If you love juicy and zesty Turkish sarma, this is the moreish recipe for you! The rice, soft and aromatic, is carefully wrapped into vine leaves and covered with a good amount of olive oil and lemon juice. They’re addictive and well worth the effort, all my friends have asked me for this recipe and I always have some prepared for special occasions.
You can find different types of Turkish sarma all over Turkey, every family has its own coveted recipe. Some filling contains meat, while others are a bit more on the sweet side (cinnamon, currants, and pine nuts are pretty common). My in-laws’ Turkish sarma are a bit drier than mine and pretty peppery, while my stuffed vine leaves are tomatoey and drizzled with more lemon juice. It all depends on your taste and preferences, but every Turkish sarma should be covered with a good amount of olive oil.
LABOR OF LOVE
I’m not gonna lie, this classic Mediterranean meze is a labor of love, patience and time. Making Turkish sarma takes a loooot of time. First, you make the stuffing, prepare the leaves, stuff the leaves (which can take up to 1h30 if you’re alone and making a whole bunch), and then you can finally cook them. Every time I make sarma you can hear me muttering ‘This is the last time I’m ever spending my whole afternoon making sarma’. But they’re so good! I can’t stay mad at them for too long and you can bet I’m gonna start craving Turkish sarma again after a month or so.
So to ensure a stress-free sarma-making experience I would encourage you not to do everything at the same time. I like to prep the rice the night before. Then in the morning, I prepare the leaves and then ‘only’ the stuffing/rolling part is left to do in the afternoon/night. Stuffing Turkish sarma isn’t hard in itself (check out the photos) it’s just very repetitive and it can get boring. But maybe you’re currently feeling a strong desire to dissociate with yourself through a repetitive and meaningless task, then Turkish sarma is just for you! All kidding aside, when I put on my favorite history podcast and I’m not pressed by time, I actually quite enjoy the process and seeing the pile of stuffed grape leaves getting bigger and bigger is weirdly satisfying.
A TURKISH STAPLE
Through sweat and oily hands rolling Turkish sarma can also be a way to bond with someone. Stuck together at the same table, stuffing, rolling, you’re bound to discuss to pass the time. It might be fun and it would save you so much time to have an extra pair of hands. I used to help my mother-in-law roll sarma while listening to Turkish pop radio stations. We couldn’t talk due to my inability to properly learn Turkish after all these years but these are still good memories. If you have some leftover rice you can 1/ cook it over low heat with a splash of water, stirring from time to time, adding more water as necessary until the rice is cooked through (risotto-style), 2/ freeze it and cook it later.
I first tasted yaprak sarma when I moved to Turkey and boy after one bite was I hooked! Turkish sarma is actually the first food my in-laws made for me. I remember my then-boyfriend now-husband coming over and handing me the plastic tub full of sarma and telling me to grab (Turkish) yogurt from the fridge to eat it with. He was very puzzled indeed to learn that I didn’t have yogurt in my fridge and that I actually never ate anything savory with yogurt. My boyfriend wanted to go straight to the shop to buy some whereas I was quite contented eating them without any yogurt. I mean they were very good on their own, what was all that fuss about yogurt? I’m French and it would never have come to my mind to spoon yogurt on my dinner.
However, 3 years in Turkey have really taught me what a dull life it is to live without thick yogurt. Turkish yogurt is so dense and yet slightly creamy with the perfect tanginess to it. While served with Turkish sarma it brings balance to the whole meal. The sarma’s acidity is met with the yogurt’s mildness and its creaminess offers a great contrast to the bite you get from the vine leaves. All in all, yogurt is indispensable but if you can’t source Turkish ones you can buy Greek yogurt. It will be less tart and dense than Turkish yogurt but it’ll still do the job.
➝ Can I use fresh grape leaves? Yes, place them in a large bowl and cover them with boiling water. Add 1 tsp of salt and soak for 10 min. Drain and set aside. Don’t forget to snip off any stems before stuffing the Turkish sarma.
➝ Which grape leaves in brine should I buy? I always take vine leaves in a jar with a screw-on lid. This way if I don’t use everything I can preserve the rest of the leaves longer. Make sure the brine covers everything up and keep the jar in the fridge. The leaves that are vacuumed packed don’t have as much brine and cannot be preserved as long once opened.
Are you looking for other Turkish mezze recipes? Here are some of my favorites:
- Green lentil salad (Mercimek salatası)
- Carrots with yogurt (Havuç tarator)
- Braised leeks (Pırasa yemeği)
- Creamy pasta salad (Makarna salatası)
If you love Turkish sarma (vegetarian stuffed grape leaves), covered with a decent amount of lemon juice and olive oil, this is the recipe for you! They’re addictive and well worth the effort. Plus you can make them all year long with grape leaves pickled in brine.
400g short-grain rice (preferably Turkish baldo rice) (2 cups)
2 medium-sized onions, finely sliced
150ml olive oil (⅔ cup)
3 tsp salt
2 tbsp mild red pepper paste / Turkish tatlı* biber salcası (or use tomato paste)
2 medium-sized tomatoes, grated
1 tsp caster sugar
Bunch of parsley, leaves only
1 tsp dried mint, heaped
1 tsp black pepper
500g vine leaves in brine, drained (18 oz)
Turkish yogurt, to serve (or use Greek yogurt)
First, make the rice stuffing:
Soak the rice. Soak the rice in lots of warm water with 1 tsp of salt for 30 min. Then rinse with cold water and drain thoroughly.
Make the stuffing. Heat ⅔ of the olive oil in a pan over medium heat and cook the sliced onions with 2 tsp of salt until soft but not browned, about 7 min. Stir in the paste, grated tomatoes and sugar. Add the rice and cook for 7 min, stirring from time to time. The rice should have softened but still be crunchy.
Take the rice mixture off the heat. Chop the parsley and add it to the rice, along with the dried mint, black pepper, and juice of 1 lemon. Combine and set the rice stuffing aside to cool down for a bit.
Then, stuff the grape leaves:
Prepare the grape leaves. Wash the leaves to remove the salt and snip off any stems. Pile the grape leaves on a plate, shiny side facing down (veins side facing up). Put any damaged leaves aside, you’ll use them later on.
Stuff a leaf. Put a leaf on a work surface, shiny side down (veins side facing up). Put a line of stuffing along the longer side of the leaf (near the bottom, where you snipped off the stem). Don’t put too much stuffing or you won’t be able to roll your sarma properly. 1 tsp of stuffing is more than enough for most leaves.
Roll! Starting from the stuffing side, roll the leaf around the stuffing for one full turn. Then fold in the sides and continue rolling into a cigar shape. It might help to sprinkle some water on the leaves to get them to stick and prevent the Turkish sarma from opening after you rolled them. Check out the process photos if you’re unsure about the stuffing/rolling process. Repeat until you are out of grape leaves.
Lastly, cook the vegetarian stuffed grape leaves:
Place the stuffed grape leaves in the saucepan. Put half of the damaged leaves at the bottom of a saucepan or a stewpot. Arrange the sarma in a tightly packed spiral shape on top of the damaged leaves. Drizzle the rest of the olive oil on the sarma. Cut the lemon in half. Slice half of the lemon and scatter over the sarma. Squeeze over the other half of the lemon. Cover everything with the rest of the damaged leaves.
Cook the Turkish sarma. Place an inverted plate on top, covering as much surface as possible. Put something heavy on top of the plate to make sure the sarma won’t budge. Add just enough boiling water while pushing the plate down to cover the sarma, 500ml (2 cups) should do). Cook over medium heat for 45 min. Taste 1, if the grape leaf isn’t soft enough to your liking, cook for another 10 min and try another one. You might need to add more water if it looks too dry.
Drain. When they are cooked, take off the weight but keep the plate and carefully tilt the pan or pot over a sink to drain the remaining water. Serve warm or cold with a big dollop of Turkish yogurt.
You can keep these Turkish sarma in the fridge for up to 4 days in a plastic container.
- Serving Size: 33 sarmas
- Calories: 703
Keywords: grape leaves with rice, rice stuffing, turkish meze, mediterranean finger food