I was doing some food history research online when I came across the curious fact that the first dolma or stuffed vegetable recipe was recorded circa 350 BC! Turkish dolma known to the ancient Greeks as thrion was first made using fig leaves rather than vine leaves. Fig leaves were pickled and stored in much the same way as vine leaves are today, and were stuffed with anything from cheese to fish. Here is a sample of a Greek recipe attributed to the cook Archestratus (350 BC):
In autumn, as the Pleaides go down, you can cook bonito-and you can cook it in any way you please…But if you want to be told this too…the very best way for you to deal with this fish is to use fig leaves and fresh oregano (not very much), no cheese, no nonsense. Just wrap it up nicely in fig leaves fastened above with string, then hide it under hot ashes, keeping a watch on the time when it will be baked. Don’t overcook it.
The Classical Cookbook, Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger [J. Paul Getty Museum:Los Angeles] 1996 (p. 59-60)
The term dolma originates from the Turkish verb dolmak meaning “to be stuffed”, and is widely used in Western Libya. The term used in Eastern Libya b’rak is mostly likely to be derived from the Turkish yaprak or “leaf”. Mahshi or “stuffed” in Arabic is a term used collectively for anything that has been filled with anything else. The wide spread use of the Turkish term dolma in the Mediterranean basin is testament to the fact that this dish was spread through the Ottoman conquests, though it is widely believed that it is actually the Persians who invented this grand dish.
Nowadays dolma is almost always stuffed with a rice-based filling. There is a general consensus that meat-filled dolma is cooked in a sauce and meant to be served hot, whereas the vegetarian version is usually fortified with dried fruit and nuts, simmered in clear stock and olive oil, and always served cold, usually with a side dish of yogurt. Making these glorious parcels is definitely a labor of love, but worth it every time.
Libyan Stuffed Chards B’rak or Dolma
Preparation: 40 minutes including sauce
Cooking: 20-25 minutes
20-25 chard leaves, depending on size
150g ground beef or finely diced lamb
1 small onion, minced
1 plum tomato, diced intovery small (½ cm) cubes
1 ½ cups short (or medium) grain rice
1/3 cup minced parsley
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp dried mint
1 tsp hararat spice mix (or substitute with turmeric)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp oil
5 cloves garlic
½ tsp red cayenne pepper
1 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp salt
1 ¾ cups water
If using lamb, remove the meat from the bone, and dice into ½ cm cubes.
Blanch the chards for about a minute. Drain from the water, and set aside until it becomes cool enough to handle.
To make the sauce; heat the oil in a small saucepan. Add the garlic and lamb bones (if using lamb). Let the garlic infuse with the oil for a couple of minutes, then add the tomato paste, chili powder, turmeric and salt. Stir well, allowing the paste to absorb the oil. Add water. Stir well making sure that all the paste has dissolved. Cover and bring to a boil. Allow to simmer for about 10 minutes (or 15 minutes if using bones).
To make the stuffing put all the stuffing ingredients into a large bowl and mix well, making sure that all the components are evenly distributed.
Place a leaf on a cutting board with the stalk pointing towards you. Using a sharp knife cut along the stalk from about the midpoint down towards you. Repeat on the other side to remove the thickest part of the stalk. This leaves you with a shape similar to a lily pad. Place about a tablespoon of the stuffing onto the center of the leaf, just above the cut. Fold the pointy “tails” (the lower two parts of the leaf that remained after cutting off the stalk) over the stuffing. Fold the sides over, covering the “tails”. Roll into a cigar like shape. This process is similar to stuffing vine leaves. Repeat with remaining leaves.
Use the discarded stalks to line the bottom of a medium size pot. This helps to regulate the heat and prevents the chard leaves from burning or sticking to the pan, and it’s actually my favorite part of the dish.
Place the stuffed chards in the pot over the stalks, packing them tightly. Continue with a second layer on top of the first, again packing tightly. Pour the sauce over the chards. Cover the pot and place on a low heat. Simmer for about 20-25 minutes depending on the cooking time of the rice you are using. Remove from the heat, allow to rest and serve warm or cool. Best eaten with a squeeze of lemon juice, and can be served as a main or side dish.
This dish can be prepared exactly the same way using a small head of cabbage instead of chards.