There is something particularly evocative about sharing a plate of freshly made yaprak sarma with friends. It’s as much about the preparation and the appearance as it is about the taste. If I want to “feel Turkish” I make sarma.
I can recall strolling through the gardens of a National Trust property back in my home city of Melbourne, when my Turkish friend suddenly stopped and started plucking handfuls of leaves from one of their ornamental grape vines. Oblivious to the giggles of passing children and the steely glares of their parents, for my Black Sea friend this was the most natural act in the world – stocking up on fresh yaprak for an evening sarma feast.
Apart from this one instance, I’ve never had the opportunity to cook with fresh vine leaves. The leaves I use are usually bottled or plastic-sealed in a brine preservative with a shelf life of a year or so. The first step is to soak the preserved leaves in warm water for a couple of hours to rinse off most of the salty brine taste. In the meantime, it’s time to prepare the filling, which varies according to recipe, region and palate. In general, the filling consists of lightly fried long-grain rice, with a combination of ingredients – finely chopped onions, tomatoes, biber salçası (pepper paste), parsley, dill, mint, salt and pepper. Other variations include the use of garlic, chilli, sumac, other herbs, pomegranate molasses, bulgur wheat (instead of rice) and for the carnivores, chopped meat.
The art of the sarma is in the rolling of the vine leaves. It’s an art which defies description – the only teacher is experience, and the guiding hand of a Turkish friend. Fortunately, there are loads of online recipes and YouTube videos to help. The final step is the cooking of the rolled sarma in a large pan, lined with vine leaves, boiled in just enough water, infused with the juice of fresh lemons. The sarma is often served with a yoghurt sauce.
Turkish friends laugh when I cook my yaprak sarma – they tell me it’s a dying art, that only grandmothers and village folk can be bothered to continue today. Why not just buy the ready-made canned product from the supermarket shelf?
Why? Because when I’m making sarma, I’m in Turkey again…and my heart is quietly singing a happy Turkish song 🙂