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Grape leaves are the foliage of the fruit-bearing vine from the Vitaceae family, indigenous to the Northern Hemisphere. In addition to their role in the photosynthesis process of the host vine, these leaves are edible. For human consumption, they are usually cooked or pickled to reduce bitterness and tenderize the leafy fibers. For culinary purposes, they are most commonly used as wrappers for rolls filled with various ingredients. Rolled or stuffed grape leaves are common to the cuisines of many countries, especially around the Mediterranean and throughout Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
All varieties of grape leaves are edible, from vines that bear table grapes to those that bear wine grapes. The most important consideration is whether the vines have been treated with chemical pesticides. The leaves may be picked fresh and boiled or pickled for immediate use or preserved with home canning. They are also available in commercially-packaged jars or cans. Pickled grape leaves are usually rolled and packed in brine that contains preservatives such as salt, citric acid, sodium benzoate and sodium bisulfate.
In contemporary cuisine, especially in Greece, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the word dolma has become synonymous with stuffed grape leaves. The term, however, actually refers to any stuffed vegetable. Also known as sarma, this dish consists of leaves commonly filled with rice and other grains, ground meats, cheese and legumes. Nuts and fruits and seasonings such as onions, garlic, fresh herbs, and aromatic spices are also often used. This dish is also called koupepia in Cyprus, where the leaves are usually filled with spiced rice.
Dolmas may be braised, boiled or steamed on the stovetop, or baked in the oven. They may be served warm or cold, though when stuffed with meat, they are usually served hot and often include a yogurt-based sauce. In Greece, dolmas are served with a savory tomato sauce or with a lemony, egg-thickened chicken soup called avgolemono. As a cold appetizer, they are often marinated in olive oil and vinegar.
Grape leaves are also used in Vietnamese cuisine, although they are not indigenous to Southeast Asia. The presence of grape vines in Vietnam is due to French Colonial influence. The most common use of them in Vietnamese cuisine is in a dish called thit bo cuon la luop, which is grape leaves rolled with a mixture of ground beef, cilantro, and scallions and seasoned with various spices and fish sauce.
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