The sarma is one of the most famous dishes in Balkan cuisine, the word itself comes from Turkish and I believe it means “something wrapped”. It’s a really simple concept – you wrap some food in a leaf, then cook it. However, in case you decide to put the simplicity aside, you can do wonders of complexity with it.
There are different customs in preparing sarmi across the Balkans but my recipe is inspired by Bulgarian cuisine and specifically the winter version of the dish, often served on Christmas, which uses whole sauerkraut leaves for wrapping. Unfortunately, they may be hard to find outside the Balkans, since all types of commercially available sauerkraut I’ve seen come already shredded. Thankfully, fresh cabbage is widely available and there is a trick to make it taste sour without waiting for it to ferment. Let’s start one thing at a time.
Filling: 300g rice, 300g champignon mushrooms, 2 onions, 1 tomato, wine, salt, dill, whole black pepper grains, vegetable (olive or sunflower) oil
Wrapping: 1 whole sauerkraut (or in case you can’t find it – 1 fresh cabbage, 2 lemons, salt, vinegar)
Sauce: yogurt, crushed garlic, olive oil, salt
Preparation of the Cabbage Leaves
If you’re lucky enough to have a whole juicy round ball of aromatic sauerkraut, thank Superjesus, skip this section and just dismember the deliciousness by carefully peeling off the leaves one by one. Be sure to collect the dripping sauce, it’s an exquisite drink that will make your farts audibly and chemically superior to any other weapon of mass destruction on Earth.
If you are a mere mortal like the rest of us, put the whole fresh cabbage in a large pot with water, add 2 teaspoons of salt, the juice of 2 lemons and a spoon of vinegar. Bring it to boil at medium fire for about 15 minutes. Then allow it to cool down for a while before you start to peel off the softened leaves. You can leave it rest even longer after cooling to improve the taste. I prefer to let the cooked cabbage soaked in the brine overnight, so it can really absorb the saltiness and the acidity. Whatever you decide, keep the juice after you remove the cabbage from the pot because you’ll going to need it later.
Start to gently peel off leaf after leaf. It may seem a bit difficult if you’ve never done it before but after several attempts, you’ll get the hang of it. To make things easier, carve out the hard stem of the cabbage with a knife in advance. It’s the place right at the bottom, where all leaves are joined together. Don’t worry if you tear some leaves, put them aside, their time will come as well.
After you totally dismember the cabbage, it’s time to begin with the filling.
Preparation of the Filling
Cut the onions, the mushrooms and the tomato in tiny pieces. Crush the whole black pepper grains. Put everything to fry in a pan with the olive oil. I usually start with the onions, then I add the crushed pepper grains and the mushrooms. The tomato comes last, after the mushrooms soften and release their moisture.
Continue cooking the whole mix for several minutes, in the meantime, add a little bit of wine for flavor and sprinkle with dill. Finally, add the rice and stir well. Here’s when the cabbage juice you made earlier comes handy. Start pouring small amounts of it to the rice mixture, just enough to prevent it from sticking to the pan. Note that the goal is not to completely cook the rice but to let it absorb enough moisture, so it can increase its volume before we start wrapping it with the leaves. Depending on the type of rice, that should happen after 3-5 minutes.
Remove from fire and let it cool a little bit, so it won’t burn your fingers when you start wrapping it in the cabbage leaves.
Let the Wrapping Begin
Wrapping may seem difficult but in fact, it’s easier than peeling the leaves. You should also remember that perfection is a lost cause, so don’t stress too much and have fun.
First, remember the leaves which you tore apart in the beginning? You thought they were useless? Actually, they have a role to play as well. Prepare the pot in which you’re going to cook the wrapped sarmi. Spread those leaves at the bottom, so they cover all of it. Now every time you wrap a sarma, you’re going to place it gently over this blanket.
Let’s wrap the first one. Take a single leaf and try to spread it gently on a horizontal surface. If the stem of the leaf is too hard, which is often the case if you use fresh cabbage, use a little hammer or the back of a big knife to crush it gently. That will help you bend it easier. Put a spoonful of the rice and mushroom filling in the middle of the leaf and start wrapping it. Bend the side of the stem of first, then wrap the other parts of the leaf one after the other. This is your first sarma. It wasn’t that hard, was it? Now put it in the pot close to its wall. Continue arranging the new ones tightly next to it and when you cover the entire bottom, start putting the new ones on top to form another layer until you are completely finished.
After you put all the sarmi in the pot, take a large dish with a diameter slightly smaller than the pot itself and press it on top of everything. The weight of the dish will prevent the boiling water from unwrapping the sarmi on the upper layer. Now pour the remaining cabbage juice and add extra water if necessary until the liquid reaches the level of the dish. Cook everything on medium fire for about 40 minutes.
Serve sprinkled with paprika and topped with the yogurt sauce.