If you ever visited any of the Balkan countries, you probably know that no trip to this part of the world is complete without trying some delicious, homemade sarma. Its preparation might not seem very appetizing and its flavor might feel odd at the beginning but after the first few bites, you’ll come to understand that this is actually delicious. In this post, we’ll share the traditional sarma recipe and teach you everything there is to know about this popular Balkan snack.
But first things first…
What Is Sarma?
The best way to describe sarma is as a pickled cabbage roll filled with rice, spices, and ground meat. In the Balkans, sarma is usually rolled in pickled cabbage but in some places, you mind find sarma rolled in grapevine leaves (this version is also known as dolma but more about that later). Sarma was traditionally served for celebrating important events like weddings, slava, important religious holidays, etc. but today, people eat sarma every day.
Many people in the Balkans pickle large quantities of cabbage so they can make sarma throughout the winter (because it’s difficult to get fresh local cabbage during the cold winters that affect the region).
Sarma actually originates from Turkey but it’s just as important part of Balkan cuisines. The name of the dish derives from the Turkish word “sarmak”, meaning to roll. Sarma belongs to the dolma food family and is popular (in different shapes and under different names) in most countries from Central Europe to the Middle East. The traditional Turkish sarma recipe uses ground beef but in most European countries, sarma is prepared with ground pork.
It’s likely that the sarma recipe developed as a variation of the dolma recipe and the first mentions of dolma in history date back to the Minoan Era. However, the modern version of dolma we know today was perfected somewhere around the 15th century after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. They likely got the recipe from the local population and perfected it and included dolmas in their cuisine.
At first, this dish was reserved for royalties only but it quickly became popular across all levels of society. Around the 16th century, as the Ottoman conquests spread to the Balkan Peninsula, this dish was introduced to the Balkan region. Somewhere between the early 17th and 18th centuries, people started using pickled cabbage instead of grapevines and the sarma recipe was born. Today, this dish is popular across the Balkans, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and Hungary, as well as the Middle East and parts of North Africa.
Now, you might be wondering where to find pickled cabbage leaves and if you’re not from Eastern Europe, you might be wondering who even pickles cabbage leaves. But don’t worry, this shouldn’t be an obstacle for preparing this sarma recipe. There might be some stores in your area that sell jarred pickled leaves, you can also order some on Amazon or try one of the following methods.
Pickling A Cabbage Head In 5 Days
Firstly, discard the outer leaves from the cabbage, cut out the core, and place the rest in a deep pot.
In the hole where the core used to be, pour one quarter of a cup of salt and one slice of bread.
Bring some water to boil and pour the boiling water into the pot.
Shake the pot, cover it (make sure the lid is tight), and leave it at room temperature for the next five days.
Pickling A Cabbage Head In 2 Days
Do everything the same way as described in the five-day method.
The only change will be to add one-quarter of a cup of distilled vinegar into the hole where the cabbage core used to be and add one tablespoon of salt instead of one-quarter of a cup.
Shake the pot well and keep it in the freezer for 36-48 hours. When done, defrost at room temperature.
Pickling A Cabbage Head In 1 Hour
If the previous two methods feel too time-consuming, you can achieve a similar effect in one hour as well. Grab a pot where you can mix, 2 cups of vinegar and ½ cup of salt, mix it well, and bring it to a boil.
Discard the damaged parts of the cabbage and remove the core.
Add the remaining part of the cabbage head to the boiling water and cook it for 20-30 minutes at medium heat until its leaves become pliable.
In the end, gently peel off the softened cabbage leaves and transfer them to a large bowl. If some of the leaves still aren’t soft enough, let the cabbage boil for a few more minutes and then remove a few more leaves. Repeat this as many times as necessary (until you have enough leaves).
How Does Sarma Taste Like?
Now, you might not like the sound of sour, pickled cabbage, and (if you haven’t tried it), you must wonder how does it taste like? Pickled cabbage tastes similar to sauerkraut. The only difference is that sauerkraut is shredded while the pickled cabbage is divided into individual cabbage leaves. On its own, it’s not very tasty but when filled with the delicious mix of rice and ground meat, it’s one of the most delicious dishes you’ll find in the Balkans. Not to mention that fermented food once in a while is healthy for one’s stomach.
Even though sarma became popular in the Balkans during the Ottoman era, today, it’s considered a national dish in many different countries, including Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
In the Balkan countries, the dish is known as sarma and is prepared with pickled cabbage and ground beef or pork. In Romania, they call it sarmale and it’s filled with rice and pork. Polish people call it golabki, Hungarians call it töltött káposzta. In the Middle East, this dish is most often referred to as yaprak sarmasi while Armenians and Georgians call it dolma.
The main differences between the different variations of the sarma recipe are in the leaves used for wrapping the rolls and the filling. The two most common ingredients for wrapping the rolls are pickled cabbage leaves or grapevine leaves while the most common filling options include:
- Ground beef, rice, and spices;
- Ground pork, rice, and spices;
- A mix of ground beef and pork, rice and spices;
- A mix of ground pork, eggs, rice, and spices;
- A mix of ground pork and beef, eggs, rice, and spices;
- And last but not least, the vegetarian version that consists of rice or bulgur and a mix of spices(usually topped with yogurt)
Sarma is usually served warm but it’s equally tasty when served cold too. Some people in the Balkans even say that sarma is actually even tastier the next day after it’s made. Sarma is traditionally served alongside a potato salad, a few slices of fresh bread, or homemade breads like pogacha, kifli, proja, or even zelnik. It can also be combined with some other dishes like tavche gravche, shkembe chorba, pasticada, and ajvar.
- If you’re pickling your own cabbage, it’s important to choose a suitable cabbage. What I mean by this is your cabbage shouldn’t have leathery leaves and hard veins.
- Only use leaves that are large enough to make rolls. If some of your leaves are too big, cut them in half.
- If you want to experiment with ingredients, you can also substitute rice with barley.
- People in the Balkans often add tightly chopped pieces of smoked meat to the filling. Try it, you won’t regret it.
- Try using a light roux in the end if you want to add some silkiness to the sauce.
Storing And Freezing
If you like making things in advance before cooking, sarma is a great choice. You can make the rolls up to a day before actually cooking them. You just assemble them, add some sauce, cover the container, and store it in the fridge. Unbaked sarma rolls can also be frozen but if you do this, don’t add any sauce. Just line up the rolls with aluminum foil and add a plastic wrap at the top before freezing. Stored in this way, your sarma rolls can stay up to a month. Just don’t forget to defrost it the night before you want to cook them.
A Few Things You May Need
- 1 Cabbage or a jar of pickled cabbage leaves
- 1 kg (2 pounds) ground beef
- 100 grams of smoked pork (ribs, hocks, or other types of smoked meat), chopped
- 2 Red onions, diced
- 1 Large carrot, chopped
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon vegeta
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon ground red pepper
- 1 tablespoon fresh coriander/parsley
- 1 and ½ cup rice (or barley)
- (Optional) 2 eggs, mixed
- (Optional) 1/2 cup of tomato sauce
Preparation(if you’re pickling your own cabbage)
*If you already bought pickled cabbage leaves from a store or Amazon, proceed to step 5.
Pickling A Cabbage Head In 5 Days
1. Firstly, discard the outer leaves from the cabbage, cut out the core, and place the rest in a deep pot.
2. In the hole where the core used to be, pour one quarter of a cup of salt and one slice of bread.
3. Bring some water to boil and pour the boiling water into the pot.
4. Shake the pot, cover it (make sure the lid is tight), and leave it at room temperature for the next five days.
Pickling A Cabbage Head In 2 Days
1. Do everything the same way as described in the five-day method.
2. The only change will be to add one-quarter of a cup of distilled vinegar into the hole where the cabbage core used to be and add one tablespoon of salt instead of one-quarter of a cup.
3. Shake the pot well and keep it in the freezer for 36-48 hours. When done, defrost at room temperature.
Pickling A Cabbage Head In 1 Hour
1. If the previous two methods feel too time-consuming,
you can achieve a similar effect in one hour as well. Grab a pot where you can mix, 2 cups of vinegar and ½ cup of salt, mix it well, and bring it to a boil.
2. Discard the damaged parts of the cabbage and remove the core.
3. Add the remaining part of the cabbage head to the boiling water and cook it for 20-30 minutes at medium heat until its leaves become pliable.
4. In the end, gently peel off the softened cabbage leaves and transfer them to a large bowl. If some of the leaves still aren’t soft enough, let the cabbage boil for a few more minutes and then remove a few more leaves. Repeat this as many times as necessary (until you have enough leaves).
5. Preheat some oil in a large skillet.
6. Grab a bowl and mix together the ground meat, smoked meat, rice, and diced onions.
7. Fry everything together at medium for 5-10 minutes and then turn off your stove and let the filling cool down.
8. Spread your cabbage leaf and add 2 tablespoons of filling onto each cabbage leaf.
9. Fold the bottom part of the leaf up to cover the filling
10. Start folding from the side towards the center and roll away to encase the filling completely.
11. Repeat steps 7-9 until you run out of filling or cabbage leaves.
12. Preheat your oven to 350 F (180 C).
13. Use any remaining damaged cabbage leaves to spread them on the bottom of your Dutch oven or casserole dish (to avoid your cabbage rolls sticking to the bottom of the pan).
14. Start adding the cabbage rolls in the pan, seam-side down. If you want to, you can also add some pork ribs between the cabbage rolls and cook them at the same time. They also happen to go very well together, but this is completely optional and is not a part of the recipe.
15. Cover your cabbage rolls with some more damaged leaves.
16. Mix the tomato sauce with a little bit of water and pour the liquid until it levels with the cabbage rolls. Important: pour on the side, not on top of the rolls! If you don’t like tomato sauce, you can use only water with a little bit of flower, vegeta, and red paprika powder. In many places in the Balkans, people don’t use tomato sauce but it does add to the flavor.
17. Cover the pan and bake it for one hour at 350 F (180 C)
18. After that, reduce the temperature to 300 F (150 C) and cook for another hour and a half.
19. Give the sarma 15-20 minutes to cool off before serving.
20. Serve it with some potato salad and fresh bread and enjoy!
Serving Size:5 pieces
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 621Total Fat: 31gSaturated Fat: 10gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 142mgSodium: 1872mgCarbohydrates: 52gNet Carbohydrates: 52gFiber: 12gSugar: 12gProtein: 44g
Did you ever try sarma? How did you like our sarma recipe? If you tried to make our recipe at home, don’t forget to leave us a rating.
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