Rolled thinly and served both warm and cold, dolma are a staple of Turkish cuisine. But there is so much more to them than just being stuffed grape leaves.
What are Dolma (Sarma)?
While some may think of dolma as a vegetarian dish of rice rolled with grape leaves, there are many different varieties according to region. Similar in shape are those made with collards as the wrap and filled with crushed corn and meat, served warm and with yogurt. This one example is from Turkey’s Black Sea region, although variations run the entire spectrum. Dolma are always cooked in water until the filling and the leaves are cooked through.Jump to Recipe
Origins and etymology
The word dolma comes from Topkapı Palace during the Ottoman period, but the origins of the dish go much further back. This stuffed dish has been part of Eastern Mediterranean cuisine for centuries, with the first examples being eggplant stuffed with meat (1). Wait, you say, how is that a dolma? For that we Dolma means stuffed, derived from the verb “dolmak” meaning to fill. And with that, anything stuffable has been stuffed. While grape leaves are the popular, cabbage is used just as often, bringing us to the second name for this dish “sarma”. Coming from the word “sarmak” – “to roll” making it more than obvious.
While the Greek claim this dish for themselves, the Arabic countries are trying to erase the Turkish origins of the dish as well. Until recently the dolma were known in the Arabic kitchen as “Turkish dolma” or “Kirkuk dolma” but there has been a gradual trend to call the dish “dolma Bağdadi”, meaning “Baghdad dolma”. Even the word dolma itself got replaced with the Arabic equivalent “mahshi”, calling it “mahshi Bağdadi”, trying to erase its origins completely. (2)
The image of people gathering around the table and rolling this delicious little finger sized pieces has even made it into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2017. As much as the Greece claim this to be theirs it was Azerbaijan who made it into the list as “Dolma making and sharing tradition, a marker of cultural identity”. (3)
Varieties are not limited to stuffed eggplant or zucchini, the latter having been around much longer than eggplants in Anatolia (4). If something can be stuffed, then it certainly is. There are even records that carrots and okra have been used, stuffed with a filling with or without meat. Though meat filling was the most prevalent in Ottoman-era kitchen. Dolma without a meat filling was called “yalancı dolma” meaning fake dolma (5). To this day, dolma, or sarma for that matter, are considered a celebratory dish due to its preparation time and effort required, although making it for a normal meal is also common.
The making of dolma and sarma in Turkey alone has many different tastes to offer. If you get a chance to travel to the southeastern province of Gaziantep, you’ll find a version made with dried eggplants, which have a taste both slightly sweet and sour, called “ekşili kuru dolma”, which literally means sour dry dolma.
Dolma - Delightful rolled and stuffed delicacies
- 500 gr grape leaves
- 600 gr rice
- 1 bundle of parsley
- 1 bundle of peppermint
- 1 bundle of dill
- 2-3 onions
- 5-6 tomatoes
- 1 lemon
- salt, black pepper, olive oil
- Boil the grape leaves in water for 4-5 minutes and let them drip dry.Stacking them on an upturned bowl makes this easier. Finely chop the onions,parsley, dill, mint and tomatoes. Add half of the lemon juice and season withsalt, pepper and olive oil to your taste. Add the rice and give it a good mix.
- Take one grape leaf and put about two teaspoons of the filling on it. Thiscould be more or less depending on the size of the leaf. First fold in thesides to prevent the filling from falling out.
- Then roll it tightly and start stacking them into a pot. Once the dolmahave been neatly placed into the pot, pour the other half of the lemon juiceover them and some more olive oil. Fill the pot with water until it barelycovers the dolma and put an upside down plate over them to keep them in place. Bringthe water to a boil and then reduce the heat to low. Let them cook for 40-45minutes.
- The dolma are done when the rice is cookedthrough and the veins of the leaves have softened. These can be eaten warm, butthey’ll taste best once they have cooled off.
(2) Ziyat Akkoyunlu, “Türk Mutfağından Kaybolan Kerkük Yemekleri” in “Motif Akademi Halkbilimi Dergisi”, 2, 2012.
(4) Deniz Gürsoy, “Tarihin süzgecinde mutfak kültürümüz”, 2013.
(5) Marianna Yerasimos, “500 Yıllık Osmanlı Mutfağı”, 2002.