Since it is the holiday season, ’tis also the season for holiday parties!
As part of our quest to find holiday-centric recipes from around the world, we also figured it would be a fun idea to find inspiration for bringing the holiday cheer to the bellies of your party guests.
For today, as part of this pursuit of the fantastically festive finger foods, we found the perfect place to start: yalanci sarma.
What is Yalanci Sarma?
Yalanci sarma has a confusing meaning when literally translated into English. In Turkish, the word yalanci means “fake” and sarma means “wrapped.” Put together, this is therefore technically a recipe for “fake wraps.”
In order to understand what this actually means and why yalanci sarma is called what it is, let’s dive into its root cuisine, Armenian and its regional influences.
Armenian cuisine in general belongs to a larger family of Caucasian cuisines, or those communities in and surrounding the Caucasus Mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Fellow “family members” to Armenian cuisine include the Persian, Turkish, Arabic, Georgian and Greek cuisines.
For each of these food cultures, a very unique ingredient used is the grape leaf, which are picked fresh from the grapevine and are used as a highly nutritious wrapper for various types of stuffings and rice. It certainly helps that the grape leaves themselves are excellent sources of fiber, vitamin A and vitamin K.
Most commonly, these grape leaves are used to make dolmas, or grape leaves stuffed with rice, minced meat, vegetables and perhaps some grains. Each cuisine around the Caucasus and from the old Ottoman Empire has their own variant on the dolma, but all of them will have some form of grape leaf with meaty rice stuffing.
In Turkish, dolma means “stuffed,” so dolma sarma implies you’re eating “stuffed wraps.” Because the meaty dolma recipe was so common, when the vegetarian version of yalanci sarma came along, it got its dubious label of “fake.”
Rest assured, though, that this recipe is real. And really good.
About the Recipe
Because of the time it takes to make them, both dolma and yalanci are cornerstone foods for more special and festive occasions in the Armenian household. Christmas, New Years, and the Easter Feast might be three such occasions.
Making the stuffing for the yalanci itself isn’t particularly difficult. Preparation of the ingredients is straightforward, and you combine all the ingredients at once (with the exception of onions slightly beforehand) to simmer together. It’s important that they stay on a simmer, however, so that each ingredient retains its individual flavor profile to a certain extent. Also, this allows the rice to stay slightly uncooked before cooking fully within the grape leaf.
The art of making yalanci is really in wrapping the grape leaf around the stuffing. The motion of wrapping the grape leaf itself can be easily understood, but the key to yielding a really beautiful and tight roll comes in the first tuck of grape leaf under the filling set in the center of the leaf.
After you’ve placed and shaped the filling in the middle, you’ll take the bottom parts of the grape leaf and pull them towards the stuffing to tuck them under. Depending on how well you can tuck the leaf under the stuffing, your grape leaf will either cook beautifully or might come undone during the boiling process.
Our Take on the Recipe
One thing we noted in our research of the recipe is how truly diverse the methods and approaches are to making yalanci. One recipe you’ll find might have an entirely different set of steps from another recipe found online, and the rules of thumb will be completely different. Yet you end up with the same delicious end result!
We referenced this original recipe from The Armenian Kitchen for our own cooking because it was the most straightforward to execute, but we made plenty of adjustments based on the suggestions of other recipes.
For one, we added a ton of extra herbs than were used in the original recipe. Armenian cuisine is relatively sparing in its use of spices but relies very heavily on fresh herbs for flavor, so our version of the recipe incorporates more herbs that are common to Armenian recipes. Herbs like parsley, mint, and basil were added in hearty amounts.
Next, in lieu of currants that are added to some yalanci, we added pine nuts and diced cherry tomatoes to give greater substance to the filling itself.
Finally, we opted to boil our yalanci in lemony water instead of baking them. Baking them is a perfectly good way to go and the end result is also delicious, but boiling gave our yalanci more moisture and flavor to the grape leaf itself.
Et voila! What you get from this recipe is the perfect small yet elegant looking appetizer to serve your guests that will have them raving about the food just as much as the celebratory atmosphere.
Have you made yalanci before? What tips do you have for rolling the grape leaves? Comment below!
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and minced
- ⅓ cup long-grain rice
- 4 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 heaping handful cherry tomatoes (at least 4, but more preferred)
- ¼ cup pine nuts, crushed
- 1 heaping handful of basil, chopped
- 1 heaping handful of dill, chopped
- 1 heaping handful of parsley, chopped
- 1 heaping handful of mint, chopped
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 10-15 grape leaves, rinsed and blanched
- Juice of 2 lemons
- At least 3 cups of water (or more depending on size of stockpot)
- Take a saucepan over medium high heat and add your oil
- Once heated, add in your onions, and cook them for 3-5 minutes as they start to sweat and become translucent
- When the onions have cooked through slightly, add in your rice, tomato paste, water, cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, and any herbs & spices you choose
- Cook all ingredients together in the saucepan on this medium high heat for 5-7 minutes before reducing heat to a simmer
- Let the ingredients simmer for another ~10 mins. The goal here is to cook your filling's ingredients lightly together but to leave the rice slightly uncooked
- After 10 minutes, take your saucepan of yalanci filling off the heat and set aside
- As the filling mixture simmers together, bring a pot of water to a boil
- With the water boiling, add your grape leaves and let boil for 2-3 minutes
- After 2-3 minutes, take out grape leaves and drain. Cut off any remaining stems while the leaves are still soft
- Lay one of your blanched grape leaves on a flat surface like a cutting board with the shiny side up (or the veiny side of the leaf facing down)
- Place 1-1.5 teaspoons of your filling into the center of the leaf and shape the filling into a small ball shape
- To begin folding your yalanci sarma, take the bottom half of your grape leaf over the filling and tuck underneath on the other side (thereby enclosing the filling)
- Gently pull the grape leaf as far back as you can without ripping it. Once you have the filling snugly packed in, roll the leaf forward 1-2 times
- Fold the left and right sides of the grape leaf into the center to fully enclose the filling
- Continue rolling your yalanci sarma forward until the entire grape leaf has wrapped around the filling
- Stack a small or medium-sized stockpot with your finished, finely rolled yalanci sarma. Be sure to tightly pack them together and create multiple layers of them stacked on one another. Pro Tip: If you have leftover or "unusable" grape leaves, line them on the bottom of the pot to buffer your yalanci from the direct heat of the stovetop
- Add the lemon juice and water into your stockpot to submerge your yalanci. Once submerged, you'll want to place a small weight like a heavy plate or dish (something that can handle the heat of boiling liquid) on top of the yalanci to keep them in place
- Cover your stockpot and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat
- Once boiling, reduce your heat to medium low, let the grape leaves simmer for 1 hour
- Following the hour of simmering, take the stockpot off the heat and begin to carefully extract your grape leaves
- Set your yalanci sarma aside to cool slightly, then enjoy!