Dolmades and I have known each other since I was a child. It was just introduced to me by a different name. These little steamed parcels of meat, rice and herbs wrapped either in grapevine leaves, cabbage or spinach are a familiar feature in Mediterranean cuisine. Growing up in Benghazi, Libya, whose cuisine is influenced by Arab, Mediterranean and Italian food, one of my favourite local dishes was abraak—rice, meat and herbs wrapped in vine, cabbage or spinach leaves. I would pop the whole thing in my mouth and chomp through savouring the mish-mash of tastes and textures: the chewy, pickle-like tartness of the leaf, the flavour of minced lamb or beef laced with parsley, chillies and cumin, all accompanied by the mild sweetness of the fluffy, cooked rice. About seven years later, we moved back to our hometown in Bangladesh and my mother continued making abraak, but only with spinach and cabbage leaves. I live in Crete, Greece now, and here, like in Libya, dolmades are one of the most common finger foods. There are many theories of how dolmades, eaten throughout the Mediterranean, Central Asia and parts of Europe, came to Greece. Some believe that they first appeared in Alexander’s camps during his siege of Thebes, when a sparse supply of meat prompted locals to mince the meat and roll it up with various condiments. Today, commonality notwithstanding, the time-consuming process of making this dish—there are absolutely no shortcuts—means that a good dolma maker is still revered here.
The Greeks simply love eating. The well-known mezze, a platter of Greece’s favourite snacks often served with local alcohol, will usually include dolmades. In the kitchens of local homes, it is quite normal to find a large pot with the tiny rolls arranged at the base in concentric circles. When I first arrived here, I only ever ate dolmades in the mezze platter, along with the anise-flavoured spirit, ouzo, or raki, which is made with the grapes left in the residue after winemaking. These platters, much to my intrigue, always had vegetarian dolmades, stuffed with rice and finely chopped onions spiced with dill, mint and fennel. At first I thought they catered to the varying palate of tourists, but it turns out that these are called dolmades yalantzi, Turkish for faux dolmades. The non-vegetarian version, stuffed with rice and minced beef, pork or lamb, is usually served with avgolemono, a hollandaise-like Greek sauce made with egg yolk and lemon.
The making of a dolma stuffing begins with mixing uncooked rice, which has been soaked in water, with herbs and spices such as dill, parsley, fennel and mint. Finely chopped onions go in next, occasionally with pine nuts. The minced meat is often optional depending on the outer casing—vine leaf usually has a vegetarian stuffing while cabbage is packed with meat. The leaves of the casing, blanched or used fresh, create the two-inch-long rolls. These parcels are then steamed in a large pot. A good dolma, when cooked has a stuffing of soft, fluffy rice with melt-in-the-mouth minced meat and onions. The textures of the ingredients blend in together, but the many different flavours pack a definite punch. Making dolmades is usually a communal or family affair. Women sit together rolling dozens of them, using the time to gossip, share a laugh or swap stories.
In Panormos, the sleepy, seaside town of picture-perfect villas and cobbled streets in Crete, which I now call home, I came across George and Georgia’s restaurant. The dolmades they serve are so far one of the best I have had in any restaurant in Greece, only because they taste home-made.
Everyone in Greece has their favourite dolma and almost always it is the ones made at home by their yiayia or grandmother. My friend Nikos, who lives in Thessaloniki, swears his yiayia’s cabbage dolmades or lahanodolmades, stuffed with minced beef or pork and served with avgolemono, tops the chart. Nikos’s yiayia rolls more dolmades in a minute than you can eat. It is a common sight to see her surrounded by huge dishes full of blanched, rather limp-looking cabbage leaves waiting for their filing. Lahanodolmades are not eaten as an entrée, for the obvious reason that the meat filling and avgolemono lends them a richness more suited for a main course.
Thessaloniki is also where I have tasted some of the best dolmades. Some of the city’s best restaurants are in the Old town or Ano Poli area—a neighbourhood of old-world charm, speckled with Byzantine structures and Ottoman-era homes. A stroll through Ana Poli is highly recommended to get a feel of Greece’s second largest city. The region’s food is influenced by the cuisine of Macedonian and Asia Minor. Interestingly, a second theory suggests that the cuisine of Asia Minor was the route through which dolmades came to Greece. In Thessaloniki, it is easy to find a restaurant that serves a mezze with dolmades so good that many might just forget to order a main course.
The mezze platter is often complimentary with drinks in many Greek tavernas. An average platter usually consists of olives, fried zucchinis or aubergines, feta with olive oil, an assortment of fritters and, depending on the taverna, any amount of cheese pies and cured meats. There is always a side of tzatziki, the famous dip made with yoghurt, garlic and assorted herbs, and an ideal way to savour dolmades is to dip them in the tzatziki before biting in.
Dolmades, not only from Greece, but other regions of the Mediterranean and Central Asia, are now preserved in brine water and sold in tin cans, and one can choose to eat them hot or cold. Though not highly recommended, it is still a good alternative for those wishing to taste the dish. Nothing beats a freshly made dolma, but I have come to appreciate the versatility of cold dolmades on a hot day and piping hot ones in the winter.
No matter what the geography, dolmades continue to leave me mesmerised with the medley of flavours packed in that tiny little roll. In the words of the Greek, boukia ke singkhorio, “one bite and all is forgiven.”