In the small kitchen of a pale green trailer adorned with American flags and Easter eggs, a pot of dolmas rested on a stovetop, swaddled in towels. My dolma instructor Nabeeha Alkhosho, who made them, came to the US with her family six years ago from Mosul, Iraq. I had eaten dolmas before, or so I thought. When I first tried Nabeeha’s, it felt like an awakening. As if every dolma I had eaten until that point was a fraud.
“Dolma” is a busy word. It comes from the Turkish dolmak, which means “to fill.” It’s an appropriately general name, given a wide dolma diaspora that includes sweet, sour and salty incarnations. Best known are the Mediterranean-style grape leaves filled with plain, lemony rice, but the word “dolma” can also refer to a nut-filled apple in northern India, or a bulgur-stuffed eggplant in Turkey.
In spite of this diversity, somehow the name itself has remained unchanged, from Crete to Tbilisi. As long as something is filled with something, it’s a dolma.
Nabeeha, bespectacled and earnest with her hair in two long braids, had generously invited me into her home to show me the Mosulian way of dolma making. She showed me how to prepare the rice, fill the dolmas, and cook them. Now the finished pot of dolmas rested on the stove, and it was time for the grand finale. She placed a metal platter atop the dolma pot. With one hand below the pot and the other pressing down on the platter, she lifted everything above her head, deftly flipped the whole assembly, and placed it gently on the table, like a pool shark racking up cue balls in 3D. She gave the pot a quick spin left and right, slapped a few beats on the side, and lifted, revealing a perfectly round tower of dolma.
Stuffed grape leaves formed the bulk of the edifice, but it also contained sweet peppers, rolled cabbage and onions, hollowed out tomatoes and zucchini, and feisty jalapenos, all filled with spicy tomato rice and capped with caramelized garlic, cauliflower and carrots.
In English, her daughter Anne explained the importance of this layer of browned goodness, which she referred to simply as “bottom.” Composed of large chunks of vegetables and/or meats, it cooks in the lemony dolma juices. The bottom can be rich, elaborate and whimsical. The Alkhosho family pines for mutton for the bottom, but it’s hard to get and lamb is expensive. When their neighbor, a taxidermist, offers wild game, it’s a much-appreciated substitute. At serving time, when the pot is flipped, this juicy, browned bottom becomes the top.
Anne, statuesque with curly hair, calls the whole structure a “shape.”
“There are many shapes,” she said, scrolling through images of freshly-flipped pots of Iraqi dolmas on her phone. She paused on a photo with a bottom of caramelized lamb chops atop the dolma tower. “That one is cute.”
Nabeeha shook the tower of dolma. It collapsed into a steaming heap of color and flavor. The plump dolma glistened, bursting with a tangy, sour flavor that was spicy yet smooth, with no single element jumping out as dominant.
Iraqi dolmas typically have tomato sauce mixed in with the rice. This Mosul-style recipe is uses a lot of mint, and they sometimes add parsley. But the real secret, Anne says “is how we balance the salt, sour, and water.”
“Too much water damages the shape.”
I watched them make the dolmas in front of me, and took copious notes, and still it took me many attempts to get it right in my dolma pot, on my stove, with my brand of rice.
If you don’t use the right amount of water, or pack them tightly in the pot, or cook them properly, the shape will crumble and scatter. Worse, the dolma can be soggy, with tough, fibrous grape leaves. Maybe they fall apart and scatter rice everywhere, and the bottom can blacken beyond recognition. But I’d take my worst attempt at an Iraqi dolma over any other dolma I’d eaten before my apprenticeship. The chubby green fingers in the deli case, little more than starchy mush wrapped in frail grape leaves, are empty calories to me now.
The details of how to roll and stuff grape leaves and veggies is difficult to convey in words alone, nor is there space. The best way to learn is to do, fail, figure out the tolerances of what each veggie can handle and, if possible, consult YouTube. Onions and cabbage should be separated into individual layers and leaves, respectively, and steamed.
Once you get the hang of filling vegetables with Iraqi dolma rice, you will be ready to make them with almost anything your garden can grow. Japanese eggplant make wonderful dolma, Nabeeha says. She also likes using chard leaves as a wrapper.
Grape leaves will always be the anchor of most dolma pots, the mortar that anchors the shape. But mixing in an assortment of other veggies, and playing around with the bottom/top, add diversity and balance to the dolma pot.
½ cup grated potato
½ cup grated carrot
½ cup thinly-sliced onion
2 cloves of garlic, minced
3 cups white rice
6 teaspoons dried mint
2 tsp salt
2 tsp pepper
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp hot chile powder, like allepo or cayenne
1 tsp cinnamon
1 can tomato sauce
A cup or so of bottom ingredients, either vegetables, meat or some combination
1 cup lemon juice
1 cup olive oil
Fry the potato, carrot, onion and garlic in 3 tablespoons olive oil on medium heat until everything is shriveled and golden. Set aside. Rinse the rice in a bowl by adding water, swishing it around, draining, and repeating until the water stays clear. Drain. Add 1 teaspoon of salt, all of the dried spices, the fried veggies and the tomato sauce to the rice. Mix well. Place bottom ingredients loosely about the bottom of the pot.
Fill the dolmas — easier said than done — and stack them in the pot, interlocking the pieces so as to help hold the structure together.
When the dolmas are filled, add a teaspoon of salt to the pot, followed by the lemon juice, the rest of the olive oil and about ½ cup of water — or until the water level is just below the top of the dolmas. Cook on medium for about 45-60 minutes, watching for when the water disappears, and smelling for the line between browned and burned. Swaddle with towels on the stove, and let it rest for 20 minutes. Invert and serve.