Arabesque Cooking – Dolma Bil Zeit

Occasionally I get a hankering for some creative cooking. Usually I’m a rice and veg kinda girl, but sometimes all I want is to make a big, big mess in the kitchen.
When this creativity strikes, I can spend hours searching for questionable recipes for international foods online, which is usually as exhausting as making the food itself, and I end up just pinning multiple tabs never to be reopened. Recently, however, I acquired a 1980s Iraqi cookery book (with pictures!) which has been all kinds of fun. Last Sunday afternoon my partner and I sat down with a giant bowl of mince and rice and proceeded to spend the rest of the day wrapping tiny ‘cigars’ with vine leaves.
Apologies for the poor picture quality – anyone would think I don’t know my white-balance from my elbow…
He’s clearly expert at this, despite avoiding the kitchen at all costs. Actually, the latter is my fault – I’m pretty militant when it comes to cooking. My kitchen, my rules. Acquiesce with ‘Yes, chef’ only, etc.
Also known as stuffed vine leaves, these little parcels of delight should be served as a side, with LOADS of lemon, and a bowl of yoghurt to dip them in. You can buy them pre-made in tins, but the process of making them is so rewarding and is a massive part of the experience (as well as the freshness). I imagine the hundreds of years that women have been sitting down together, rolling these out in expert precision, bonding over water-wrinkled fingers and gossip, and it fills me with an adopted comfort that is luxury on a lazy weekend.
Due to the war(s), we hear little of Iraqi culture. Although I’ve heard bitesized first-hand accounts of what Baghdad used to be, there’s a large gap in my understanding that is filled to the brim with associations of war, famine, misery. I was surprised to see Baghdad as a flight destination when I was at Attaturk airport recently – yes, it’s a real place with real people, not just nondescript images located on my TV screen. Without risking complacency, I think it’s important to remember the cultures that have been ripped apart – to acknowledge the individuals, their behaviours, habits, foods, identity – in order to preserve what is left. Hopefully someday soon they will rebuild, and hopefully who they were before will have remained. This is a heartwarming video of an ex-refugee who visits home in Baghdad for the first time, giving a little insight into youth culture in Baghdad.
Although I have no intention of food blogging, I do think experimenting with food is all part of the travel experience, and so if you would like a Baghdadi recipe for delicious Dolma bil Zeit (does that mean ‘stuffed with oil’?), read on…
Dolma Bil Zeit
An excellent recipe to prepare one day before needed. Use any of the fillings mentioned below.
450g vine leaves (or chard)
Filling 1: 
225g long grain rice
75ml olive oil
2 small onions, finely chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 1/2 tbsp tomato paste
1/2 tsp of ground mixed spices; nutmeg, cloves and cardamon
1 tsp salt
good pinch of pepper
1/2 tsp dried dill weed
2 tbsp parsley, chopped
85g walnuts, chopped
85g sultanas
Filling 2: 
As filling 1, omit the walnuts and sultanas (N.B. I use filling 2 as I’m not a fan of fruit and nuts in savoury food. I also add minced beef or lamb to the mix, depending on what I have in the fridge)
Filling 3: 
As filling 1 or 2, but add 85g boiled chickpeas
3 tbsp olive oil
3 – 3 1/2 tbsp lemon juice
When making Dolma, ideally the vine leaves should be fresh, picked while the leaves are still young and before they become too tough. Tinned or packet vine leaves might be right but they do tend to be on the tough side sometimes. Use the packet leaves only when it is not possible to obtain the fresh leaves.
1. Poach the vine or chard leaves in boiling water for a few mins to soften and make handling easy. If you are using preserved vine leaves, rinse them with water as directed. Drain.
2. To prepare the filling, wash the rice in cold water and allow to soak for 10 mins.
3. Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the chopped onions and garlic. Allow the onions to soften for a few mins.
4. Drain the rice and add to the inions. Add the tomato paste, mixed spices, salt, pepper and 250ml water. Stir well and cover the pan. Simmer gently for 10 mins stirring several times.
5. When all the liquid has been absorbed, stir again and remove from the heat. Allow to cool. Add the dill weed, parsley, chopped walnuts and sultanas and mix well. (N.B. Add the minced meat now if you’re using it).
6. For filling the vine leaves spread each leaf on a plate and snip off the end stem. Place about 1 dessertspoon of the filling in the centre of the leaf towards the stem end. Fold left and right sides of the leaf over the filling and then roll up starting from the top. If you are using chard, remove the hard centre rib and cut each leaf into about 3x4in sections. (N.B. vine leaves vary in size from country to country. You’ll be able to tell by eye how much filling to add – the ‘cigars’ should be small, thin, and neat, not overflowing)
7. Place the stuffed leaves next to each other round the bottom of a heavy saucepan until completely covered. Continue until all the stuffed leaves are in the pan, creating further layers if necessary. (N.B. it is advisable to cover the bottom of the pan with either potatoes or tomatoes to stop the dolma from burning.
8.Mix all the sauce ingredients together in a bowl with 250ml of water and pour over the dolma. Place a small saucer faced down over the stuffed vegetables to protect them during cooking.
9. Cover the pan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for 1 1/2 hours or until thoroughly cooked and all liquid has been absorbed. Taste one Dolma towards the end of cooking and add a spot more water if the rice is still a little hard. When the Dolma is cooked, turn off the heat and allow to cool. Serve at room temperature garnished with quarters of lemon.

8 thoughts on “Arabesque Cooking – Dolma Bil Zeit

  1. I had an Iraqi engineer that worked for me drafting proposals for infrastructure reconstruction. He knew I hated eating on base because I thought the food was disgusting. His wife would send him to work every day with food for me so that I would eat. Her Dolma was incredible. Reading your article brought back memories of seeing her at the stove cooking when I would visit him at his house.

    It was a kindler, gentler time of the war. When those few times existed. Thank you.


  2. There are so many people writing online about food that I kind of consciously decided not to blog about food either. But I love your point that experimenting with food is part of travel enjoyment, so I may just have to add a post or two on that topic sometime. Thanks for opening my mind!

    Liked by 1 person

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