Sarma, known as the queen of the winter, is delicious minced meat, rice and seasoning rolled up in fermented cabbage - a true Balkan classic. Aida tells you everything you need to know about it as well as how to prepare it.
I’ll be the first to admit, when Balkanvibe first approached me to be their in-house foodie, I hesitated. But only for a moment, as I can never resist a good challenge. I hope that my passion for Balkan cuisine, which is the beating heart of the Balkan lifestyle, will whet your appetite for the region.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with this cuisine, you’ve had it before. The Western Balkan region is heavily invested in homemade breads, stuffed pies and vegetables, stews, soups, as well as meat in all of its versions. Dishes are usually season-centric. People follow an unwritten schedule about when to make what based on the ingredient availability. The tradition to buy vegetables and meat at the market for that day’s dinner is still very much alive. Local markets are open year-round, and people prefer them to stores. They’re the reasons you won’t see a strawberry cake here in the winter or fermented cabbage in the summer.
Which brings us to today’s dish: Sarma, Balkan stuffed fermented cabbage.
They don’t call sarma the queen of the winter for nothing. It’s almost always the dish you walk into the New Year with (in fact, it’s the first thing I ate in 2017 after returning home from the fireworks). In January alone, sarma makes repeated appearances on tables from Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Sarma is a type of dolma, which is a fancy way of saying it’s a stuffed vegetable. Sarma’s filling usually consists of rice, meat and seasonings, which are mixed and rolled into cabbage (or vine) leaves, and then cooked on low for a couple of hours.
While there are several ways to prepare it, there is one clear winner: sarma rolled in fermented cabbage. Fresh cabbage loses flavor when cooked over a longer period. Fermented cabbage on the other hand, only gets better with cooking. There is a specific, slight sourness fermented leaves create in sarma. It’s the kind of taste you tend to remember once you have it.
(I’m including a quick guide for fermenting cabbage in case you don’t have access to it. The process will postpone making sarma for a few weeks. Yet not many things will leave you as proud as looking at your first batch of fermented cabbage heads.)
Sarma versions vary slightly, based on location. The one below is a standard, classic recipe. I’ve used air-dried beef that you can find at your local ethnic store. Alternatively, use bacon, or a nice slab of pork ribs. (If you’re making sarma for someone from Bosnia and Herzegovina, make sure to check whether they eat pork.)
I’m a firm believer that geography is the greatest influence on diet. Across the countries of the Balkans, the prevalent mountains are one commonality. As a result, winters here are long, cold and snowy. Throughout the centuries, people living in these regions needed a heavier and meat-based diet throughout the winter months. The kind of comfort food that leaves you full, satisfied, and in a slight food coma. Exactly like sarma.
One interesting tidbit about food in Bosnia and Herzegovina is that miners influenced many dishes. Early in the morning, they’d take a large clay pot and fill it to the brim with vegetables and meats. The pot would simmer to perfection over an open fire until lunchtime. I bet these miners never thought how centuries later we’d be eating the exact same stews and sarmas.
Having run a food blog - www.balkanlunchbox.com - since 2014, I’m just at the beginning of my food education. I’m certain of one thing only: that Balkan cuisine is one of the richest, most versatile, and most original ones in the world. Let’s explore it together.
As this is a brand new section, I’d like to tailor it to your needs. What interests you the most about the Balkan cuisine? Are there recipes you’d like to see? Specific techniques? Stories? I’ll accommodate the best I can.
Sarma: Balkan Stuffed Fermented Cabbage
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours
Serves: about a dozen (serving size is 2 per person, about 24-26 come out with this volume)
1 large head of fermented cabbage
500 grams (1 pound) ground veal
1 yellow onion (minced)
3 garlic cloves (minced)
150 grams (5-6 ounces) dried beef meat or bacon (minced)
200 grams (7 ounces) white rice
50 milliliters (2 ounces) white milk
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
Ground pepper to taste
5 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons flour
100 grams (3.5 ounces) tomato paste
50 grams (2 ounces) dried beef meat or bacon (diced)
Separate leaves from the cabbage head and wash thoroughly. Remove a portion of the center vein from the middle of each leaf with a small knife, leaving the leaf in one piece. Cut larger leaves in half. Set aside.
In a large bowl make the stuffing by combining ground veal, onion, garlic, minced air-dried beef (or bacon), rice, milk, and seasonings. Mix with your hand until completely integrated.
Take one cabbage leaf (or a half of a bigger one) and one tablespoon of the stuffing. Place the stuffing on the bottom of the leaf. Roll the leaf with the stuffing up like a cigar. Then tuck both ends inside with your finger until you have a sturdy stuffed cabbage leaf.* Repeat until you run out of stuffing. Cut/ shred remaining cabbage into smaller pieces and set aside.
Heat up oil in a large pot over medium. When hot, add flour and stir quickly. Add tomato paste immediately after and stir a few seconds more. Add one cup of hot water.
Start layering stuffed cabbage on the bottom of the pot. After the first layer, add some of the remaining shredded cabbage, and then top it off with a portion of the minced air-dried beef. Continue layering in the same fashion until you run out of the ingredients. Fill the pot with water until it’s a little bit above stuffed cabbage (the level should be of the height of 5-6 pennies stacked together).
Cook on low for about 3 hours. Keep the water level even by adding a little warm water at a time throughout cooking.
Serve hot, with sour cream and bread.
*Stuffing is the most challenging part of the recipe. Youtube has videos that will be of help if you can’t picture how to do it from text.
Try to keep your stuffed cabbages small, the size of a hair roller or smaller. The flavor is best when it’s that size.
How to Ferment Cabbage
8-10 large green cabbage heads
500-600 grams (16-20 ounces) table salt
50 grams (3-4 tablespoons) peppercorn
1 plastic container (or a bucket) with a wide lid, (3 or 5-gallon volume)
Wash all cabbage heads. Discard outer leaves. Quarter 1-2 cabbage heads and set aside.
Take the remaining cabbage heads and remove their roots by creating a small “scoop” in the bottom of each. Mix salt and peppercorn and stuff each “scoop” with it.
Put whole cabbage heads in the container by squeezing them together as tightly as possible. Fill the empty spaces with quartered cabbage. Place something heavy on top of cabbage (heavy water bottles will work), and fill the container up with water.* All the cabbage should be submerged. Close the lid loosely. Leave in a cool, dark place.**
After 1-2 days the cabbage will absorb some of the water. Fill the container up with water again until the cabbage is completely submerged once more. Close the lid tightly this time. Leave closed for about 30 to 40 days.
When ready to use, open the container, take a cabbage head out and close the lid tightly again. Fermented cabbage can last for up to a couple of months if kept in a cool place.
*Make sure the container is kept in a well-ventilated, dark, cool place lest you be surprised by a heavy whiff.
**If possible use spring, non-fluoridated water.