Where to begin on this wonderous creation? Before I go any further, I have to start off by saying I adore stuffed grapeleaves. Or feuilles des vignes in french, or warak enab, or maashi in arabic. They are the most overlooked produce and yet lend themselves to heavenly bites.
I’ve been eating these as far back as I can remember. My grandmother used to make them for me all the time, and she would neatly lay them out on a platter. My aunt then began to make them and I have to say she is the best roller in the family. Under her tutelage, and my father’s insistence, a stuffed grape leaf should be no wider than one’s little finger.
My sister and I would go over to my aunt’s and we would gather around the dining room table to roll these things. She would force us to unroll if one was found too fat or too loose.
Luckily the stuffing for this is the standard egyptian stuffing: ground meat (lamb or beef), garlic, rice, salt and pepper. My mother has always excelled in making the stuffing, but would make the grape leaves in a hurry, which would result in obese rolls; not an appetizing thing to eat. Luckily we’ve all mastered the roll and it’s all good now.
Stuffed grape leaves are not hard to make; but they are nuisance to make, which is why they are generally served for special occasions such as christmas, easter, guests coming over, that type of thing. They don’t even take that long to cook; but the rolling is the issue. If you have some friends come over to help out, it can easily turn into a middle-eastern quilting bee. Or, as I did in university, I sought out the more skilled friends of mine and taught them how to roll. Later on, I would have them come over to roll for me while I supervised. They got paid in grape leaves for dinner.
The dish of grape leaves is often served as an appetizer in restaurants throughout Egypt. But, in homes, it’s one of many main dishes served at the table. So you will often have molokhia, chicken, grape leaves and cucumber yogurt salad all in one sitting. Or, as we do at home on occasion, you can make the grape leaves as a main dish and eat it with a salad.
Eating grape leaves is nothing new in Egypt. Every middle eastern country eats them as does Greece,Turkey and Iran; basically any country that was once under Ottoman rule or near its empire. The idea of eating grape leaves is often associated with the Greeks who claim that back in the days when Alexander the Great besieged Thebes, food became a hard find so people had to get make do with what little meat they had left. So they cut up the bits of meat and rolled it in grape leaves. This story sounds plausible apart from the fact I have never eaten a Greek grape leaf stuffed with meat; it’s always just rice.
Nonetheless, the idea of rolling grape leaves spread across the area and to this day, the Greek dolmades,Turkish dolma, or Persian dolma– all meaning to stuff–are popular dishes. Chances are when the Greeks occupied Egypt back in 332BC or when the Ottomans conquered the country in 1517, the recipe was brought over.
Of course, there are variations. In my personal experience, I find the Greek and Levantine versions are made with little to no meat. The Greeks also use more spicing in theirs such as cinnamon, and nutmeg and often add a tomato base, whereas the Levantine versions are seasoned with lemon, dill and mint. The Turkish version usually has meat, but they also like the meatless ones which are served cold and can be stuffed with dried fruit, nuts, and lentils. The Persian version is usually withour meat but can include nuts, pomegranate juice, rice and cheese. All this to say, in my humble opinion, the Egyptian version reigns supreme in its simplicity and flavouring.
Not too long ago, I went home to visit my mom for Canadian thanksgiving, which is just another excuse to eat all the great egyptian foods she prepares. As usual, she made molokhia, stuffed turkey (liver and rice mix) and grape leaves. The catch this time, was she decided to ‘change it up’ a little. To my surprise, she took the advice of a Lebanese friend of hers to add sliced lemons and mint to the grape leaves. Big mistake!! Call me a food snob, but this combination was not expected or welcomed. I applaud the Lebanese on many of their dishes, but I’ve never enjoyed their version of grape leaves. You can over do a good thing, and that’s what happens when you embellish this dish with lemons, mint, dill and other varieties.
In any case, it has been decided that this variation will not be attempted again. So this recipe will be the tried and tested Egyptian version: garlic, meat, rice, chicken stock. I made a mistake and bought grape leaves packaged in Turkey. The Turkish ones are far too salty and have to be soaked a long time before you can use them. You end up eating a salt lick. I would suggest trying to find the ones packaged in California.
Cooking time: 3 hours
Preparation time: 2 hours
Yield: minimum 6 persons
For this recipe, there is no standard for measurements. The easiest thing to do is use the package of ground meat as your measurement and add an equal amount of rice to the mix. If you run out of leaves before the mix is done, than you can either get more leaves or call it a day.
1 jar of pickled grape leaves (try to find the California variety)
ground meat–lamb or beef (your preference if lean or not)
short grain rice (egyptian or italian version)
1 head of garlic
fresh or store bought chicken stock (see previous entry for fresh recipe)
Optional: Cucumber yogurt salad (see previous entry for recipe)
1. Open jar of grape leaves and leave to soak in warm water for about 30 minutes
2. In a large mixing bowl add meat
3. Add an equal amount of uncooked rice to the meat
4. Peel half of the garlic and chop it up
5. Add chopped garlic to mix
6. Season with salt and pepper (be generous with the salt)
8. If you are not creeped out by this, grab a little bit of the mix to taste
9. Adjust salt and pepper
10. Strain water from grape leaves
11. Find a large cooking pot and line the bottom with some grape leaves – just one layer, it doesn’t matter which side of the leaf you use
20. THIS IS HARD TO DO AT FIRST!
21. If your first roll looks horrid, take it apart and try again.
22. Continue rolling until all the mix is done or the leaves are done
24. If you have any left over grape leaves (also the ones with holes) lay them over the grape leaves to cover — this is not essential, but it can protect the leaves a little while cooking
25. Peel the remaining garlic
26. Sprinkle the garlic over the dish
28. Cook at high so that it is boiling for at least an hour
29. After an hour, check on pot, if it needs more stock add some so it just covers the rolls, and continue cooking on high for another hour
30. After two hours of cooking on high, you can turn the heat down to medium and taste a roll. If the rice is cooked and the leaf is tender, it’s done! If not, add enough stock to cover rolls and continue cooking
31. The best friend to this dish is khiar be lebaan (cucumber yogurt salad)
32. If you have no cucumber or mint, plain yogurt will also be good
And that’s it. Easy, right? The steps may seem a bit cumbersome, but once you get the rolling down, it’s not too bad. It is time-consuming so it’s not a meal you can whip up in an hour, but it’s well worth the effort!