A brief history of the dolma - the "stuffed garden"
The now-ubiquitous dolma has a long and complicated history - they were first mentioned over two millenia ago, when it appeared as a food in Crete at Knossos, the Minoan palace. After the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the dolma became increasingly common fare as the ruling Ottoman Empire expanded.
A dolma, in its most-basic form, is a vegetable or fruit hollowed out, but with the skin intact for nuts, meats, rice, and/or other fruits and vegetables mixed together and stuffed as a filling. Ancient Persian and Greek societies used stuffed vine leaves; the dish then modernized in the 15th century as peppers were substituted for vine leaves.
Initially, dolmas were exclusively enjoyed by the Sultan, his Grand Vizier, and a few other courtiers who had the privilege to dine at the Topkapi palace (see pics below from my recent visit). Many were excited to try something exotic like the dolma, and over time it trickled down to the lower echelons of Ottoman society, and, eventually, to peasant families as well.
Food is political
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Suleiman the Magnificent was reining at the height of the Ottoman Empires power, wielding influence and control over much of Southeast Europe, parts of Central Europe, Western Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa.
As a major food of Ottoman Empire's "Golden Age" the dolma still holds a strong place in Turkish culture today. It is also an important focal point of the culinary tradition in Azerbaijan - in 2017, it was included into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists for the country. In some places, however, like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, dolmas are now - pointedly - eaten less-often: It is a symbol and reminder of an unsettling part of their history, hearkening back to a time when Turks were mercenaries, and then ruling oppressors, often wreaking havoc and violence in their lands.
Entrance to Topkapi Palace
A glimpse into the Ottoman Empire from a recent trip to Istanbul.
It is for this reason that we need to be sensitive to cultural viewpoints on food. Food is political. It can often be tricky to navigate - what might to some seem like a simple snack can evoke painful feelings in others. The key is understanding that certain foods, and the preparations of those foods, hold stories that extend far beyond simple sustenance. It is important to remain aware of these histories and connotations, and recognize what a dish or food might represent to certain peoples and culture, before sharing in these traditions yourself.
But food is also meant to be enjoyed - along with the stories it offers to new people and places. We benefit always from the sharing of unique and interesting pieces of culture, and we grow together as a result.
With this in mind, enjoy the recipe for the Minnesota dolma below.
This recipe is an inspiration from my recent trip to the Middle East and The Tiny Mess, a cookbook of recipes and stories from small kitchens. The book was featured as our cookbook club's October choice - be sure and check out the latest club news bysigning up for the newsletter.
Makes ~30 30 pickled vine leaves (i.e. grape) 1 1/2 cups wild rice 3 cups water or broth 1 cup tomatoes, diced 3/4 tsp paprika 1/2 cup olive oil 1 yellow onion, minced 4 cloves garlic, minced 1 cup fresh herbs, chopped (parsley, mint, & dill all work) 1/2 cup nuts, roasted and chopped*salt and pepper to taste 1/2 cup dried fruit (optional, raisins, currants, cranberries) *Keep it truly Minnesotan by selecting walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, or chestnuts.
Directions: Combine rice, water (or broth), tomatoes, and paprika in a pot with a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until rice is tender, roughly 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a pan. Once hot, add the onions and cook until translucent, then add the garlic. Cook for 1-2 minutes, remove from heat. In a large bowl, combine the cooked onions/garlic with the herbs, nuts, and dried fruit. When rice is finished cooking, drain excess liquid and add to the herbed mixture. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.
Lay each vine leaf flat, smooth-side down, so that the veins are facing upright towards you. Fill each leaf with about 2-3 tablespoons of filling. Fold two sides over the filling. Starting with the edge closest to you, pull the leaf over the rice and tuck tightly before rolling it taut. Repeat with remaining leaves and filling.
Serve rolled dolmas with wedges of lemon and drizzle remaining olive oil.
Fold edges here -->
^ After folding sides, roll from the bottom up towards the top of the leaf