The Most Armenian Dish: Grape leaf dolma

Grape leaves are lying on a tray. Yerevan resident, 70-year-old Taguhi Hambardzumyan, takes other leaves out of the water gently and places them near the others.

“We put these canned leaves into boiled water, and as soon as they change their color – become brownish - we immediately take them out of the water,” she says. Taguhi is getting ready to prepare traditional Armenian dolma, which is considered to be one of the jewels of Armenian cuisine.

Dolma is made of minced meat, onion, rice, different types of spices all mixed together. Later the stuffing is rolled up in grape leaves. (Dolma may also be made with cabbage leaves – especially for vegetarian dolma served during the Easter Fast.)

To prepare grape leaves dolma, use one kilo of minced meat, and if you want to make it buttery, add some 200 grams of pork fat.

Taguhi, however, prefers it without fat. She puts the minced beef in a bowl. Next she chops onions, explaining that some cooks mince the onions, but she particularly chops them.

“I think this way onion passes its flavor to meat better,” she says chopping three peeled onions, and adds it to the meat.

Taguhi adds one cup of washed round rice to one kilo of meat. The meat mixes with the colors of the dish, the onion, white rices, one tablespoon of tomato paste, 150 grams butter, black pepper and cayenne (depending on taste), and one tablespoon salt.

“It is necessary to put the ingredients properly in order to keep the flavor peculiarities. But the most interesting part is that dolma, prepared by different people, has different flavors. I think that it is connected with the ‘hand’ of the cook,” she says.

Next, Taguhi prepares greens, which are very important for dolma cooking. Armenian housewives usually have dried basil, savory, dill, parsley and coriander in their kitchens all year round.

Taguhi takes dried basil and savory adds the herbs to the meat.

“Basil and savory are the most important greens here. I even dry them and send to my relatives living in Russia, because it is hard to imagine a cuisine of an Armenian housewife without these greens,” she says.

Fresh parsley, coriander and dill are on the cutting board. Taguhi chops them and adds to the meat. The last ingredient to be added is half a cup of warmish water. Later she starts kneading the mixture.

“Many people prefer mixing the mass with a spoon, but I do not think that it is right. It is necessary to wash hands and knead the mass with hands. The meat must play in your hands; touching the meat with your fingers you may feel its fattiness, the amount of the rice in it. And finally the kneaded stuffing tastes much better,” Taguhi says and starts working.

In a few minutes, the kneaded stuffing of dolma is ready. She leaves the meat to rest for a few minutes and then she starts rolling it up in grape leaves.

Grape leaves dolma is a very respectable dish in Armenian families. Armenian housewives usually decorate New Year festive tables with this dish, serving to special guests.

Taguhi says that the preparation requires work, but the reward is a worthy payoff.

“Dolma rolled up in fresh young grape leaves is especially tasty. Now it is the best period to prepare this dish; and in a few days, we will start even canning grape leaves,” she says.

Any traditional Armenian kitchen cupboard includes canned grape leaves (mainly in one-kilo glass jars) in its stock. Armenian housewives use those grape leaves during the whole autumn, winter and early spring. Grape leaves are sold in different markets of Yerevan and fresh ones usually start appearing around end of May.

Taguhi puts a grape leaf on the kitchen board, puts one teaspoon of stuffing on it, and starts rolling it up carefully. She has previously put some grape leaves on the bottom of a pan and arranges the small rolled up dolmas on them.

She explains how to can grape leaves.

“We put four-five dry grape leaves on each other, and then we fold them up and put them into one-kilo glass jars. We pour some water into a large pan and put the jars there to boil for some five minutes. It is very easy to do that. And in winter we have grape leaves for dolma,” she explains.

The pan is being filled with long rolled up dolmas. When she finishes the procedure of dolma rolling, she adds some water to them so that the water covers dolmas. She adds two teaspoons of oil to dolmas to make them shining and beautiful. Then she puts the pan with dolmas on gas fire, makes the flame slow.

By the time dolma is being cooked, Taguhi starts laying a table. She prepares matsuni (Armenian traditional natural yogurt) with garlic.

“I believe that many prefer eating grape leaves dolma with matsuni with garlic, and to tell the truth, it is much tastier that way,” she says.

Dolma is ready in 20 minutes.

The shining and green dolmas are arranged on a plate. Taguhi covers them with white layer of spiced matsuni. The tasty aroma of dolma is spread in the room. Taguhi says, “Bari Akhorzhak” – Bon Appetite!

The following ingredients are necessary to prepare grape leaves dolma:
1 kg minced meat (you may also add 200 grams pork fat)
3 onions
1 cup round rice
150 g butter
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon salt
black pepper and cayenne (depending on taste)
greens – basil, savory, parsley, coriander, dill
1 kg grape leaves

How to prepare grape leaves dolma:

Take 1 kg minced meat, add 3 minced or chopped onions, 1 cup of round rice, 150 grams butter, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, and 1 tablespoon salt, black pepper and cayenne, depending on taste. Add some dried basil, savory, and chopped coriander, parsley, and dill to the meat. Add half a cup of warmish water to the mass and knead until well mixed. Leave the meat to “rest” for a few minutes. Open grape leaves carefully, put one teaspoon of stuffing on it and roll up cigar-like. After putting some grape leaves on the bottom of the pan, arrange dolmas on them, add some water to cover dolmas, add two teaspoons of oil and put the pan on a gas fire. In 20 minutes, dolma is ready. Dolma is usually ready when the rice has been thoroughly cooked.