There are some foods in the Middle East that most people love and appreciate whenever someone makes them, and one of the top favourites are stuffed grape leaves. If you ever want someone to feel special, you make them grape leaves, it is definitely a love language everyone in the Middle East understands. In Ramadan, these are on almost every table, and they are always a treat, whether they are made with meat, which is called warak enab, or if they are the vegetarian version, called yalanji or soumi.
The word yalanji is a Turkish word meaning liar, and it got its name because they don’t have meat in them, making them fake vine leaves, since they are normally stuffed with meat and rice. As for why they are called soumi, which comes from the word “soum” which means to fast in Arabic, and it refers to this vegetarian version eaten by Christians when fasting from meat. Of course versions of stuffed grape leaves are made around the world, not just in the Middle East and if that doesn’t tell you how delicious they are, I don’t know what would!
Although this dish is labour intensive, it is very easy to make, you just need time, and the more you make it, the faster you’ll get at rolling the leaves. For the filling, you’ll notice I used a tablespoon of Turkish coffee, do not be alarmed, you won’t taste the coffee, but it gives the perfect depth of flavour and acidity. If you prefer not to use it, you can replace it with some mixed spice. I like the use the freshest herbs and vegetables possible because the star of the dish is the filling. When it comes to rolling, you want to make sure you are rolling each leaf tightly and tucking in the sides as you go so the filling doesn’t come out later. After you’ve arranged the leaves in the pot, you want to use a plate to push everything down and keep the leaves from unravelling as they cook. Many people like to add lemon juice to the cooking liquid at the beginning, but I find that the leaves become tough and dark in colour, so I prefer to add mine at the end. You can also add lemon juice to the filling if you like it extra tart.
Once your yalanji is cooked, it is best to let is cool down and have it warm. The flavours really shine through that way. I even like them cold, straight out of the fridge! You can enjoy this as a side dish or even as a main course, either way you’ll definitely savour the fruit of your labour.
800 g Egyptian rice, soaked in warm water for an hour
4 large tomatoes, finely chopped
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 large bunch of parsley, finely chopped
1 large bunch of mint, finely chopped
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp Turkish coffee
3 tbsp olive oil
900 g grape leaves
3 potatoes, cut into circles
2 onions, cut into half moons
Baby carrots or batons
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp pomegranate molasses
300 ml water
500 ml olive oil
Lemon juice, to taste
- Start by making your mixture. In a large bowl, mix together all of the ingredients. You can give it a taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking, then set aside. Tasting the grape leaves before adding salt is always a good idea to see how salty they are and adding salt accordingly.
- In the pot you are going to cook your yalanji in, pour in the olive oil and then sauté the onions, carrots and potatoes for a few minutes. Remove from the heat and evenly spread the vegetables in the bottom of your pot.
- To roll your leaves, open one of the grape leaves, and remove the vine if present. You want the leaf not to be too big, as big as your hand at most. If it is too big, you can cut it in half and use the two halves. Place about 2 tsp of the filling at the bottom of the leaf. Begin to roll forward, making it as tight as possible, and tuck in the edges on both sides as you roll. Place the rolled leaves in rows in the pot until you’ve finished all of the leaves.
- Mix together the pomegranate molasses, salt, water and olive oil in a measuring cup and slowly pour it over your leaves. You want the water to just cover the top of the leaves, so you can add more or less liquid to your pot. Get a plate smaller than the pot and use it to press down the leaves. This will stop them from unravelling as they cook.
- Once the liquid comes to the boil, lower the heat to the lowest setting and cover the pot. Leave to cook for 2-3 hours on very low heat until the rice is cooked, and the leaves are tender. When the leaves are cooked, pour over some lemon juice to taste and leave to cook 5 minutes.
- These are best served warm, not too hot, but can be eaten room temperature or even cold. Enjoy!
Try another tasty snack: Fatayer sabanekh (spinach pies)