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What is Sarma?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sarma is a dish found frequently in Turkish cuisine and in the native foods of regions that were historically part of the Ottoman Empire. It consists primarily of cabbage or grape leaves wrapped around a filling and boiled for hours before serving. This filling is typically made using minced or diced meat, often pork, beef, or veal, which is sometimes combined with rice or barley and other seasonings for flavor. The liquid in which they are poached often includes animal fat or pork for greater flavor. Sarma is similar to dolma.

Though sarma is prominent in Turkish cooking, it can be found in various parts of Central Europe and many different nations that were influenced by Turkish cuisine. It is commonly served at holidays or special occasions, such as birthdays or family patron saint celebrations, and is often associated with Christmas or New Year's dinner in countries such as Slovenia and Croatia. The name “sarma” comes from the Turkish word sarmak, which means “to wrap.” Due to the wide spread of this dish and the different ingredients that are popular or native to various regions, including the dietary differences of various religious faiths, the spices and ingredients used to make this dish can vary quite a bit.

The type of leaves used to make sarma often depends on preference and what is available, though cabbage leaves, grape leaves, and chard are all quite common. These leaves are usually boiled for about 10 minutes to soften them, with vinegar often added to the boiling water to give the leaves a sour or pickled flavor. The filling used to make the sarma usually begins with meat which is minced or diced finely and then mixed with diced onion, spices, and rice or barley. Beef, pork, and veal are all quite common for making the filling for this dish, though other meats such as goat, lamb, and poultry are also used in some areas.

Once the filling is made for the sarma, a small amount is placed on a leaf and the leaf is then wrapped around the filling and closed at the ends. These are typically made in a large quantity and the filling often includes salt and pepper and different spices including cinnamon, parsley, dill, and cloves. The sarma are then placed in a large vessel of lightly boiling water, typically mixed with dried pork or pork fat, to poach slowly for several hours, though in some regions they are cooked in tomato sauce instead. They are then removed and served with a variety of sides, including yogurt, sour cream, mashed potatoes, and polenta.

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Discussion Comments

By burcinc — On Mar 18, 2011

I remember the first time I had sarma, at a Turkish restaurant in the city. My friends and I ordered it as an appetizer because we were all curious as to what this food with grape leaves looked like.

I admit that the idea of eating leaves didn't excite me too much. But sarma didn't really taste like leaves, not that I've had leaves before. Maybe it was the lamb and rice stuffing that made it taste really good. Oh, not to forget, the yogurt and garlic sauce that came with it.

I need to find this sarma recipe and learn to make it myself because I've been spending way too much money eating out at that Turkish restaurant for sarma.

By candyquilt — On Mar 16, 2011

I think the general rule is that if the stuffing includes meat, you don't include any oil but if it is vegetarian, meaning with only rice filling, you are supposed to make it with olive oil.

If I am making it with minced beef, I use rice, mint, black pepper, tomato or pepper paste, salt for the stuffing. If it is vegetarian, I again put some tomato paste, mint and black pepper, but also turmeric and small raisins. You can also put broken wheat or bulghur in the stuffing, by itself or in addition to rice. This increases the fiber content and makes it healthier.

By fify — On Mar 14, 2011

Middle Easter grocery stores sell jars of ready grape leaves. That's what I used to make stuffed grape leaves. The hardest part of making grape leaves is the wrapping part and it took me some time to get it precisely right.

You just have to make sure that you cut the stem of the leaf off and place the rice filling on the side where the veins can be seen (the shiny part of the leaf is the outside of the sarma). I like to make my grape leaves nice and thin so I use only a little bit of stuffing for each.

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