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Dolma, dolmadakia, dolmasi, in whatever language, add something different and delicious to the table. We know them as stuffed grape leaves, but dolma–“stuffed thing” from the Turkish–is basically a stuffed vegetable dish that can be found in the countries that belonged to the Ottoman Empire and surrounding regions, including many Arab countries, Iran and the Caucasus, as well as Central and South Asia. It is common to stuff eggplant, zucchini, tomato and pepper in these countries, but it is the grape leaf that most English-speaking people recognize as the dolma.
The filling consists of rice and sometimes meat, depending on the region, and is flavored with onion and a variety of herbs and spices. Which herbs and spices? Again, that depends on the region.
Serbian-style dolma are called sarmice, which always confused me because the word sounds like a diminutive of sarma, the cabbage roll that is ubiquitous in Eastern Eauropean cuisines. However, both dishes involve minced meat and rice encased in an edible wrapper. Cabbage rolls are cooked in a sauce spiced with sweet paprika, and in Serbia stuffed grape leaves can be too, although bechamel is also a common adornment. I like them plain, with a dollop of strained yogurt doctored with a bit of lemon.
The filling is cooked beforehand, and it takes a bit of time to fill the leaves, but these sarmice are easy to make and are a great as an appetizer or a complete meal. I usually make a big pot and then freeze any leftovers in individual containers for a quick lunch.
Serbian-style Stuffed Grape Leaves
Makes 20 stuffed grape leaves
40 grape leaves (from a jar)
1 pounds of lean ground pork
1 cup white rice
1 medium onion, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
2 teaspoons Vegeta seasoning *
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1) Soak the grape leaves in water for at least half an hour to get rid of the salt from the brine. In the meantime, cook the onion in the olive oil over medium heat until soft.
2) Cook the rice. In a separate pan, brown the pork until it is cooked through and no longer pink. Put the meat and rice in a large mixing bowl. Add the onions, parsley, an seasonings. Mix thoroughly.
3) As you work, pat each grape leaf on a kitchen towel to get rid of the excess water. Take two grape leaves and trim off any tough stems. Overlap the bottom of one leaf halfway over the bottom of the other. Add a tablespoon or two of the filling, depending on the size of your leaves. Fold in each side of the grape leaves, lengthwise. Then roll up from bottom to top. Place in the bottom of a 9-inch round cooking pot with the folded side down. Repeat with the rest of the grape leaves.
4) Pour water over grape leaves to cover completely. Place a plate on top of the stuffed grape leaves to keep them from floating or unraveling. Cook, covered, for about an hour, or until the water evaporates.
5) Serve with yogurt, sour cream, or bechamel sauce.
* Vegeta is a seasoning from Croatia that can be purchased in most European delis and supermarkets. It can be replaced with salt, to taste.
People often ask me what my favorite type of food is, as if there is ever an answer to such a question. When pressed, I will answer “Mediterranean food”. I think this is very clever of me, given that this can mean the cuisines of a wide variety of countries: France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, even parts of Africa and the Middle East.
I often go through food phases, where I fixate on certain dishes or the foods of a particular region. Lately, I’ve been obsessing about the Middle East in general, Lebanese food in particular–which led me to Nuba, a restaurant in the Dominion building on Hastings Street.
I had my doubts about the location, worrying that any restaurant that was located in a basement would have a dungeon-like atmosphere, but I was pleasantly surprised. The owners of Nuba have gone to considerable expense renovating the space. Their inspiration? The Beirut of the 1940s, when the city was considered the Paris of the Middle East.
To bring more light in, part of one wall was replaced with glass bricks. The lighting is soft and warm and a long beautiful bar dominates the room, with the tables placed strategically around it in an arrangement that is roomy and comfortable. No need to worry about your neighbor eavesdropping on your conversation.
Our server immediately brought us water, which I noticed had an usual aftertaste. Cucumber water, I soon realized. Even though it was a cool day, it was oddly refreshing.
My friend and I decided to split a couple of appetizers, unable to decide on what we wanted to eat most. I was in the mood to try a little bit of everything. I had heard that the portions at Nuba were on the small side, and I kept this in mind when ordering. This turned out to be a mistake. Each appetizer offered more than the two of us could comfortably put away, and by the time my meal came I was afraid to admit that I was rather full.
We started with the baba ghanooj, the eggplant dip with a deep smoky flavor, served with a stack of pita wedges. M. wanted olives, so we ordered the olives and feta. As I’m not a lover of olives, I cannot comment on their quality, but I was impressed that the hunks of feta on the plate were of the Macedonian variety. If you are not a big fan of any cheese that requires keeping in brine, I urge you to try Macedonian feta. Its smooth, melt-in-your-mouth texture, its salty creaminess, will transport you.
Next was the roasted cauliflower, an entry in Vancouver Magazine’s 101 Things to Taste Before You Die and a dish that put Nuba on the map. Known as Najib’s Special, it’s simply cauliflower roasted with lemon and sea salt, but it’s natural earthiness tinged with that edge of bright citrus is proof that food doesn’t have to be complicated to be extraordinary.
Finally, our entrees were brought to the table by our server, who was attentive without being intrusive. I had ordered the lamb kafta, a grilled patty of halal lamb, which was served with salad, tabbouleh, hummus and pita bread.
As soon as our server set my plate down in front of me, I groaned inwardly. Had I know that my meat would come with such a variety of accompaniments, I would have skipped all of the appetizers except the crispy cauliflower. The lamb kafta portion was very small, however, less than the size of my palm. M. had ordered the chicken tawook, local chicken grilled in Middle Eastern Spices. The portion size was about a half chicken breast and although it tasted delicious, it was slightly dry for my tastes. I enjoyed my lamb, but had I not eaten so many appetizers, I might have preferred a larger portion. Still, for $11.95, I found my entree a good value. As a member of the clean-your-plate club, I generally do not like large portions in restaurants. I think it encourages overeating. I prefer to sample a variety of tastes, and to this end, Nuba delivers.
Full as we were, M. and I couldn’t resist splitting a dessert, the Turkish Coffee Tiramisu beckoning to us from the menu. I often make Tiramisu but not once has it occurred to use Turkish coffee, which ironically, is a staple in my ethnic background. It added a deep richness, a stronger coffee taste to the tiramisu than that of regular espresso. The dessert was light on the biscuit and heavy on the whip cream, which offered a nice contrast to the coffee.
I will definitely try Nuba again, this time taking it easy on the starters and perhaps leaving a little more room for a taste of their baklava.
Nuba offers many vegan and vegetarian dishes. It is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and sometimes features live music. There are two locations: one on Hastings, the other on Seymour Street, which goes by the moniker “Nuba Cafe”.
207-B Hastings Street (at Cambie)
1206 Seymour Street (at Davie)