Sarma Grapeleaves

Sour and savory grapeleaves filled with rice stuffing and steamed

Some of you know stuffed grapeleaves as dolma, but in my home (half American-half Armenian/ Lebanese) we called them sarmas. The reason? Sarma means rolled and dolma means stuffed. I have an ancient memory of my father telling me that. My sarma has shredded vegetables, white wine, and parsley. Not traditional ingredients, but flavorful. I hold no recipe sacred. No food is safe from my kitchen meddling.

This isn't an easy recipe. It involves multiple steps, and a little bit of a guessing game (How much rice goes in each leaf? How long to cook until the rice isn't chewy or too soft? Why is there extra water left in the pan) and time to manually roll each leaf. The good news is even if you mess up you will probably get something that tastes great. Make it for a special occasion, or a good party. If you're making grapeleaves, then you ought to show them off, er, um, I mean share.

Sarma Grapeleaves

1 medium onion
1 medium zucchini
2 tblsp vegetable oil
1/4 tsp salt
1 tblsp tomato paste
1 tsp dried mint
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 bunch of parsley, stems removed, chopped
2 tsp white wine
1 1/2 cups uncooked medium or long grain rice

1-2 jars of grapeleaves
olive oil
2 cups of water
1/2 lemon juice
1/2 cup pickle juice from jar of grapeleaves
more olive oil and lemons for presentation

Shred onion and zucchini. I used the slicing disks on my food processor. Alternatively, can pulse the vegetables in the bowl of your food processor until it's in little pieces, or the old fashioned on the large holed of a cheese grater. Add vegetables to large skillet with salt and oil. Cook over low-medium heat until very soft. Don't brown. Brown chunks in the grapeleaves looks kind of funky. Add tomato paste and mix to coat vegetables. Cook for about one minute, stirring. Stir in spices and mix until combine. Add white wine, scraping the bottom of the skillet to remove any of the flavorful bits that cling to the bottom. A wood spoon is a great tool for this. Turn off heat, and stir in rice. Mix until the rice is evenly coated. This mixture will be the filling for the grapeleaves. It can be prepared 3-5 days before rolling the grapeleaves and stored in a sealed container. When I'm in full on party planning mode I make the filling up to 2 weeks in advance freezing it in a good container.

A good set up makes the work easier

To roll and cook the grape leaves you're going to want to set aside a good 1-2 hours. Have some fun music playing while you dirty your hands, maybe invite some friend over to help. First find a large pot, 4 qts are more, to steam the grapeleaves in. You will need to keep a plate on top of the grapeleaves while they cook, so make sure that you have a plate that fits snugly over the opening before you start rolling grapeleaves. Find a nice clean workspace to roll grapeleaves where you can place the pot, a surface for rolling individual leaves (like a plate), the stuffing and leaves within comfortable reaching distance.

Remove the grapeleaves from the jar and rinse. Don't throw out the pickle juice the leaves are packed in. Cover the bottoms and sides of your pot with grapeleaves. Try to use the large leaves, which may be tough or hard to roll the sarmas with. The leaves will provide an ideal steaming environment, and help prevent sarmas from burning on the surfaces of the pan. Slosh a few glugs of olive oil on the leaves, and you're ready to sit and roll.

Stem facing you, veins up

Spread an individual grapeleaf on a plate, stem end pointing towards you, veins up. Using a small spoon plop a clump of filling across the wider stem end of the leaf. Around 1 tsp of filling per leaf. You don't want to over fill the leaves. They will explode, and you will have wasted all your hard work. Fold the sides of the leaf over the filling and roll away from you. Push/fold any wild leaf edges in towards the center as you roll. You are trying to make a nice little rice and leaf package that is not too tight, with a little lose space for the rice to expand. Tight packages may explode when cooked. Place each rolled grapeleave loose edge down (important) in the pot. Continue rolling and neatly packing grapeleaves in rows in your pot. You can stack 2-3 rows of grapeleaves.

Rolling grapeleaves never takes me less than an hour, and usually I get bored and antsy. Do not give in to the urge to overfill the grapeleaves to get done faster. You may just be messing them up, making them pop when cooked. I wish I had take a photo of my exploded grapeleaves, but they're so gory and sad.

After you've rolled all of the sarmas, and stacked them in your pot, gently pour in the water, lemon juice, and pickled leaf juice. Cover with an inverted plate, and place a weight on top of the plate. I use my Pyrex 2 cup measuring cup filled with water to hold down the plate while the grapeleaves expand. Place pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil, and lower heat to medium low.

Sometimes it takes 30 minutes to steam the sarmas sometimes over an hour. I'm not sure why. I suggest tasting a sarma after 30 minutes for doneness, and every 10 minutes there after. The rice should be tender, not chewy. Remove from heat, and drain any fluids that may remain. Move sarmas to storage container to help cool. Be careful they will be really hot. Use tongs. Squeeze lemon juice on top, and another glug of olive oil. Serve at slightly warm or at room temperature. Enjoy all your hard work, and know it gets a little easier every time you make sarmas!


  1. Would you believe we make then here in Serbia also, as a national dish. Everything wrapped up in leaves is called sarma here, especially if it is pickled cabbage with mince meat. Love the dish.

  2. your sarmas look delicious. i never knew the difference in the words. i think i might actually be able to make these. the only problem i would have is in finding the grape leaves. any tips on that end? thanks for sharing!!

  3. @VTK

    My father emailed me to remind me that those are the Turkish definitions.

    I could suggest some places if you live in NYC. IN general you would want to head to the middle eastern food stores in your area, if you have them. You could also brine your own. Grapeleaves are just everday leaves from a grapevine that have been pickled.

    Something I didn't mention in the post, because its a loooong post is that I have trouble finding the same variety twice. I don't know why that is.

    The ones I have right now are Armenian, which makes this Armenian blogger happy. They were thin. Thicker ones are tough to bite into.


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