the meat is cooked.
- Herbs shouldn’t be added at the beginning because they might make the soup green. Add them near the end, so that they cook for approximately one hour.
- Once the meat has been cooked, remove it and strain the soup. Keep meat and boiled vegetables. You can serve the vegetables alongside the soup, and meat can be served with sauce as a separate dish.
- Let the strained soup come to the boil and add noodles.
- If necessary, add more salt or pepper.
For me, the herb lovage has been a secret ingredient (in Croatian: sastojak). It gives that special, almost sour flavour. In Croatian, alongside its official name ljupčac, it is also called Vegeta plant, because its taste resembles the mentioned spice mix Vegeta. If you manage to find it, you will get really intense Croatian chicken soup.
Lovage (Ljupčac in Croatian) / Public domain
What to add to the soup?
Homemade noodles / from the private album of Iva Antoliš, SpeakCRO teacher
As far as noodles are concerned, we mostly use pasta that is a thinner, flatter and shorter version of spaghetti or tagliatelle. Although noodles can be bought in stores, they are best when they are homemade (in Croatian: domaći).
Recipe for homemade noodles / from the family cookbook of Iva Antoliš, SpeakCRO teacher
As was mentioned in the recipe, there is no need to waste the meat that was cooked in the soup. We often turn it into another dish that comes after the soup – sos i meso (sauce and meat). The sauce can be red (tomato juice thickened with flour, with a bit of cinnamon, sugar and salt), or white (dill and milk sauce thickened with flour fried in oil). It can be the main dish but often is just one of the courses at weddings or holidays.
Croatian soup reflects the spirit of Croatian family gatherings. They both can be intense, unapologetically resistful to change and make you sweat, but they can also be heartwarming, nurturing and comfortingly familiar.
Have you ever had a chance to be a part of a Croatian meal or a family gathering?
Featured image (on top): Chicken soup / from the private album of Iva Antoliš, SpeakCro teacher