Grape Leaves Stuffed with Rice and Ground Beef (Mahshi Wara’ Enab)

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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

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Cooking Directions

(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:

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 (4) Then, shape the filling into a cylinder and fold the bottom two sides of the grape leave up as shown:

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(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:

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(6) Start rolling the grape leaf upward tightly to close it off:

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(7) And there you have it – a nicely wrapped grape leaf…

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(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:

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(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.

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(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?

14 Comments

  1. I’m Lebanese and stuffed grape leaves are a favorite in my country too. I love the vegetarian version a lot.
    I’m happy to find your blog! your vine leaves look wonderful.

    • Welcome Cherine! Thanks for your kind comment. Aren’t vine leaves lovely? I’ll post my vegetarian version in a couple of weeks and share it with you 🙂 Btw, the photography on your blog is exquisite!

    • Thanks! I love making grape leaves too, despite the time commitment they require 😉 It’s worth it for me! I’ve made them with smaller leaves before, and many people think the smaller ones are more ‘fancy’ for some reason, so it’s ok if you don’t end up finding larger leaves. The most important thing to look for though is the preservatives – if they’re there, look for another brand.

    • Hi Victoria! You’re probably right … It’s interesting to read about how a dish originates in a region and then gets adopted by different regions/countries and adapted as their own. I believe the word dolma is also used in Greek (?) Anyway, thanks for the comment!

      • You’re right. It’s quite interesting. If you’re interested in food history and culture, I’d recommend the following books on the middle east:

        Medieval Arab Cookery- Charles Perry
        Classical Turkish Cooking-Ayla Algar
        A Baghdad Cookery Book Newly Translated-Charles Perry

        For dolma in particular, here is a nicely cited article about dolma history and the middle east: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/encyclopedia/definition/dolma/793/

        And yes, dolma is used in many countries, but it’s Turkic in origin, so it’s kind of how the word “omelette” is used in the US.

        • I am interested in food history – thanks for the book recommendations. I’ll be sure to check them out sometime! I read the article on dolma that you shared — it’s quite possible that more than one country thought of the idea of stuffing vegetables at the same time, but the explanation provided (that it originated in Turkey because of the ‘yabrak’ word used to describe it) is plausible as well. I will update the article to include the link and this information. Thanks again!
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  2. This sounds bad, but is there anyway I could use Uncle Ben’s 90 Second rice…don’t hate me for asking. It’s pretty much already cooked and I think the 90 seconds is to moisten it and warm it up. So should I just remove the rice and stuff the grape leaves and let the steaming do the work? Would that be a possibility?

  3. Hello! My friend, Maram, used to make these and I fell in love with them! I have been dying to make some, and your recipe is just like hers! Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing! I was wondering if you could help me…there is another recipe that she made and I can’t remember the name of it. I’ll attempt a description, and hope it makes sense! It was a greenish, almost slimy, sauce that is served over rice and roasted pine nuts. I would absolutely love to make some, but it’s hard to find a recipe if you don’t know what you’re looking for!!! lol
    Thanks again for posting the grape leaves recipe. My mouth is watering!

    • Good to hear from you, Okie. Glad you like the grape leaves recipe. It’s one of my favorites as well. From your description, I’m thinking you might be referring to molokhia. Check out the post here and let me know if I got it right: http://mideats.com/2011/09/molokheya/ If not, share a bit more about the taste maybe and we can try to determine what it is. Thanks!

  4. Our family makes mahshi a few times a year on special occasions and it is quickly devoured at family get together’s. Our recipe is different from most of what I have found online. We use a 50/50 mix of ground beef and sausage and spice with Jalapeno and Serrano peppers. The peppers go into the mix as well as the tomato sauce we boil them in. Also we half cool the rice before adding it to the ‘Mix’. The Mahshi ends up with a very controlled but delicious heat. The 45 min of rolling is always worth it!

  5. My boyfriend’s mom makes these all the time but she often has leftover meat and rice and just cooks that off for lunch or other things. How would you cook off the remaining beef and rice if you don’t fill all the grape leaves? Thank you!

  6. Victoria. You’re saying that the dolma gets too much credit in for a Greek origin. But do you know the history of wine making?

    First of all. Turks come from Kazakhstan/Mongolia around 1100 AD, the poorest farmlands in the world. They led (and still do in these regions) a nomadic life, and their diet, was all based on their cattle. Extremely rudimentary. Ofcourse until they started to enter Anatolia, 900 years ago, the region we now call Turkey since 100 years.

    Second. Winemaking in Greece goes back 7000 years. The first cookbook in the world was made by the Greek Archestratus 350 BC. How come almost all our sciences, culture, architecture, astronomy, even up to coinage systems, come from the Greeks, but somehow while Greek cuisine has a history (history = moment a civilization left behind writing) of 5000 years, it could not think of having thought of having stuffed wine leaves?

    I leave the thinking up to you. Greece is famous for many things, including an incredible cuisine that’s very diverse and delicious.
    It’s just ridiculous to superficially think that before 800- 900 years ago, the Greeks in all their glory (Minoan Greece 3700 BC, Mycenaean Greece 2000 BC, Classical/Hellenistic Greece 800 BC, Byzantium Greece 300 AD-1453 AD) did not have anything. Because that is in my eyes what you say. If so many ingredients/elements, native to East Mediterranean, used for thousands of years, then a group of people such as the Turks who have a nomadic background, the youngest culture to enter the Mediterranean surely has nothing to do with the invention of many dishes that originated in Greece or in other regions around east Mediterranean. Greek cuisine is called the mother of all Mediterranean cuisines for a reason.
    How can people be so gullible to think like that when they don’t even know the history of both peoples.

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