Whenever I tell anyone that I’m originally from Egypt and that I love to cook, the first question is usually: “Do you ever make stuffed grape/vine leaves (wara’ enab in Arabic)?” I smile; how could I not have made this old-time favorite? It’s almost in every Mediterranean culture to know the craft of making this gourmet masterpiece from the simple scraps – loose vine leaves, rice, and ground bits of meat. And a masterpiece it is — it’s one of my favorite meals of all time! Even my grandparents listed it as one of their favorite meals. Egyptians have likely borrowed the idea of stuffing grape vine leaves from their Greek or Turkish neighbors who have purportedly been rolling for centuries.
A 1983 NY Times article devoted to the history of grape leaves gives most credit to the Greeks for this culinary feat: “Greeks will tell you that the origin of stuffed vine leaves goes back to the time when Alexander the Great besieged Thebes. Food became so scarce that the Thebans cut what meat they had into little bits and rolled it in grape leaves.” Nice! I like stories of people who learn to utilize what’s available in the most creative way possible. The article goes on to say that “later, it has been suggested, the Byzantines refined and spiced the preparation and filled not only grape leaves but leaves of other vines as well as the leaves from hazelnut, mulberry and fig trees.” Now I’m really intrigued — I grew up eating Greek dolmades, or grape leaves, but I’ve never heard of anyone stuffing hazelnut or fig leaves. In fact, I have no idea what those look like, but I’m intrigued enough to look into it. I’ll let you know when I do.
A kind commenter on this post pointed out to me that other sources suggest that the Turks were responsible for ‘inventing the dolma’. According to this article on The Huffington Post Encyclopedia: “The Ottoman origin is somewhat obscured by the fact that in some countries stuffed vegetables may be referred to by a native name meaning ‘stuffed’, such as yemistos (Greek) or mahshi (Arabic). Indeed, some Arabic dialects rarely if ever use the word ‘dolma’. Nevertheless, the signs of Turkish origin are clear. In places as remote as Kuwait and Damascus, instead of mahshi waraq inab (stuffed vine leaf) one may say mahshi yabraq (in Kuwait, mahshi brag), which comes from the Turkish yaprak (leaf).” Well, this article is right in saying we never call stuffed grape leaves ‘dolma’ in the Middle East; and in Egypt, I’ve never heard it referred to as ‘yabraq’. But it’s still plausible that the Turks were responsible for first creating this divine roll of meat and rice.
If you take a look at Middle Eastern cuisine, you’ll notice that they have a habit of stuffing things too. Green peppers, onions, tomatoes, Swiss chard, zucchinis/courgette, eggplants, and cabbage are all commonly stuffed – usually with a mix of rice, minced meat, and various spices. In terms of grape leaves, every Mediterranean or Middle Eastern country has a distinguishing mixture. The Greek and Lebanese like lamb in their cuisine, and so they use minced lamb in their dolmades. Egyptians tend to gravitate towards beef, so they stuff their leaves with ground beef instead. Most Egyptian feasts and get-togethers involve a platter of neatly wrapped grape leaves.
In terms of spices, every culture also has a bit of a different emphasis: “The stuffed vine leaves of Greece, also called dolmathes, are filled largely with minced lamb, a bit of rice and touches of such other ingredients as crushed mint, fennel or parsley leaves, dill, garlic, pine nuts or currants and are served either hot with a chicken broth and lemon-based sauce called avgolemono or cold with a touch of olive oil. In Turkey they are dolma, in Iran dolmeh, and their basis is more rice than meat. They will invariably also contain pine nuts and currants” (NY Times).
In Egypt, most people cook it with beef, but when Christians fast from meat during Lent or Advent, they sometimes make a vegetarian version, which is sometimes served cold. When there’s no meat, we play up the rice with extra spices like dill or mint. It’s a rule: no meat, more spices. Some people even add tomato sauce to the vegetarian version which lacks the flavor-giving chicken or meat broth. But most Egyptians I know prefer the meaty version, in which they add only a pinch of salt and pepper, and rely on the broth to impart most of the hearty flavor.
We’ve also adopted a version of the tzatziki sauce (yogurt sauce) over dolamades tradition from the Greeks. The Egyptian yogurt sauce is simply made by mixing creamy Greek yogurt, chopped cucumber, crushed fresh mint, a minced clove of garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. The mixture subtly complements and highlights the rich taste of the meaty leaves. Some Egyptians who appreciate an even richer sauce on their stuffed grape leaves make a sauce called tarbiya, a variation of the Greek avgolemono, made from egg with lemon (beida bi-lemoune) mixed with broth and heated till it thickens. I haven’t tried making it yet, but it sure sounds delicious!
Without further ado, here’s the recipe that has been passed from one generation to the next in my Egyptian household. Simple, but delicious. And once you get the process down, it should take you no more than an hour to roll close to a hundred leaves.
Grape (or Vine) Leaves Stuffed with Ground Beef (Wara’ Enab bel Lahma el Mafrooma)
Prep Time: 30 minutes to prepare the filling and an hour to roll the leaves
Cook Time: 35-40 minutes
Serves: 60-80 leaves, which feeds about 10 people
- one 1-lb jar of brine-preserved grape (vine) leaves (I bought the brand “Peloponnese” from Whole Foods because it doesn’t contain any artificial preservatives, but you can also use wild hand-picked fresh leaves – check this post on MidEats for info on how to find them)
- 2 cups short-grain white rice (sushi rice is a great substitute because it has similar properties to Egyptian rice – short, thick and gets a bit sticky when it’s cooked).
- 1 lb grass-fed, organic ground beef
- 2-3 cups homemade chicken or beef stock (you may use water if you’re out of stock, but the taste won’t be nearly as rich)
- 2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped or pureed in the food processor
- 3 tablespoons grass-fed clarified butter
- juice of half a lemon
- unrefined sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
- 2-3 bay leaves, sliced garlic (2-3 cloves), onion slices and lemon slices to cover the bottom of the pot before stacking the stuffed grape leaves
(1) Open the jar of grape leaves, unroll the bunch of leaves, and thoroughly rinse under running water to remove most of the packaging liquid. Place on a strainer to drain.
(2) For the filling: In a bowl, add 2 cups of uncooked rice, 1 lb. of organic ground beef, 2 thinly-diced or pureed onions, 3 tablespoons of clarified butter, salt and pepper, and mix well using a large fork to make sure all ingredients are well integrated.
(3) On a large plate or cutting board, take one grape leaf and place on it about 1 teaspoon of the filling, as shown below:
(4) Then, shape the filling into a cylinder and fold the bottom two sides of the grape leave up as shown:
(5) Fold the right and left sides of the grape leave towards the middle, overlapping one side over the other and pulling in a bit to make sure it’s tightly folded in:
(6) Start rolling the grape leaf upward tightly to close it off:
(7) And there you have it – a nicely wrapped grape leaf…
(8) As you’re wrapping, watch for torn leaves that are unsuitable for stuffing and place them in the bottom of the pot that you will be using to cook the grape leaves.
(9) Add a layer of sliced 1 sliced onion, 2-3 sliced cloves of garlic, 1 sliced lemon, 2-3 bay leaves to the bottom of the pot.
(10) When you have stuffed and wrapped all the grape leaves, pile them in a circle in the pot on top of the sliced onion and lemon:
(11) Pour 2-3 cups of homemade chicken or meat broth to cover at least three-fourth of the pile of grape leaves in the pot. You can also mix the chicken/meat broth with water in whatever proportion to dilute for a lighter version of the dish, and add 2-3 cups of the diluted mix, but you will likely notice a slight difference in taste.
(12) Cover the grape leaves with a heat-proof dish that fits into the pot to keep the leaves from unraveling while cooking. Leave on medium-high heat for a few minutes until the broth starts to boil, then lower the heat to medium-low and cook for about 35-40 minutes until the meat and rice are fully cooked.
(13) Squeeze the juice of one lemon on top and enjoy either hot or cold, alongside tzatziki yogurt sauce or tarbiya if you like.
Stuffed grape leaves may take some time to roll individually, but it is definitely worth it! You can plan to make a bunch and freeze some, uncooked, in a pyrex dish until you’re ready to cook them at a later date (but no more than 3-4 months down the line). If you’re planning a get-together or potluck, consider having a ‘grape leaves rolling party’ where an assembly line of scooping enough filling and rolling can be optimized. Turn on some Middle Eastern music in the background for a little flavor!
This is a delicious dish, especially for all you meat-lovers, and the vegetarian version is also quite a treat. Which one do you plan on making?