If you are lucky enough to find yourself invited to a home cooked Turkish dinner, you will find among the many mezes on offer, stuffed vine leaves or Dolmas. But don’t wait too long while perusing the dishes on offer, or you may find your fellow dinner guests have eaten them all. This dinner party disaster has happened to me on several occasions and I thought it was time to address the issue, and consider the humble Dolma for the diverse and delicious dish it is.
Dolma derives its name from the Turkish verb dolmak, meaning “to be stuffed” and by a happy coincidence; indulging in one too many dolmas can have that exact effect. One of the most popular dolma dishes involves cabbage or grape leaves wrapped around rice and meat, although the meatless version, known as Yalancı Dolma, stuffed with rice, onion, herbs and often nuts or raisins also prove a popular option for vegetarians. Dolmas served cold as a meze dish are also part of the Zeytinyağlı (meaning served with olive oil) category. Other common Zeytinyağlı dishes include artichokes with broad beans, okra in olive oil and samphire in lemon and oil. Meat-filled dolmas are prepared and served differently, presented to a customer or guest while warm with yoghurt and lemon.
Dolma is a versatile dish, and recipes for stuffed zucchini, tomato, eggplant and peppers can be found across Turkey and many Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries. Greek and Lebanese cuisine tends to feature a lot of lam-stuffed recipes, while in Egypt beef-stuffed dolmas (known as Warak Inab) is a popular dish. The Dolma is not to be confused with sarma, meaning “wrapped”, much like a Sigara Bӧrek would be. In Bulgaria, pickled cabbage is used and the stuffed leaves are then added to soup or even baked with white sauce. A Serbian variation is made using Monk’s rhubarb and is served at Easter celebrations. No matter what the type, dolmas are a time-consuming dish, and it takes love, dedication and practice to make enough to serve a hungry Turkish family. The perfect Dolma involves adding just the right amount of lemon juice and herbs to the stuffing, and making sure all the ingredients compliment rather than crowd each other. You should be able to distinguish each ingredient while at the same time appreciating the harmony of the flavours. To achieve this, it often takes an assembly line of relatives and helpers working in the kitchen. Fresh grape leaves must first be boiled then cooled while the stuffing is mixed and seasoned in a bowl. The mix is then carefully filled into the grape leaves, although very affordable and time-saving dolma wrapping kitchen gadgets can be purchased in many homeware and kitchen stores for the dolma aficionado. Dolmas containing meat can then be boiled in a pot and served hot with yoghurt sauce.
Great Dolmas and other popular mezes can be found throughout Istanbul in a variety of locations. Often small, family-run restaurants will serve homemade dolmas for a very reasonable price that are just as tasty and flavourful as an up-market Istanbul fine-dining restaurant. Enjoy Dolmas during a long lunch or late dinner, served with rakı and accompanied by friends and family who enjoy the simple things in life-fresh food and good company.