How to Make Sarma (Grape Leaf Rolls)

My great-great-grandfather immigrated to America from Beirut in 1896, and though I’m not very Lebanese, my family has attempted to keep part of the Lebanese culture alive in our family by cooking Lebanese food for family events. We all pretend we are very Lebanese and we eat bologna and cabbage rolls and salata, and we love it.

Which is why I was very excited to see grape leaf rolls (called sarma or dorma) here and even more excited when Rabia promised to teach me how to make them. This is a gift I can bring back to America. Not only have I learned to cook anything at all besides spaghetti and bottled bolognese sauce — I’ve learned to cook sarma! So, in honor of all of the other not-so-smooth chefs out there like me, I’m including pictures and as many details as I can remember. Here’s to making mistakes the first few times I try this myself…

Step 1:

Ya gotta soak the grape leaves in water

Step 2:

You get some rice

Step 3:

You get some cold Turkish beer to sip

Step 4:

Dice 2 red onions

Step 5:

I think they call this "sauteeing," and she is using a special Turkish oil - olive oil

Step 6:

Gotta rinse the rice (you also gotta figure out how much rice to use, 'cause I didn't ask)

Step 7:

You get some tomato paste, and some pepper sauce ("salcha," Rabia called it)

Step 8:

A spoonful each of tomato and pepper paste added to the sauteeing onions

Step 9:


Step 10:

Add the rice!

Step 11:

Rabia added some spices. I don't know which ones. Good luck.

Step 12:

Add water so it looks like this.

Step 13:

Take it off the stove; let it cool and thicken (Ahhhh yeah!)

Step 35:

Rabia soaked the leaves twice, for a few minutes each time, to rinse the salt off. Then she squeezed the excess water out.

Step 43:


I’m not going to add pictures of the rolling process, because if I did, there would be about 20, and I think we have enough already for one blog post. Also, I’ve been told that my burrito-rolling skills are fantastic, and this is a skill I’ve taken to rolling sarma. I’m not sure how much “normal” people need to be directed in rolling. The basics are: roll the long part once (tuck in the “innards”), then a side, side tuck to close it up, and then roll, roll, roll until you have a little sarmak, or roll, like Melike’s…


…and not like mine.

Okay, my burrito skills didn't transfer.

Rabia then laid a layer of leaves in a pot, placed the rolls over them, filling the pot, squeezed a lemon over the rolls, pressed them down tight (so they won’t unravel during cooking), and then filled the pot with water, just so it reached the middle of the top layer of rolls.

Then we had this:


I’ll be starting my I-think-this-is-how-you-do-it cookbook soon!




“She is Problem”

On Friday, Kuba and I were invited to the house of Hasan, a student of mine, for a late breakfast and, eventually, dinner. Hasan is a friend of another student of mine, Rabia, who is very sweet and was kind enough to take me around Istanbul a few weeks ago, particularly in Eminönü, which I posted pictures of in my last post. During my tourist date with Rabia, I mentioned sarma, or grape leaf rolls, was my favorite food. Rabia admitted to being a professional sarma roller and promised to teach me one day soon – but that’s another post altogether.

After meeting Hasan at 11:30 near our school, we rode in his amazing no-frills Volkswagen van to pick up another guest and student, Melike. Having only eaten a bowl of cereal (shared with Kuba, as we have only one [mixing] bowl), I was ready to get breakfast started.

Two days later, and I’m still full. Hasan prepared a sucuk omelette, Rabia prepared a delicious veggie tray with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and green bell peppers, and Melike helped bring in the rest of the breakfast: breads, homemade apricot jam from the garden of Hasan’s mother, sweet butter, an assortment of cheeses, fresh honeycomb, and probably something else delicious that I’m unfortunately forgetting.

For the rest of the day, Hasan charmed us with his wit, never lost in a rocky translation from Turkish to English. When referring to his good friend Rabia, it was always in a teasing manner. As helpful, kind and generous as Rabia is, and despite the respect and love they have for each other, Hasan only described Rabia with the same three words: “She is problem.” He would say it, shrug his shoulders, and smile at Kuba and I as if we knew exactly what the problem was (we didn’t). Rabia would glare at him. Melike would laugh.

Hasan has a guitar in the living room, which seems to be merely “for the ladies,” as he does not play. He also has a ney, which might not be so much for the ladies as for Hasan himself, but he couldn’t play that either (to be fair, none of us could – Rabia even referenced the video of the little girl on YouTube trying to sing “I will always love you” as she blew into the ney and heard nothing come out but her own breath).

When it was time to make the sarma, Hasan criticized my slow attempt. “Lauren, today,” he said. The grains of rice rolled out from the grape leaf as I tried to tuck it with the same precision as Rabia and Melike had. If my sarma wasn’t the most beautiful roll, at least it got some laughs.

Kuba and I were very excited to spend the day with our new Turkish friends and grateful for the opportunity to experience Istanbul in a new way. Next week we will meet them again – this time, to have some of Melike’s mantı. I’ll keep you updated…


Hasan and Rabia, always happy