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If there is a dish that is claimed by so many cultures as dolma, I don’t know it. As far as I know, it is claimed by Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, Iranians, Kurds, Turks, and some people in the Balkans – if I left anyone out, please, I am not trying to start a war! In retrospect, the geographical spread of these groups make sense since they  were all, at one time or another, part of the Ottoman or Persian empires.

dolmaDolmas can technically be any vegetable that is hollowed and stuffed, the most common being capsicums, aubergines, and tomatoes, but the version most common in restaurants, in my experience, is made with grape leaves. Technically, this is called sarma, a wrapping of rice and/or meat in grape, cabbage, or chard leaves, but dolma seems to be the more popular nomenclature. Sarma is derived from the Turkish word, sarmak, which means to wrap, and dolma comes from another Turkish word, dolmak, which means to stuff. The basic template of a dolma is rice or some other grain, such as bulgur wheat, mixed with ground meat and spices. Sometimes, the meat is substituted for pine nuts, raisins, or onions. There are many varieties of dolmas, varying in wrapping and stuffing across cultures and changing quite drastically in taste. So if you don’t like this particular recipe, do not hesitate to try another kind of dolma next time you get an opportunity!

The recipe below is for a lamb dolma, but can be easily modified to a vegetarian one if so desired. In fact, since the basic framework of wrapping and rice is the same, you can experiment with different kinds of dolmas on your own by making small changes to this recipe! So بفرماييد and afiyet olsun!


  • Lamb – 500g, ground [for a vegetarian alternative, substitute with one finely chopped green onion, 1/3 cup raisins, one small, finely chopped aubergine or zucchini, one cup mushrooms, and increase coriander leaves by ½ cup]
  • Rice – 1 cup. I use basmati, but any regular variety (not highly absorbant like arborio or calasparra) is fine
  • Tomatoes – ½ cup, pureed
  • Onion – 1, medium
  • Grape leaves – 250g
  • Chicken broth – 3 cups
  • Greek yogurt – 1 cup
  • Olive oil – 1 cup
  • Garlic – 3 cloves, minced
  • Cinnamon – ½ teaspoon
  • Oregano – 3 sprigs, fresh
  • Coriander leaves – ¼ cup (do not discard the stems)
  • Dill – 2 sprigs
  • Lemon – 1
  • Salt to taste

Preparation time: 10 – 15 minutes

Cooking time: 20 – 25 minutes OR 40 – 45 minutes

Serves: 6 – 8


  • Wash and drain the rice.
  • Rinse the grape leaves thoroughly and place them in a colander to drain.  In a few seconds, separate the leaves carefully – do not tear them. Some leaves may be already torn; pat them dry and stack them on a plate
  • Heat about three tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet and  heat on a medium high flame. Chop the onions finely and add them to the oil; sauté for about five minutes – the onions should be soft but not brown
  • Add the ground lamb and continue to sauté. Add two cloves of the minced garlic as well. Break the lamb up as it cooks, trying to get the pieces as small as possible. Cook until the lamb is completely browned
  • Empty the skillet into a mixing bowl; add the rice and about half a cup of olive oil, along with the tomato puree, cinnamon, coriander leaves, oregano, and salt. Mix thoroughly and set aside
  • Place the grape leaves shiny side down on a flat work surface, one at a time. Cut off and discard the stem end
  • Place a tablespoon of the rice-lamb mix on the leaf towards the stem end. Gently fold the sides over the filling, and roll the leaf up lightly. Make sure the dolma is not wrapped too tightly, for the rice will expand during the cooking and may rupture the leaf. Repeat until all the leaves are done
  •  Line the bottom of a pot with the torn grape leaves and the stems of the coriander leaves. Place the dolmas on this bed of leaves – it is so that the rolls do not stick to the bottom of the pot. Place them snugly, but not too tightly. You can stack them if you run out of space, but use a pot with a large base if possible
  • [OPTION 1] Pour in the rest of the olive oil, juice of half a lemon, and broth onto the dolmas. Place a heat-resistant plate on top of the rolls and weigh it down with a heavy can (for example, a 500g can of tomato puree) – this is done just in case the grape leaves unwind due to the heat. Cover the pot tightly and bring to a boil on a high flame.
  • Keep sprinkling the dolmas with water so that they don’t become too dry. Set the flame to low and cook for about 20 minutes or until the rice is tender
  • When done, remove the dolmas from the pot and allow to cool for five minutes
  • [OPTION 2] Baste the dolmas liberally with a mix of the remaining olive oil and lemon juice. Place a steaming rack in a large pot and arrange the dolmas on the steamer; they can be stacked if there isn’t enough space. Pour the broth into the bottom of the pot; it should come close to the steaming rack
  • Cover the pot and simmer for about 30 – 35 minutes, or until the rice is cooked
  • When done, remove the dolmas from the pot and allow to cool for five minutes

Personally, I prefer the steaming method since I have had dolmas unravel on me or turn out too salty due to the broth (using water could leave them quite flat-tasting). Furthermore, it is less work – no sprinkling with water on them or worrying that the dolmas might stick to the pot!

Tzatziki sauce – you can prepare this while the dolma is cooking

  • Put the yogurt in a bowl. add the remaining minced garlic (microplane if possible), juice of the other half of the lemon, dill, cucumber, salt, and about three tablespoons of olive oil. Stir and place in the refrigerator until the dolma is done

Serve the dolmas with the sauce…enjoy!