I have been interested in the fresh, healthy and wonderfully tasty food of the Middle East for a long time but in the last two years, since I moved to the Melbourne suburb of Coburg where I am surrounded by Middle Eastern eateries, my interest has increased. My two favourite places are Zaatar on the corner of Sydney Road and Munro Street, I particularly like their mezza, salads and toasted zoccacias and Al Alamy at 6/51 Waterfield Street, both deliver good, fresh food at reasonable prices. Al Alamy also sells a range of Middle Eastern groceries such as dried pulses, nuts and specialty items like pomegranate molasses and kishk. Zaatar is owned by Australians of Lebanese descent but I also have Egyptian, Iranian and Turkish options within walking distance.
I have also been reading cookbooks on Middle Eastern cuisine for a long time and have cooked many recipes. I have made meat kibbeh from a Cypriot recipe (see More from the Greek diaspora in August 2011) and Almond Bar: 100 Delicious Syrian Recipes by Sharon Salloum has a really good recipe for pumpkin kibbeh that I want to try. I have also been reading Lebanese (see Lovely Lebanese in December 2012 for meat and pine nut pastries), Turkish and Egyptian recipe books and I have noticed a common thread between all these recipes. Hommous, baba ghanoush, kebab, kafta, kibbeh and falafel (see The chickpea may well save the world in January 2014 for Hiba’s falafel) all seem to appear regularly with only slight variations in spelling and ingredients. This is probably why the most informative book turned out to be The Middle Eastern Kitchen by Ghillie Basan. In this book the recipes are organised by ingredient not country and this allows the commonalities of all these dishes from diverse Middle Eastern countries, to shine through. Of course, every country would claim that their version of a dish is the only true and authentic one but if you look at the history of the region, the conflicts, the trade and population movements that occurred over the centuries, not least the occupation of the region for centuries by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, it becomes clear that this sharing of food and ideas is something that has always been part of the Middle East, something is as fundamental to the culture as hospitality itself.
Dolma or dolmeh is a dish served throughout the Middle East. Dolma of this kind is generally reserved for celebrations as it is quite complex to make. When we think of dolma we tend to think of stuffed vine leaves (there is a connection here too to the Mediterranean) but dolma is simply a term used to describe any vegetable that is stuffed, generally with rice and with or without meat. Lamb and broad beans can also be added at the bottom of the pot. My friend Hiba is from Iraq and these are the delicious dolma she recently made for Sunday lunch.
Dolma: Stuffed Cabbage Rolls and Stuffed Onions
1 large cabbage
3-4 brown onions (finely chop one and reserved for the filling)
5 fresh tomatoes (chopped)
4-5 cloves garlic (roughly chopped)
Plenty of chopped flat leaved parsley
1 tbs tomato paste
300-500 grams lamb mince
1 1/2 cups uncooked short grain white rice
Pomegranate molasses (optional)
1-2 tsp cumin powder
1-2 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp allspice powder
1-2 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp sumac
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric
Dash of Worcestershire sauce or ketchup
2-3 barbeque lamp chops
Enough chicken stock or water to just cover the rolls
A little olive oil for frying
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Core the cabbage and carefully remove the leaves. You can reserve the heart for later use. Blanch the leaves in a large saucepan of boiling, salted water, a few at a time, until wilted. Drain well. Cut the bigger leaves in half, removing the thick central rib. Set aside.
Use a sharp knife to make a cut in each onion from top to bottom on one side. Blanch in boiling water for about 10 mins until they are soft and start to separate. Drain well. Separate the layers and set aside.
For the filling, heat the oil in a frying pan and add the chopped onion. Fry until soft and translucent. Place in a bowl with the meat, rice, spices and finely chopped parsley. Season with salt and pepper and combine thoroughly, it is easiest to do this if you mix the ingredients with clean hands rather than a spoon.
Lay some of the cabbage leaves out on a clean tea towel. Place a tablespoon of filling on the edge of each leaf, fold in the sides and roll quite tightly pressing with your hands as you go to make sure all the filling is contained. Stuff the onion layers with the same amount of filling, placing it in the hollow of each onion and rolling it up as tightly as you can.
Lightly oil a heavy based, cast iron casserole dish. Lay the lamb chops neatly at the bottom of the dish. Season and sprinkle with some of the chopped garlic, tomato, lemon juice and ketchup, also some pomegranate molasses and tamarind water (if using). Place a layer of the stuffed onions on top of this and repeat the seasoning and sprinkling procedure. Next, place a layer of the cabbage rolls on top and continue until all the cabbage rolls are used, seasoning and sprinkling between the layers. Pour over just enough chicken stock or water to cover. Invert a heavy plate over the rolls, cover and bring to a simmer. Leave to cook over a low heat for 1 hour. Serve hot or warm.
The cooked dolma inverted onto pita bread to serve