The cuisine column: Sarmi

It is very appropriate that the recipe for sarmi or dolmades should be the first to appear on this website. It is the ultimate Balkan recipe; all countries in the region – from Turkey to Serbia – prepare sarmi in one way or another, using the leaves of vine, cabbage or dock and various stuffing – mainly rice with spices, onions and sometimes nuts and mince.

As I recently discovered, it is a tradition that reaches as far asAzerbaijan, where sarmi are smaller and contain lamb. Other countries in the Caucasus likeArmeniaalso consider them a national dish.

It is also the recipe that expats and foreign tourists either love or hate – there is no middle way, at least with people that I know.

The general conviction is that sarmi are tricky and elaborate to prepare, but in the end it all comes down to a couple of simple tricks. Once you try them and master them, you would be rewarded by happy guests at your table.

The recipe I am offering has been used in my family for three generations, although I like to experiment and change the proportion of spices.


1 cup of rice (I use a coffee mug), washed and slightly dried

3 cups of water

30 – 50 vine leaves (depending on size, try to use leaves which are young and tender)

15 – 20 spring onions, finely cut

Some olive oil


Black pepper


A bunch of parsley, dill and mint, finely cut.

Green plums 200 gr. (optional, they give a nice taste, but can be substituted with lemon)


First prepare the stuffing. Fry the onions gently in some olive oil until they soften and change colour. Add the rice and fry for a couple of minutes until it gets slightly transparent. Don’t burn it! Them add one cup of water and lower the heat – your mixture should bubble gently.

Now add all the spices, including salt, to taste, stir well and leave it to simmer for a few minutes until the water is absorbed. Cover and leave to cool.

While waiting, prepare the leaves. Wash them well, as you do with salad and spread them in a large shallow dish. Sprinkle some salt on top and between them and pour some boiling water on top. The leaves will soften and change color and it will be easier to wrap the stuffing in them. Leave to cool for a few minutes and discard the water.

Now you are ready to wrap your sarmi. Put a spoonful of stuffing in the middle of each leaf and wrap in a tight package. You can see how towards the middle of this video:

Then arrange in a large pan in concentric circles starting from the end of the pan towards the middle. The sarmi should not be too loosely or too tightly together. Here and there put a green plum, if using. It is important to put a layer of leaves at the bottom of the pan before you start, to prevent your sarmi from burning. Ideally you should end up with one layer of sarmi or two at the most if your pan is smaller.

When you are done, pour a bit of olive oil over the sarmi, then place a clean plate on top of them. That will prevent them from floating and unwrapping while they boil. Now add the remaining two cups of water. Boil gently for one how on low heat. Toward the end, check them every five minutes as they may burn if the water is absorbed to quickly. Serve cold, with some yoghurt or a squeeze of lemon.

Prepared in this way, the sarmi are a nice starter or a side dish. But you can turn them into a main course if you add meat. In Bulgaria, a mixture of pork and beef 50/50 is used. But if it is not to your liking, you can use only beef or lamb, but the taste will be different.

Just add 500 gr mince after your stuffing has cooled enough to be able to mix it well with your hands, then proceed as above. You may need more leaves, as your stuffing now will double in size. Enjoy!



Joana Levieva-Sawyer

Joana Levieva-Sawyer is a producer and journalist with Bulgarian National Television, where she’s been for 18 years, and has been a self-trained cook for more than 20. She has received valuable instruction from two generations of women in her family as well as from Youtube and various cookbooks, magazines and websites. The happy friends who often eat at her table are her only certificate.