To many Slovenians, the people of Ljubljana are known as “Žabarji” – frog people. The nickname was coined because of the abundance of frogs in the area – a bounty of amphibians that also gave rise to one of the most distinctive dishes of the Slovenian capital: frog legs.
It is no coincidence that this dish became synonymous with Ljubljana. A large area of marshlands to the south of the city is an ideal breeding ground for frogs. (Modern-day drivers are alerted to their presence by road signs warning of amphibian crossings.) Through the ages, local residents would catch the frogs and sell them in the city. By the 16th century, a fish market operated in Ljubljana and frog legs were among its most prized delicacies.
According to ethnographer Janez Bogataj, battered and fried frog legs were initially popular during days of fasting, but they soon became a year-round dish. During the winter months, local inns even stored large bundles of moist sand with live frogs in order to satisfy the appetites of their customers. In fact, fried frog legs were so popular that they gave their names to several local inns, including “Pri Žabarju,” which still operates today.
Over the years, the introduction of other dishes and the protection of frogs led to a gradual decline in the consumption of frog legs. Local frog hunters began to complain that the money they got for frogs was simply not worth the effort, since frog hunting tended to be laborious and dirty.
Still, the tradition never died out. “Pri Žabarju” and several other local inns bucked the gastronomic trends and kept serving frog legs using imported frogs even after the sale of domestic frogs was restricted. This turned out to be a wise move. In recent years, the dish has been rediscovered as Ljubljana’s very own delicacy and is making ever more appearances in guidebooks and at culinary events. Fried frog legs were at the center of attention during the recent “Month of Ljubljana Dishes,” a project designed to revive the traditional food of the Slovenian capital.
In a united Europe where culinary specialties are increasingly seen as a part of regional identity, frog legs are again emerging as one of Ljubljana’s most recognizable specialties – a dish at the center of the city’s cultural identity.