Parcels of Joy

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


A pot of dolma ready to simmer


Serves 4

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.



Dolma stuffing ready to use


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.


Rolling chard 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.



15 Comments Add yours

  1. Sally says:

    These are the nearest I’ve seen to the ones I make (from my husband’s grandmother’s recipe – she was Greek Cypriot) except I use vine leaves and other vegetables too. The tomato lifts them to another level – they have become so many of our friends favourite dish. I will try your version next time as I always love to tweak (although sadly cannot get chard).

    1. I used to never make them with tomatoes, but ever since I’ve tried it that way I haven’t looked back! I also love Greek vegetarian dolmades with raisins, pinenuts and fresh dill. Divine! Such a shame you can’t get chard, they’re so much easier than stuffing vine leaves. Let me now how the recipe works out for you!

  2. sukanya ghosh says:

    I am an east Indian and I always thought that dolma is an east indian language (bengali). I never thought it is turkish word. Incidently it mean the same thing and we also do the same that is stuffing the vegetable with coconut or fish or meat.
    Check the recipe here:

    Its great to find your blog, though I had some exposure to mediterranean food but libyan food is all new to me.
    great blog
    Sukanya @saffronstreaks

    1. Hi Sukanya, and welcome to my blog! I never knew that dolma made it as far out as India, but you’d be amazed at the similarities between Indian and Libyan cuisine, especially in the use of spices. I once made a big Libyan meal for some Indian friends when I was living in the UK and they were pleasantly surprised by the familiarity of the flavors, but with enough differences to make it a unique tasting experience. Incidentally, the term “keema” is also used in the Libyan dialect and means “mince meat” cooked in a way similar to the Indian style. I think it would be worthwhile looking into the connection between two food cultures that are geographically far apart. Let me know if you have anymore thoughts about this. And I’ll be reading your blog as I LOVE Indian food!

  3. H ghanim says:

    Hi, thise dish is time consuming, it takes at least 2:30 hours to prepare and cook, and few minutes to eat. also we libyan eat it as a side dish, so cook another dish with it( usually libyan soup ) will add another an houre + wash the dishes and hoover the floor will add another half houre. but it really worth doing specially in winter. many thanks

  4. sukanya ghosh says:

    Hi Sarah
    i did a post on dolma, where I have given your blog as a reference. I hope its okay with you.

    1. Just read your post and loved it! I’m keen to look further into the history of dolma, let me know if you come up with anything interesting!

  5. FreeQA Dawn says:

    Hello and thanks and here are my comments and questions 🙂
    1. ive learnt the meaning of korkom in English (Turmeric) thank you for widening my vocabulary
    2. is the chilly necessary 😦 if not what spice can replace it (unhot spice)?
    3. why the bones in teh sauce?
    4. i like the brakk done with malfoof more then with chard leaves (please add malfoof to my english vocab :D), i hear that brak can be done with grape leaves as well, still to try that one out though…
    5. nice pictures, do u shoot them on ure own or is there an uncredited photographer in this blog??
    thanks again, and keep up the traditional stuff

    1. 1. you’re welcome2. correction, red cayenne pepper (which is also hot) can be replaced with paprika (sweet red pepper)3. bones add lots of flavor, don’t need to use them4. malfoof is cabbage, vine leaves are great too5. the pictures are mine thanks, i only credit the one’s i don’t take 🙂

  6. Desert Rose says:

    Great Post !

    I have stopped cooking it in a pot and now steam it -which results in a a much lighter dolma ,try it and see for yourself…..
    Thanks again for a great post .

    Keep up the good work !

    1. Great tip Desert Rose, I’ll keep that in mind!

  7. my raising rabbits for meat has made my gardening to a next level .my grape vine has taken off lots of leaves so now i can make stuffed grape leaves with rice and rabbit liver.curry.tomatoes,
    basil any thing else?

  8. David Wiltcher says:

    So happy to finally see the recipe for Libyan B’rak. This is different to how I remember though as our Libyan friends would cook it in the oven though I have heard it is different in say Benghazi and Tripoli. We lived in Marsa Brega that is inbetween the two cities so could well have been a mixture of the two regions.

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