Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Yalanchi Sarma!!

This post's title deserves two exclamation marks for two important reasons:

1- I've been meaning to make this dish for longer than I can remember
2- I cannot believe how good it turned out for a first try

Every Armenian and their mother knows sarma and dolma by heart. You either grew up eating it, watched your mom or grandmother make it, was forced to make it yourself, or ate it in any Armenian, Middle-Eastern, Turkish, or Greek restaurant.

There are a variety of types depending on region, including vegetarian or meat-filled options, and just when I thought I basically knew most of the common types, I got dolma-slapped in Armenia and tried basooc dolma (dolma you eat during bas/bak aka lent) for the first time ever and fell in love and talked about it (and wrote about it) non-stop.

To break it down, dolma is usually when cabbage (pickled in the case of basooc) or vegetables like peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, or zucchinis are used as the "containers" for the filling, and sarma is when grape leaves are used (cabbage seems to be the option that can be found in either one).

My grandmother and mom both made sarma regularly, and dolma as well, but since we used to grow grape leaves in our garden, sarma has a special place in my hyper heart. They would pick the leaves themselves, have family come over to help roll the pre-sarmas, and boil it and we would all devour it with madzoun when it was ready and then fall into-food comas. My mom always let me (forced me) to roll too and I am pretty pretentious now about my rolling abilities.

The "problem" growing up with parents and grandparents who make the best food all of the time is that you kind of assume you can as well because you eat it home-made, or watch them make it, or participate in small tasks in preparing it, and then one day, when you find yourself alone in the land of Armenia, realize you crave the type you eat back home, and only remember there were grape leaves involved, and rolling.

As luck would have it, I met another bolsahye in Armenia, Serda, and her German friend Wiebke (German names > Armenian names in terms of difficulty) asked us to organize a little sarma-making party, population: the three of us. I e-mailed my mom for the recipe, who never uses recipes because she has the memory of an elephant, and we got everything we needed to make delicious sarma, assuming it would kind of be a meghk version of the ones we knew and loved, but even mediocre sarma is good sarma in my books.

With the advice and blessing of our mothers, we began.

What you need:
-Grape leaves! You can pick them or buy them in season.
-Rice! We stuck to the original recipe and went with nutrient-deficient white rice, but next time will use red rice or spelt.
-Salchaaaa! aka tomato paste (if you have pepper paste this is better)
-Mint flakes (don't even think about skipping this)
-Hot pepper
-Olive oil

We put three cups of rice in a pot, put about six tablespoons of boiling water over it, keeping the heat as low as possible. You don't want to cook the rice completely, since you will continue to boil it again as a whole in the grape leaves. In a pan, you can cook the onions with olive oil and then add the chopped parsley (or just add the parsley to the rice), and include the salt and pepper.
You will then add this to the rice pot, along with two teaspoons of salcha and this is the mix that goes inside of the grape leaves.
In a different pot, after rinsing and de-stemming the grape leaves, boil them with a lid for about five to seven minutes to soften them. Do this early on so they cool off in time for the mixture.
Rinsed, pre-softening boil
Once it cools off, and the rice has essentially cooked a bit, you can set the table for some fun sarma-rolling on a Friday night and just lie to people and say you were out dancing. The sarma-rolling station needs one flat plate you can put all the grape leaves on, the pot with the mixture (cooled off, ideally), a larger pot you will put all of the rolled sarmas into to boil, and plate(s) for individual rolling--in our case, we needed three.

Before you start, put a few of the grape leaves on the bottom of the pot you will use to boil. You can use the ones that are damaged or have holes (there will always be a couple) to prevent the sarmas from burning. They are the selfless barriers, and we thank them.

You can now begin the rolling! Take a grape leaf, and place it so the protruding vein-y side is facing your face, and begin. Take a small amount of the filling (I always put too much) and put it on the end where you have de-stemmed the leaf.
A perfect example of Lena putting too much in
Roll it tightly, making sure to tuck in the sides so that when you boil them they do not come loose. There is a bit of an "art" to doing this, but apparently it is too difficult to put into words. Basically make them tight and closed off and all should be well in the world.
Armenian & German rolling in harmony
Once you roll them up, place them in the pot and as you add more to the pot, make sure you keep them nice and tight together, and not allow too many open spaces between each sarma.
You can see a couple at the top that were not rolled to their tightest-potential.
Once you are finished rolling, there is just one more thing to do before boiling. Add some warm/hot water to a cup, one tablespoon of salcha, lots of mint (I am always super generous with mint), some salt, and the juice of one lemon. Mix them all together and pour over the little sarmas. It should cover about 3/4ths or more of them.
Pre-final boil!
Put the lid on, and boil this on low heat for about 30-45 minutes. You will know when it's ready when the grape leaves are soft enough to easily piece with a knife, and when the rice is completely cooked and the liquid has all been soaked up.

Let it cool before eating and enjoy alone, with a nice refreshing side salad, or some madzoun!
We combined our sarma with a bean dish and tomato salad
While a couple of ours had fallen apart, the taste was absolutely fantastic! Perfectly cooked with so much flavour, we ate until the belt buckles had to be loosened, just like back home! You can decorate with a few slices of lemon to be super legit and impress your mom even more.
Our babies, up-close and personal
Grape leaves, as a "dark green" contain some calcium, iron, potassium, and of course fibre, so I especially love using them as wrappers. Minerals are also not affected by heat, which is great in this case. Soon we will also try a more nutrient-packed option with mashed up beans (a la basooc dolma) and a different grain.

Fun fact: This type of sarma is called "yalanchi" for a cute reason. Yalanchi means "liar" in Turkish, and since this type has no meat and is therefore vegan, it is called "lying sarma" because they usually have meat!

All photos by Serda Ozbenian!


  1. Hi Lena! I'm going to make this for NYE this year, and I just had to ask: do you only put 6 tablespoons of water over the three cups of rice in the pot? Are you sure it's not 6 cups of water? Thank you!

    1. Oh good choice :) TBSP is right, because you want to just 'lightly' cook it so it softens, the real cooking happens within the leaves in the pot! That's how it was done in this recipe, but my mom actually cooks the onion, turns the heat off, adds the rice and puts the lid on & lets it sit with NO water! And hers are 100% better than mine :D