Dolmas are grape leaves traditionally stuffed with a mixture of rice and lamb, and they are made all over the Middle East and in parts of the Mediterranean region. The English speaking world associates Greek culture with the food, and has also adopted the Greek word dolmas to refer to stuffed grape leaves. If you would like to impress guests at your next party with your Greek knowledge, it is dolmas in the singular and dolmades in the plural. Dolmas are found all over Greece in a variety of styles, including a more rare version using a cabbage leaf. They are also popular at deli counters in the rest of the world, and are a fun picnic and snack food.
It is probable that dolmas are a very old food. The method of preparation is simple, but also ideal for packaging food to take on long trips. The name originates from an Arabic word which means “to stuff,” and it is likely that some form of dolmas has been eaten for centuries in the Middle East. The Turks clearly adopted both the food and the word, and it quickly spread to Greece as well.
Basic dolmas starts with assembling a sauteed filling of chopped onions, lemon zest, mint, pine nuts, rice, and lamb. The filling is rolled up into grape leaves, and then the dolmas are steamed in a large, heavy skillet for one hour. After being taken out of the skillet, lemon juice is squeezed over the dolmas and they are refrigerated or served hot. Dolmas frequently appear at buffets or with the appetizers, and in a more traditional Greek meal might be served with an assortment of olives, bread, and cheese.
Many cooks make a vegetarian version which is also delicious. Vegetarian dolmas are often served with dipping sauces in addition to the traditional lemon wedges. Several Middle Eastern nations have a long tradition of vegetarian dolmas stuffed with a variety of interesting things including pomegranate seeds, grapes, currants, peas, sweet peppers, or eggplant.
Making dolmas at home is relatively easy, although time consuming. All of the ingredients are readily available in most markets, including grape leaves. Grape leaves often come in cans or jars, and should be soaked in several changes of warm water before used to remove tannins from the leaves which could make them bitter. Make sure to use whole grape leaves, discarding specimens that are torn or otherwise damaged.