Loosen your belt and pack pants one size up: you’re in for a treat. Eating in Montenegro is generally an extremely pleasurable experience. By default, most of the food is local, fresh and organic, and hence very seasonal. Despite its small size, Montenegro has at least three distinct regional styles: the food of the old Montenegrin heartland, mountain food and coastal cuisine.

Montenegrin Heartland Specialties

The village of Njeguši on the edge of Lovćen (the black mountain) is famous for its pršut (smoke-dried ham) and sir (cheese). Anything with ‘Njeguški’ in its name is going to be a true Montenegrin dish and stuffed with these two goodies; this might be pork chops, veal, steak or spit-roasted meat (Njeguški ražanj).

Old Montenegro extended to the Crnojević River and the upper reaches of Lake Skadar, where the cuisine is dominated by three main freshwater fish: eel (jegulja), bleak (ukljeva) and carp (krap).

Mountain Food

In the northern mountains, food was traditionally more stodgy, meaty and Serb-influenced, providing comfort and sustenance on those long winter nights. A traditional method of cooking is ispod sača, where meat and vegetables are roasted under a metal lid covered with hot coals, usually set in a hearth in the middle of the room for warmth. Lamb may also be slowly poached in milk with spices and potato (brav u mljeku) in a dish that's particularly popular in the Albanian areas. Beef is cooked with cabbagelike raštan, rice and red peppers to make a rich stew called japraci. You might eat it with cicvara (a cheesy, creamy polenta or buckwheat dish) or kačamak (similar but with potato). The best honey (med) is also produced in the mountains. The higher up you go, the better the kajmak, somewhat similar to a salty clotted cream. Slather it on bread, meat or potatoes, or just eat it straight.

Coastal Cuisine

Sun-seeking holidaymakers, this is what you'll mainly encounter – and it's absolutely delicious. The food on the coast is indistinguishable from Dalmatian cuisine: lots of grilled seafood, garlic, olive oil and Italian-style dishes.

Hearty, flavoursome fish soup (riblja čorba) is a must-try, as is grilled squid (lignje na žaru) – the crispy tentacles coated in garlic and olive oil – and punjene lignje, served stuffed with pršut (smoke-dried ham) and sir (cheese). Nearly 400 years of Venetian rule has left a legacy of excellent risotto and pasta dishes. Black risotto (crni rižot) gets its rich colour and subtle flavour from squid ink and includes pieces of squid meat. Seafood risotto can also be white or red (made with a tomato-based sauce) and served hot or cold.

While all of these dishes make filling mains, at a formal dinner they’re just a precursor to the grilled fish. In most fish restaurants, whole fish (ribe) are presented to the table for you to choose from and sold by the kilogram according to a quality-based category. A standard portion is around 200g to 250g; ask for a rough price before you choose a fish if you’re unsure.

Local varieties tend to be small but tasty; the bigger ones are probably fresh but imported. Fish dishes are flavoured with wild herbs such as laurel and parsley as well as lemon and garlic. The traditional accompaniment is a delicious mixture of silverbeet (blitva), mushy boiled potato, olive oil and garlic, often referred to on English menus as a 'Dalmatian garnish'.

Regional Dishes

Various types of grilled meat are common throughout the former Yugoslavia, including ćevapčići (pieces of minced meat shaped into small skinless sausages), pljeskavica (spicy hamburger patties) and ražnjići (pork or veal kebabs). Grills are often served with fried potato chips and salad.

For dishes that have more than just meat (although they’re by no means vegetarian), try musaka (layers of aubergine, potato and minced meat), sarma (minced meat and rice rolled in sour-cabbage leaves), kapama (stewed lamb, onions and spinach with yoghurt) and punjene tikvice or paprike (courgettes or capsicum stuffed with minced meat and rice). Other regional dishes include spicy Hungarian goulash (gulaš) and Turkish kebabs (kebap).

The cheapest and most ubiquitous Balkan snack is burek, a greasy filo-pastry pie made with cheese, meat (meso), potato (krompir) or occasionally mushrooms (pečurke), most commonly consumed with yoghurt. Savoury or sweet pancakes (palačinke) are served from kiosks in busy areas. Toppings include chopped walnuts and almonds, jam and banana. For a major artery clog, go for a slane (salty) palačinke – a heart attack disguised as a crumbed, deep-fried, cheese-filled pancake.

The Main Meals

Breakfast (doručak) usually consists of fresh bread with slices of cheese and cured meat (salami or pršut) or perhaps a sweet pastry. Locals often skip breakfast and grab something like burek on their way to work. Omelette (omlet) is the most common cooked breakfast.

Lunch (ručak), served midafternoon, has traditionally been the main family meal, but with Western working hours catching on, this is changing. A family lunch might consist of a soup followed by a salad and a cooked meat or fish dish of some description. Dinner (večera) would then be lighter, possibly just bread with cured meats, cheese and olives. However, if you’re heading out for a proper sit-down evening meal, you’ll probably start late (after 8pm) and eat a similar meal to the typical lunch.

Sweets are eaten at all times of the day, especially with coffee or after dinner. The most typical Montenegrin sweet dish is priganice (fritters) served with honey, cheese and jam (džem). Incredibly sweet cakes and tortes are offered with coffee, including delicious baklava. The local ice cream (sladoled) is also excellent.

Glossary

ajvar – capsicum spread

burek – filo-pastry pie made stuffed most commonly with meat or cheese

ćevapčići – small skinless sausages made of minced meat

cicvara – a cheesy, creamy polenta or buckwheat dish

crni rižoto – black risotto

kafa – coffee

kačamak – polenta porridge with mashed potato

kajmak – akin to a salty clotted cream

lignje na žaru – grilled squid

med – honey

palačinke – pancakes

pavlaka – sour cream

pivo – beer

pljeskavica – spicy hamburger patties

pršut – smoke-dried ham

Punjene paprike – stuffed capsicum

rakija – potent spirit made from fermented fruit

ražnjići – pork or veal kebabs

ribe – fish

riblja čorba – fish soup

sir – cheese

vino – wine

The Basics

Unless they're uber-exclusive, bookings aren’t usually required for Montenegro's restaurants.

  • Restoran The word restoran (restaurant) is usually reserved for more upmarket establishments. They almost always showcase fresh seafood on the coast, and lamb and veal in the hills.
  • Konoba If a restaurant has the word konoba (tavern) in its name, it's invariably an informal family-run establishment serving local cuisine and, often, pizza and pasta as well.
  • Fast food Every town has at least one roštilj (grill) or pekara (bakery), serving cheap treats including pljeskavica (hamburger patties) and burek (filo pies). Pizza (look for signs reading picerija) is also ubiquitous.