When you talk about Turkish cooking it's necessary to look at both dolma (dole-MAH') and sarma (SAR'-mah). Dolma means "stuffed thing" and sarma means '"wrapped thing." These are general terms used for many varieties of vegetables and leaves stuffed with meat and rice fillings.
Dolma and sarma can be very time-intensive to prepare. Stuffed and wrapped vegetable dishes are common in many cuisines throughout Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. In Turkey, favorite vegetables for stuffing include zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and onions. For wrapping, the most popular are vine leaves, collard greens, Swiss chard, and cabbage.
Some Like Them Hot
First, let's talk about dolma served as a hot main course. In this case, vegetables are prepared with a meat filling, then stewed slowly in their own juices. They are served hot and topped with a dollop of plain yogurt. Assorted vegetable dolma make a wonderfully light and colorful meal, especially for guests.
Preparation of the dolma involves several steps. First, a small cap is delicately cut from the top of each vegetable, then the center is scooped out with a small teaspoon. The vegetable insides are salted and stuffed with your meat filling. Replace the cap, and then steam the dolma to perfection.
A favorite main course dolma recipe uses summer squash and ground beef is called kabak dolması (kah-BAHK' dole-MAH'-su), or stuffed zucchini.
Stuffed Meat, Poultry, and Fish
If you're not crazy about vegetables, all's not lost. Dolma can also be savored as a hot main course. Cuts of meat and poultry stuffed with rice, bulgur, spices, and nuts also fall into the dolma family.
Boneless chicken thighs, whole chickens, and quail, legs of lamb, and squid are only some examples of the endless varieties of mouthwatering "stuffed things" in Turkish cuisine.
Fish and seafood are also delicious stuffed the Turkish way. Fillings made with rice, stale bread, fresh herbs, tomatoes, and sometimes cheese grace the tables of many restaurants in coastal cities.
One of our favorites is kalamar dolması (kal-a-MAR' dole-MAH'-su), or stuffed squid. It's a luxurious dish from the Aegean region of Turkey made with very basic ingredients.
Cool, Cooler, Cold!
If you're already a fan of dolma, keep on reading. You'll be happy to learn that cold varieties of stuffed things are just as important and plentiful as the hot ones.
Rice-filled dolma are usually served as part of the mezze table, or as a side dish accompanying the main course. They feature nutty, wholesome fillings made with rice or bulgur, onions, nuts, dried fruits, and spices. Each region of the country makes its rice filling just a little differently.
Cold dolma are cooked and served with generous amounts of olive oil. The oil helps the rice and other ingredients bind while cooking and adds to the wonderful flavor. More oil is drizzled over the top before serving. This helps keep the dolma plump and moist. It also preserves the dish, so it keeps longer in the refrigerator.
Small green Bell peppers and eggplants are some of the most frequently stuffed vegetables cooked in olive oil. Stuffed mussels, or midye dolması (mid-YEAH' dole-MAH'-su), are also made with the same fragrant rice filling and served as an appetizer before fish meals. Stuffed squash flowers, considered a delicacy, also use the same filling.
From Stuffing to Wrapping
Many dishes wrapped in vine leaves or other green, leafy vegetables use the same fillings as their siblings, the dolma. This is true for both hot and cold varieties of sarma. For example, the fragrant rice filling used to prepare vine leaves in olive oil is the same filling used in our recipe for stuffed mussels.
Learning to prepare sarma can take some time, but it's well worth the effort. Once you learn how to wrap, you'll gain speed and confidence. We actually look forward to the time we spend parboiling leaves, cutting them into perfect shapes and wrapping them around little bits of filling until they all look perfect.
So how do you decide what to wrap? This often depends on the time of year and where you happen to be. Vine leaves and white cabbage sarma are more common in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions. Near the Black Sea, other leafy vegetables like collard greens and Swiss chard wrap everything from lamb and beef, fragrant fillings of rice or bulgur—even sardines.
As you go further east, the fillings get redder and spicier. Rice and pine nuts are seasoned with paprika, ground sumac, and some tomato or red pepper paste for a spicy twist.
What to Stuff and Wrap
If you have trouble deciding how to get started, venture out to your local supermarket or farmers market to see what fresh vegetables and leaves are available. It's the quickest path to inspiration. We still discover new things to be stuffed and wrapped.
- If you can't find fresh leaves for wrapping, you can always buy vine leaves in brine. They are usually found near the pickles or in the Greek or international foods section of your supermarket.