Croatian Soparnik with Jelena Vukas

Meet Jelena Vukas; a globe-trotting Croatian copywriter from Split – a beautiful historic city on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. Croatia is not an easy country for vegetarians; but Jelena told me all about what to try and when I turned my hand to Croatian cuisine it was delicious.

10710850_10152236541117820_4472560191200580321_nWhat food makes you think of home?

There are many particular dishes, but when I think of Split I think of prosciutto, fresh seafood, salty sheep’s cheese, figs, grapevines and peaches, flower honey, nuts, stews, brodets, fresh olive oil scented with lavender, smoky wood-fire pizzas, thick creamy ice-creams and anything cooked under a peka (earthenware or iron-cast bell which food is placed into, covered with and then the bell is placed in between embers to cook, bubble, release all of its juices and….you can drool now…I am).

What about the rest of Croatia, are there certain flavours that define the food?

Croats enjoy a Mediterranean diet that has been influenced by a swarm of empires that have ruled the land throughout history. We are used to slow-cooking traditional recipes that our grandmas taught us. There’s loads of fresh food, but lots of it is meat and other produce of animal origin. Think seafood, pork prosciutto and sausages, salted lamb, game, etc. Some mix of tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, chard, cabbages will always be at the table though. Everything will have an abundant garlic and olive oil base. We are heavily into baking breads, cakes, dough and pastries. Veggies and meats are usually roasted in ovens, on embers or in open fires.

What’s your absolute favourite?1625705_10152236545252820_3464858352124789855_n

Just one? I love extended breakfasts and drawn out coffees while deliberating over politics and the morning paper, I love ajvar (vegetable relish made from peppers, courgette and aubergine), fresh seafood, traditional Christmas multiple-course feasts ending in sweet deserts, and roast-lamb and peka-cooked vegetables for family reunions. I suppose the easiest and most nostalgic vegetarian recipe is the chard soparnik, which originated in Croatia during the 15th century and was said to be ‘the poor man’s food.’ Wine goes with all meals, but I think soparnik tastes great with elderberry juice.

How is Croatia for vegetarians? Are there many or are they pretty rare?

They are pretty rare because they miss out on the majority of the local cuisine, which is pretty traditional. It comes as a result of culture  – it was only a few decades ago that most Croats still had some form of agricultural farm, complete with goats, sheep, chickens and cattle and went actively fishing and hunting to stockpile food.

I’m guessing that makes10437742_10152236544197820_421074124573255992_n it pretty hard to be vegetarian in Croatia then?

Most of the soups and risottos will use animal stock as base, there will be bacon in dishes that won’t even be mentioned, fish isn’t even
considered meat…it can be difficult but if you’re willing to give it a go you can make it work. There are plenty of fresh produce growers, bustling food markets filled with cheeses, fruits, nuts and legumes, there are bakeries and pizzerias (the good not the junk-food kind) on every corner, and there are vegan and vegetarian (and simply vegetarian-friendly) restaurants popping up all over the place. With a little effort, you’ll be all right. Rural areas will be a bit tougher, but the advantage there is that they’ll have a stockpile of fresh produce that you’ll be able to work with.

So what’s the absolute number one thing for a visiting veggie to try then?

Ajvar (veggie relish) is my favourite thing in the world and I’m glad I could actually find it in remote cobwebbed areas of the supermarkets in both NL and Australia! There are plenty of other things you can try: roast polenta with ajvar, cracked pepper biscuits, posna sarma without meat (cabbage rolls with rice and grains), poppy seed strudel, strudel, traditional cabbage and chard sides, plum pies, fritule (fruit doughnuts), all the local fruit (my favourites are figs, plums, grapes, peaches, citrus fruits), there’s plenty of cheese (just try them per region), fresh breads with nuts and seeds, traditional chocolate cakes (with oranges and walnuts), truffles, jacketed potatoes (washed, cut in half, drizzled in garlic, olive oil and salt and roasted), ice-creams and wood-fire anything that you can get your hands on. Just enjoy it!


Jelena’s recipe for Soparnik went down a storm in the Forking Off house, especially combined with ajvar roasted vegetable relish. I made that too and if you’d like to try it you can find the recipe on

Soparnik is essentially two thin, circular discs of dough sandwiching swiss chard, parsley, garlic and red onion between them. You can find chard in British supermarkets, but not always – not on the day I went foraging unfortunately. I used a combination of curly kale and fresh spinach which worked really nicely instead.

For the dough I used a trusty pizza base recipe, here it is (you can use white flour instead of brown if you want, it’s down to personal preference):


  • 200g White Flour
  • 150g Wholemeal Flour
  • Pinch Salt
  • 1 tsp Yeast
  • 1 ½ Tbsp Olive Oil
  • Up to 250ml Cold Water

1. Mix the flours and olive oil and add the salt and yeast.

2. Slowly add the water a bit at a time, kneading the mixture until it forms a single ball. Don’t add it all if you don’t need it all.

3. Knead the ball until it is has some elasticity; to test it, rip a piece off. If it doesn’t stretch before it breaks WP_20140910_010off then keep kneading.

4. Drizzle a little bit of olive oil into a clean mixing bowl and roll the ball in it until it has a thin film across its surface.

5. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave somewhere warm and dry to prove for at least an hour, preferably two or more.

Whilst this is proving, prepare the other ingredients:

  • 3 Cloves of Garlic, Finely Diced
  • 2 Tbsp Olive Oil
  • 2 Handfuls of Fresh Chopped Parsley
  • Swiss Chard/Curly Kale/Spinach
  • Pinch Salt.

1. Cut the dough ball in two and roll both out into circles as thin as possible. Grease a large round baking tray and lay one base out on it.

2. Mix the greens and parsley, 2 of the diced garlic cloves, 1 1/2 Tbsp of olive oil and a pinch of salt in a bowl and then layer the mixture evenly over the first base.

3. Lay the second disc of dough over the top of the first and roll up the edges of the bottom layer to seal it.

4. Sprinkle the last clove of diced garlic over the top with a pinch of salt and cook on 180C for approximately 20 minutes, or until the top turns golden brown.

5. When it’s finished, brush the last 1/2 Tbsp of olive oil on the top and serve cut into traditional diamond shapes with a bowl of ajvar relish.

For this and other recipes, visit the Forking Off website.


How to do Spanish in Thailand

DSCF8415What do you do when you find yourself at a barbecue in Pai, a glorious hippy den in the northernmost part of Thailand, and you’ve got to produce something fabulous for everyone to share? All you’ve got is a frying pan and a single ring on the hob for your veggie self, whilst everyone else is skewering enough meat to keep a big cat sanctuary going for a few weeks. You could just say sod it and buy yourself a polystyrene tray of som tam or phad thai from the local market, or you could hit that market and refuse to be defeated!

What you do is track down some dead easy ingredients:

  •        About a pound of potatoes,
  •        Garlic Cloves,
  •        An Onion,
  •        8-10 Tomatoes,
  •        Hot Sauce,
  •        Passata (optional – most countries have a version of this),
  •        Oil of some sort for frying,
  •        Cheese,
  •        Salt/Pepper/Whatever seasonings are kicking about.

Cheese is harder to track down in Thailand and if I’m honest I’m not entirely sure where I got my hands on a lump. The fabulous thing about this though is that you can put in whatever you find in the local market and make it in a hostel, a house or a trangia on the side of a mountain. It is Spanish Potato Hot-Pot. If you want to try the original Spanish version then you can check it out on my website. What’s great about it is that it is so easy and so versatile!

Here’s what you do once you’ve carried your haul back to your pad:941420_10151463608491713_807895122_n

1. Chop up all your veg and defend yourself against all the snippy comments that your dinner is not going to be as good as everyone else’s. Make sure your potato chunks are pretty small or everyone else will have eaten, drunk too much, sung karaoke, fallen in the pool and gone to bed by the time yours is cooked.

2. Start frying your potatoes in the oil and keep them moving or their bottoms will burn.

3. When they’re looking quite browned, add the onion and garlic and keep them going, giving everything a good stir and flip every minute or so.

4. When those look a bit browned too, add your chopped tomatoes and hot sauce to taste – personally I like it spicy, but even if you don’t, don’t be too tight with it – without hot sauce this is a much blander beastie. If you are using passata then put that in now too, but don’t drown it too much. Let it all get hot and try a few of your taters to check that they’re done all the way through.

5. If they are, then add salt and pepper and turf it all out, covering it in cheese. You might want to melt the cheese in the pan quickly; it should only take 30 seconds or so for it to melt.


7. Wash the dish up when it comes back licked clean.

8. Unfortunately I didn’t think to take a picture of it at the time, but here’s the Spanish version – for a visual image just mentally replace the olives and parsley with cheese.


Burmese Avocado Salad

Forget what you think of as a salad if you’re thinking south-east Asia, you won’t see a lettuce leaf in miles. Here it means any kind of vegetable dish that doesn’t require cooking and one of the nice things about Burma (Myanmar) is the proliferation of avocados. The only avocado I ever saw in Thailand was £10 in the posh international food market of Siam Paragon mall in Bangkok. I’m a big fan of avocados.

You will need:WP_20140705_003

  • 2 Avocados
  • 1/2 Red Onion
  • 1 Tomato
  • 1 Tbsp Crushed Peanuts
  • 1 Tbsp Peanut Oil/Olive Oil
  • Pinch Garlic Salt
  • Pinch Chinese Five Spice
  • Juice of Half a Lime
  • Toasted Sesame Seeds


All you have to do is chop your veg up small and then mix all the ingredients together. Et voila! Sprinkle with roasted sesame seeds as a garnish.

The original recipe requires chicken powder which I have substituted with garlic salt and Chinese Five Spice. It also requires peanut oil which isn’t always readily available here. In its absence any other nut oil will suffice, alternately olive oil or even chilli oil work well.


Som Tam in Bangkok

I’m not sure where I first heard of Som Tam, but it’s one of those things that’s mandatory to sample if you go to Thailand. I’d also heard it called papaya salad and after a day of wandering around Bangkok with a brutal hangover, I decided that something light and refreshing like a bowl of lettuce with hunks of sweet red papaya flesh dropped in sounded just the ticket. A girl from my hostel and I found a little place off Soi Rambuttri with plastic chairs and clean table cloths and I ordered a plate.


What was brought out did not look at all like anything I would have described as a salad. I couldn’t see any papaya, which was disconcerting, just skinny strips of pale stuff; sprinkled with peanuts, green beans and a few chopped tomatoes swimming in a pinkish liquid. The first mouthful was surprising; a rush of crunchy, salty-sweetness. Then the next brought a tingling on my tongue and lips. The third came with a pressure behind my eyes and a nose that felt at once both hot and cold and started leaking like an old boiler pipe. When I first moved to Thailand I had a pathetic tolerance for spicy food and what everyone had neglected to tell me was that som tam is traditionally served hotter than the surface of the sun. This is a trial by fire that everyone who visits Thailand has to undergo and it only takes a few short weeks before you find yourself craving that rush of zesty spice, pounded mercilessly by an old lady with more strength than you’d credit her for.WP_20140708_038

Normally it would be served with fish sauce, crab and prawns, but it doesn’t need them. All Thai food is based around the four cardinal elements of taste (as the Thais consider them); salt, sweet, sour and spice, and no dish better represents these elements than Som Tam, made with crisp green papaya.

I’ve spent ages trying to recreate som tam here at home where you can’t get green papaya; experimenting with cucumber and cabbage (not the same at all), and I have finally found the winning substitution – shredded swede. If you follow my recipe it’s almost exactly the same as the real thing; crunchy and slightly sweet. I knew I’d got it right when I opened the fridge and a wave of Thailand floated back out at me; that perfect ratio of chilli and lime and coriander wafting around the kitchen like a cartoon cloud leading me by the nose.

You will need (for 2):

  • Half a Raw Swede Cut Into Thin Strips
  • 2 Tbsp Slightly Crushed Peanuts
  • 2 Cloves of Diced Garlic
  • 1-2 Diced Red Chillis
  • 3 Tsp Dark Brown/Palm Sugar
  • Juice of 1/2 Lime
  • 1 Diced Large Tomato
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp Soy Sauce
  • 5-6 Green Beans cut into Inch-Long Pieces

1. Roughly crush the peanuts.

2. Peel the swede and cut it into strips. Leave it in a bowl of cold water whilst you prepare the rest as that will absorb some of the starch and keep it fresh.

3. Melt the sugar in a pan with 2 Tbsp of water, until it becomes a glossy black syrup, this will help it to mix into the salad. Be careful not to burn it.

4. Mash the chillis and garlic in a pestle and mortar. You don’t want them pureed, but they need to be crushed up to release the juices. If you don’t have a pestle and mortar you can put them in a sandwich bag and bang it with a rolling pin. Make sure you’ve got all the air out of the bag though or it’ll explode; which, whilst hilarious, is not very good for your lunch.

5. Add the peanuts and bash some more, then add all the other ingredients, including the swede, and bash, bash, bash. Stir it occasionally, then carry on bashing.

6. Serve with a garnish of coriander.

New Eyes and Extra Colours


Terry Pratchett (and many drunken travellers paraphrasing) once said; “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” Truer words and all that. Another thing a fellow back-packer once told me is that it takes you the same amount of time as you spent in a failed relationship to fully process that same relationship and move on. The same is true of time after travel.

One of the worst things about returning after an extended period of wild adventure is responding to questions like ‘what was it like?’ ‘Did you have a good time?’ How do you summarise 18 months in a whole other world down to a few neatly palatable sentences? I know what things I miss the most from being on the road (although I don’t doubt that I’ll be back on it again one day), but I was curious about what got my fellow backpackers to yearning – so I thought I’d ask!

Of all of the, at least temporarily, retired backpackers that I surveyed, the most popular answer that they gave was people; the other 488031_163772840451369_98655734_n - Copytravellers they meet on the road and the locals that they got the opportunity to spend time with. And how do you spend time with people? Why eating and drinking of course! In fact food made up a whopping 10% of all the answers given to the question ‘what thing do you miss most about international travel?’ Other top answers were finding out about new cultures, having adventures and the total freedom to be spontaneous and go wherever the wind blows you.

Now that I’m back in suburban Hampshire studying and working, there are limited ways that I can recreate any of those wonderful things for myself. If there’s one thing I know I can do though, it’s cook; so that’s what I’m going to do, at least until I can begin a fresh adventure. I shall see my kitchen with new eyes and extra colours as I recreate every wonderful, nostalgic meal I’ve had on the road. Hopefully I’ll even bring in some other people’s stories and recipes too, so that I can share the trials and triumphs of being a vegetarian in, and all-over, a meat-eater’s world.