Aseel Alissa is rolling green leaves into thin cigar shapes. She sells her product to keen customers—you could even call us addicts—and gains much of her business via word-of-mouth. It’s not what it sounds like. Alissa is a dealer, of sorts, but her specialty is dolma: the stuffed vine leaves beloved by people across the Middle East and Mediterranean.
Watching Alissa spoon a mixture of filling onto grape vine leaves and hand-roll them gives me a flashback to being a child sprawled out across the floor, as my mum did exactly the same thing. I feel a similar pang of anticipation and excitement at what this means: it’s dolma day.
If you’ve never come across it, the dolma is a vine leaf-wrapped parcel of joy. Stuffed with a mixture of rice, tomatoes, herbs, and minced meat, many variations exist. Some are served cold, others steaming hot from the pan, and there vegetable substitutes for the meat. But one thing remains consistent across the dolma-eating world: they are a culinary staple.
Being a painstakingly time-consuming dish to construct, my mum switched from making to buying dolma. We get ours from Alissa (a.k.a. our dolma dealer), an Iraqi mother-of-two who lives locally in South West London, where she runs her Middle Eastern catering business Tepsi (Arabic for “dish”). Her most popular request? Dolma, of course.
“People order it for gatherings because it takes a long time to make and it’s a special dish to serve to guests,” she says.
I’m visiting Alissa at her home to learn how she makes dolma, which she will cook and deliver to a customer’s house that evening. I’m already several hours behind. Alissa started preparing her filling the night before: a blend of lamb mincemeat, rice, chopped tomatoes, and parsley with lemon juice, tamarind, and pomegranate molasses.
“The filling needs to soak up the juices, so I leave it overnight,” she explains.
If she is making a meaty version, Alissa’s dolma includes chunks of lamb chops or ribs, stuffed grape vine leaves, and stuffed onion shells—the Iraqi way, she claims.
“Iraqis love them. They always ask, ‘Can we get more onions?’”
Once stuffed, Alissa layers the parcels into the pot on a bed of vine leaves (it stops the dolma from sticking to the pan, she explains), pours her homemade tomato sauce on top, and cooks the pot for three hours.
That’s the classic Iraqi style, but dolma shapeshifts into different forms depending on country and region. Turkey has a diverse family of stuffed dishes—one is called sarma (from the Turkish word “sarmak,” meaning “to wrap”), in which the grape leaves are rolled very thin. In Hatay, cabbage leaf rolls are popular, served with a dollop of strained yoghurt, known as lahana dolmasi.
Cabbage dolma, or kalam dolmasi, is also enjoyed in the winter months in Azerbaijan. Dolma making is something of a rite of passage here. In 2017, it was recognised as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and it features on a stamp issued by the country’s Postal Service. They also have a meat-free version jokingly known as “fake dolma.”
Greek dolmades and Cypriot koupepia are rolled a little bigger than their Arabic cousins, explains John Gregory-Smith, Middle Eastern food expert and author.
“There are nuances in different countries, that’s what makes dolma such a versatile and beautiful dish,” he tells me. “Some use mini courgettes, aubergines, or peppers to stuff because vine leaves aren’t available all year round.”
Other countries such as Syria and Lebanon coat their dolma in olive oil and serve at room temperature, called dolma ib zayt (literally “dolma in olive oil.”) That combination of vine leaves, the tender lamb, and the citrusy tang from the lemon makes it taste amazing.
“Dolma showcases the spirit of the Middle East, and it has spread to other regions,” adds Gregory-Smith. “It’s the spread of culture through food.”
Growing up in an Arabic household, for me dolma was an event—you knew something big was happening from the smells and hubbub coming from the kitchen. The same vibe existed at the childhood home of British-Iraqi chef Philip Juma, founder of London-based Iraqi supper club JUMA Kitchen.
“It was like ‘Oh shit, dad’s making dolma,’” he remembers. “There was a mixture of laughter and noise as my dad and aunts cooked together.”
Juma learned to make dolma from his father, keeping the tradition of the onion shells (“Iraqis can claim that it’s unique to us,” he says). Even regional variations create changes in the recipe—and cause controversy.
“My family are from Mosul, so we make dolma in a different way," Juma explains. "I’ve had people come up to me being quite angry, saying, ‘Why don’t you use tomatoes?’”
Such a beloved dish tends to make people fiercely protective of their culinary and cultural traditions, as Gregory-Smith also knows. “I’ve had my hands wacked many times by Arabic mums who have told me off rolling the dolma leaves too big,” he laughs.
Both he and Juma use the same word to describe the experience of eating dolma: banquet. There’s an element of ceremony to the way it’s made and served, flipping the pot upside down onto a big platter and slowly lifting it to reveal layers of juicy, steaming dolma parcels, often with tender meat that “literally falls off the bone,” says Juma. “Whenever I flip a dolma pot, it takes me back to memories of my dad in the kitchen whacking the pot with a wooden spoon as if to say, ‘Yalla, it’s ready!’
He continues: “And it all gets eaten so quickly. That sums up the Middle Eastern dining experience: you spend hours perfecting and cooking the food and it’s gone in an instant!”
Aseel Alissa can relate. “We kill ourselves making these dishes,” she jokes. But it’s worth it, she adds. “Dolma will always be special because we save it for occasions when people come together. It’s about celebration.”
Dolma lovers the world over can attest to that: eating this versatile dish leaves your belly, and your heart, full.