Original Turkish recipe for dolmas: stuffed grape leaves
Time: prep. 40 minutes
cook. 30 minutes
Yields: 4 portions
If you’ve visited Istanbul, you’ve surely come across the term “Dolma” before, but not in the culinary sphere? Is there anything you can think of? I am referring to the marvelous Dolmabahçe palace: it bears this name because in its lush garden (i.e. its bahçe) where we now stroll admiring both the royal palace and the deep blue waters of the Bosphorus, once lay a peaceful bay; later it was filled with soil to create first the garden, i.e. the Dolma-bahçe and then the palace bearing the same name.
The term Dolma comes from the verb “doldurmak”, “to fill, or to stuff” in English; and there are many vegetables that we use to fill or to be stuffed: eggplants, zucchini, peppers (in Turkey there is a cultivar of bell peppers specifically for this use, called just “dolma peppers – dolmalık biber”); tomatoes, vine and cabbage leaves, squash blossoms but also leeks etc.
The filling to be used instead, is not as varied; apart from the one made of fish used mainly in the regions of the Black Sea, we have only two types: meat and rice, or only rice, if we do not consider the magical proportion of spices and dried fruit present. As you may have guessed, the original dolma recipe that I am going to propose today is the one without meat; in other words, the traditionally vegan version.
Before going any further, a necessary clarification: Turkish cuisine although gives the impression of boasting only meat dishes, because they are the most popular in the world (kebabs, doner, etc.) is actually very plant-based. The same dolma without meat belong to the rich and sumptuous Ottoman cuisine. The absence of meat (the smell of which would inevitably cover the mild aromas) allows, among other things, to enjoy the balanced harmony of fragrant and delicate ingredients: believe me, it is a perfect combination of spices and nuts in a haute-cuisine style.
What’s more, not only does the level of classification change, passing from a reassuring comfort-food to a bewitching fine-food, but also the purpose of the meal.
Those with meat in fact “must satiate”: they are eaten as a main meal (lunch or dinner); they are certainly served hot, with a generous portion of yogurt and/or a sweet and sour sauce obtained from the succulent mix of garlic and pomegranate molasses.
Meatless dolmas of grape leaves made with the original recipe, are served either at room temperature or cold, but not for satiety. They are consumed more as appetizer ‘meze’ in a table of Raki (the national (super) alcoholic drink, also known as “the lion’s milk”), probably together with hummus (here you can find the recipe), with fava (thick purèe of fava beans served cold: click here for the recipe).
Luckily dolma is “widely consumed also by those who do not use alcohol”: it is not rare to find them on banquets prepared by ladies during the traditional tea time; tables full of good food and classical tea glasses for the conviviality of friends, where together with dolma you can find a bowl of spicy kısır (bulgur salad of which the original recipe you can read here); red lentil patties (read here the original recipe) or börek (rolls of yufka – a kind of thick phyllo dough – filled with vegetables and/or cheese and/or meat).
Some more history and traditions. When we have to specify those with meat, we use only the term dolma, adding only the name of the vegetable: for example (stuffed) bell pepper dolma or eggplants dolma; to indicate instead those without meat, here is a term that will sound you strange! “Zeytinyağlı dolma” or “dolma with olive oil” is the term for our original recipe of today, always followed by the name of the vegetable used.
Don’t get me wrong, no one will be offended if you don’t know how to order the correct dolma; but I know how much (many of) you love to learn and respect the details of ethnic gastronomy, having fun with punctiliousness; if we look in Italian cuisine there are many words to distinguish pastas with different shapes and with different fillings: agnolotti, anolini, agnolini, cappelletti, cappellacci, casunziei, culurgiones, ravioli, tortellini, tortelli, tortelloni etc. So just for curiosity!
At this point maybe the more informed gourmets of you will be thinking: “But then what are sarma?”. In the Balkans, they use the word “sarmale”, which comes from the Turkish word “sarmak – to wrap”. Actually it would be more correct to call the Dolmas object of this recipe as Sarma; because rather than filling the leaf, we use it to make a roll: by wrapping the filling. – But in Turkey this technically correct term is not embraced by everyone; in fact purists almost never use it, preferring the term dolma also for the ones made of grape or cabbage leaves.
The more important question is: why are vine (grape) leaves not eaten in the rest of the world? Many countries are famous for their fantastic wine, they do not use the leaves of thousands of vines; on the contrary they represent an additional cost to the viticultural sector for their stripping and consequent disposal as waste material.
I do not have a precise answer to the enigma, except for the simplest one: there is no dolma culture. And I have a suggestion too: they had better import it.
So I gladly bring my contribution, sharing with you this original recipe for dolmas of grape leaves; I hope to do something kind for friends who aspire to sustainability: not only for ethics. but also for health.
We are always looking for super foods full of antioxidants and we cannot discard vine leaves too superficially, without taking advantage of their great richness: vitamins A, E, C and K, minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron and important bio-molecules such as anthocyanins, tannins and resveratrol (1,2). Resveratrol is produced by some plants in response to stress (breakage, cold, etc..) and is part of a specific class of defense molecules, the phytoalexins; it is effective against infections, the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays (3) and absolutely as an important element for the general improvement of the state of health; it also prevents various types of cancer, cardiovascular diseases and atherosclerosis (4) given its anti-aging, vaso-active and vaso-protective properties.
It was therefore inevitable that this sustainable, economical and very healthy delicacy would become part of the CHE Food Revolution recipes.
Do yourself a favor next season, pick up the vine leaves and indulge yourself with this original dolma recipe; but don’t forget that until next summer you could “practice” with the equally delicious leaves of chard, kale, cabbage and even leeks.
35 fresh grape leaves (or other: keep a few more just for eventualities)
150 grams of white rice: soaking for half an hour will be enough (if brown rice, about 3 hours)
500 ml hot water (for blanching the leaves)
150 ml of hot water (for pre-cooking the rice)
300 ml of hot water (for cooking dolmas)
60 ml of extravergine olive oil (for pre-cooking the rice)
40 ml of extravergine olive oil (for cooking dolma)
– (Oil: do not forget that this is the original recipe for dolmas; halving the quantity is more than enough) –
2 tablespoons of lemon juice (for cooking dolma)
1 tablespoon of sugar (the original recipe calls for it but it can be avoided)
2 tablespoons pine nuts (if you do not have them you can also use walnuts)
1 tablespoon of dried blackcurrants (you can find them here: if you have trouble finding them, you can also use sultanas)
1 teaspoon of allspice (you can find it here)
1 pinch of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of dried mint or if you have 2 tablespoons of fresh mint
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
salt, pepper to taste
1 lemon (cut into slices)
dill leaves, or parsley (optional) for garnish
So far I’ve stated how affordable, healthy, and even sustainable the original recipe for dolmas of grape leaves is; but I haven’t told you that it’s also easy!
It just takes some manual dexterity and a lot of patience, especially at the beginning. But not a special skill: at the very most, it will take you a full minute for a truly “hermetic” dolma.
Since many years you can find on the shops, tools to create the dolmas (see here), like a cigarette rolling machine; but I prefer to do it by hand.
Soak the rice. In the meantime, blanch the fresh grape leaves in boiling salted water for about 4-5 minutes; (you could also place them briefly in a container full of water with ice: to maintain their color) then set them aside to drain and dry.
In a large frying pan brown the onions cut into small cubes; add the pine nuts to brown them a little: at this stage you should put the sugar (as mentioned before I do without).
Rinse the rice for the last time, drain and add it to the pan; mix with a spoon and add the other ingredients and spices together with 150 ml of water.
Among spices maybe allspice will make you struggle to find it: in case it is impossible, apply a trick of mine born from the concept of “necessity makes a virtue”: after many researches and tests, I can guarantee that if you mix the same units of measure of cloves, cinnamon and grated nutmeg, you will obtain an aroma very, very similar to allspice (or yenibahar in Turkish)
Cook the stuffing until it completely absorbs the water; turn off the heat and let it cool to room temperature.
On a fairly large cutting board, open a vine leaf with the veiny side facing up. Now place a shaved spoonful of filling in the center (it must not be overflowing otherwise the leaf will break during cooking), but close to the stalk that you have carefully cut; first fold the side flaps to prevent the filling from coming out and wrap the leaf, holding it tightly between your fingers.
The final result will resemble a finger and the filling should not be seen or come out; otherwise you will get an “empty dolma” which, besides being a paradox, would also be bad to see.
In the base of the pot in which you will cook the dolmas, first place the irregularly shaped or broken leaves, and lay the dolmas on top of each other on several levels (depending on the size of the pot and the diameter of the dolmas). Add 4 tablespoons of olive oil (I put only 2 tbsp), lemon juice and about 300 ml of hot water (for the amount of water adjust considering that more or less should reach half the height of the dolmas).
Once you have finished spreading them out, cover them with a porcelain plate, just the right size to fit into the pot without leaving any empty spaces: this will prevent the dolmas from swelling with water and breaking at the ends. Close the pot with a lid “as tightly as possible”, cook over medium heat until the water boils; once boiling, reduce heat to low; check dolmas regularly: if they absorb all their water add some more (should be hot water) and continue cooking for about 15 minutes.
Turn off the heat and let them cool to room temperature or serve warm with lemon slices and parsley or dill leaves. The dolma is served.
Enjoy this original recipe for dolmas and good revolution to all
1) Langcake P, Pryce RJ. A new class of phytoalexins from grapevines. Experientia 1977;33(2):151–152
2) Park, H.J., J.-M. Ko, N.-R. An, Y.S. Kim, and H.-C. Cha. 2009. Contents of Trans-resveratrol in Korean grape cultivars, including “Kyoho”. J. Plant Biol. 52:319-324
3) Bay-Karabulut A. Resveratrol ve etkileri. Turkiye Klinikleri J Med Sci 2008;28(6):166-169.
4) Baur, J.A. and D.A. Sinclair. 2006. Therapeutic potential of resveratrol: the in vivo evidence. Nat. Rev. Drug Disc. 5: 493-506