Middle Eastern Food: You say dolma and I say dolmeh

In Recipes on April 15, 2017 at 1:07 am

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.

Cabbage rolls served

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 lemons

Tamarind (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


Japanese Curry – when inauthentic is as good as it gets

In Recipes on February 27, 2017 at 3:31 am

Japanese curry is a hearty and satisfying comfort food, enjoyed not only in Japan but all around the world. You can get beef varieties, chicken varieties, pretty much any variation that can be made with curry sauce and ladled liberally over fluffy white rice. My all time favourite is Chicken Curry Katsu Don. This is a delicious thick curry containing vegetables, always chunks of potato and carrot but other vegetables can also be added and topped with a cutlet of crumbed and fried chicken. Of course, the dish is delicious because of the crumbed chicken on top but it is the curry sauce that gives it a distinctive and thoroughly Japanese taste. The Japanese were introduced to curry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century via British visitors from what was then the British Raj or colonial British India. Like other British/Indian hybrid creations, think kedgeree, chutney, Worcestershire sauce and Clive of India or Keen’s Curry Powder, the curry introduced to Japan was not an authentic Indian recipe but a recipe filtered through Western palates. The curry is milder and less complex than Indian recipes and often has quite a sweet flavour.The major difference between Indian and Japanese curry is in the cooking method and the spice blend. Indian curries are generally made from a base of fried onions, chillies, ginger, garlic and other aromatics with a complex and individual blend of spices added depending on what type of curry you are making. Japanese curry is made from fried onions, blended commercial curry powder and flour cooked with oil to make a roux. Most Japanese don’t bother with this process anymore and just buy the already mixed curry cubes that are readily available all over the country and make for a quick and satisfying meal on the run.


Japanese Curry Cubes

The curry cubes are also easily found in most Asian grocers here in Melbourne and in most other Western cities. The first time I made Chicken Curry Katsu Don I found some in my local KFL supermarket in Sydney Road, Coburg. My latest batch I made with my son using curry cubes he brought back with him from his recent trip to Japan.


Hearty and delicious Japanese comfort food

Chicken Curry Katsu Don


2 large skinless free range chicken breasts

Seasoned flour for coating

Egg and milk for dipping

Japanese Panko breadcrumbs for coating

Sunflower oil for frying

4 large potatoes (peeled and cut into chunks)

4 carrots (peeled and cut into chunks)

1 litre of water

4-5 Japanese curry cubes

Cooked white rice for serving


Halve the chicken breasts and butterfly each half. Using a meat mallet gently beat out the pieces of chicken until they are approximately 1cm thick. Coat with flour, dip in the egg mixture and finish with a coating of the Panko breadcrumbs. When all pieces are crumbed place on a plate and refrigerate to ‘set the crumb’. Meanwhile, place the vegetables in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for approximately 10 minutes or until the vegetables are about half cooked. Break the curry cubes into the water and reduce to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally. Remove the crumbed chicken breasts from the refrigerator and heat 1.5-2cm sunflower oil in a heavy based frying pan until bubbles form around a wooden spoon handle when inserted. Gently fry the chicken cutlets two at a time until golden brown on both sides. Remove and drain well. Continue cooking the curry and vegetables until the sauce thickens. To serve, place some white rice in the bottom of a bowl, ladle over the vegetable curry and top with the sliced chicken cutlet.

Hint: Serve with Japanese pickles, tonkatsu sauce and half a hard boiled egg

From China with Love

In Recipes on September 2, 2014 at 11:59 pm

As a teacher of English to international students I am lucky enough to meet people from many different countries and cultures.  My students at the moment are largely from Vietnam, India, Thailand and China.  They all know that I am interested in food so we often discuss their different cuisines in class.  Sometimes they bring  the other students and I food to sample so when my ex student Jingjing decided to do her presentation on authentic spicy crab and dumplings (and promised to bring samples) we knew we were in for something special.  We were not disappointed.  Following an excellent and informative presentation, Jingjing unpacked hot spicy crab and pork dumplings.  A fellow student was sent to the Chinese restaurant around the corner for some rice and that was my lunch for the day sorted.

A couple of months later, when Jingjing had begun studying at university and was no longer my student, she was good enough to come around to my house to cook a delicious and generous meal for my friends and family and, in the process, allow me to observe her cooking techniques in the kitchen.  She arrived on the day accompanied by a couple of friends and a number of large bags containing seafood, vegetables, tofu, sauces and noodles.  Within ten minutes she had taken command of my kitchen and was chopping away while her friend rinsed crabs in the sink.  Another friend was soaking wood ear mushrooms and goji berries.  In rapid succession (Chinese cooking is fast) Jingjing presented us with spicy crab, glass noodles with prawns and baby octopus, Shanghai chicken wings, wok tossed spicy cabbage, wood ear mushrooms and Ma Po tofu.  We hurried to keep up with notes and utensils but were soon admonished to sit down and eat by the cook who did not want her food to go cold.  We all ate way too much but fortunately, due to the more than generous servings, there was still plenty left when Jingjing finally sat down to join us.  Thanks to Jingjing and her friends for a great evening and a fantastic meal.  Here’s the recipe for Jingjing’s spicy crab.

Jingjing’s Spicy Crab

Jingjing's delicious spicy crab

Jingjing’s delicious spicy crab


5 blue swimmer crabs, cleaned, legs removed and cut into 5cm chunks

2 good knobs of ginger, julienned

2 large green capsicums, de seeded and cut into chunks

1 long red chilli

1 long green chilli, both de seeded and cut into chunks

1 red onion thinly sliced

5 celery stalks. chopped into chunks

5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

3-4 spring onions, chopped

4-5 dried chillies

potato flour 

1/2 cup peanut oil

2 tbs oyster sauce

1 tbs light soy sauce

2 tbs chilli sauce

1 bunch fresh coriander


Coat crab bodies and legs in potato flour.  Heat 1/2 cup peanut oil in a wok until sizzling.  Fry crab in batches until golden.  Remove and set aside.  Then add the red onion, ginger and dried chillies, stir fry for a minute.  Return the crab to the wok and add the remaining chopped vegetables and garlic.  Stir fry for a minute or two.  Add chilli sauce, soy sauces and oyster sauce.  Toss well to coat.  Cook for a further two minutes adding a little boiling water if it becomes too dry.  Add one bunch coriander (chopped) and serve immediately.

Cleaning crab

Cleaned crab

The vegies were chopped within minutes

The vegies were chopped within minutes

The spicy Ma Po Tofu paste that Jingjing used

The spicy Ma Po Tofu paste that Jingjing used