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Dawali Recipe

Why It Works

  • Layering meat at the bottom of the pot creates a richly flavored broth in which the leaves cook.
  • Tomato paste, while not visible in the end result, adds a welcome layer of savoriness and tartness to the dish.
  • Acidity from the grape leaves tenderizes the meat very quickly so that even in a couple of hours, cuts like short ribs are falling apart.

Warak dawali (literally: grape leaves), as Palestinians call both forms of this dish, may be one of our most common meals, yet it is also one of our most festive. No celebratory table is complete without a pot of stuffed grape leaves, often lined at the bottom with lamb ribs, although the options are endless and people have been known to line it with everything from lamb tongues or stuffed intestines to beef steaks or even chicken. In addition to the leaves, sometimes we also stuff small white courgettes (koosa) and baby eggplants that we layer in between the stuffed grape leaves and cook in the same pot.

The history of stuffing foods goes back centuries, possibly even farther, to the start of civilization. One of the first written records we have of the practice, however, is in the oldest Roman recipe collection by Apicius in the 1st century AD, and after that, in Arabic cookbooks from the Middle Ages. In those texts, what was most often stuffed was not vegetables, but instead whole cuts of meat filled with a variety of things from nuts and grains to vegetables and other cuts of meat or offal. The only vegetables Arabs wrote about stuffing in medieval times were eggplants and gourds.

Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

According to research by Charles Perry in Oxford Symposium’s Wrapped and Stuffed Foods, it was during the Ottoman Empire about 500 years ago that stuffed vegetables began to proliferate into the common food category we now enjoy across Arab, Mediterranean, and Baltic cuisines. Today, there are countless varieties of vegetables, fruits, and leaves stuffed with just as many filling options. Grape leaves are one of the most common, found across a large swatch of cultures. Yet how they are stuffed and cooked varies considerably from one place to the next.

Across Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, differences in how stuffed vegetables are prepared are marginal, akin to how two neighbors might prepare the same dish in slightly different ways. The biggest difference is often one of nomenclature. Generally, there are two varieties of stuffed grape leaves: vegetarian and with meat. The vegetarian is usually stuffed with a rice or bulgur mixture flavored with herbs, tomatoes, onions, and lemon juice, while the meat one is almost always rice and ground lamb or beef with spices. The vegetarian version can be eaten warm, at room temperature, or even cold, and is often served as a side or appetizer. But, to my mind, the meaty version is the real star.

There are a few key elements to ensure the best outcome to this dish; as with many things, the process becomes easier with practice. The first thing to pay attention to is the actual rolling. Many a Palestinian woman will tell you that a rolled grape leaf should be no bigger than your pinkie; this is much more slender than the plump dolmas of Greece. Indeed, there is something delectable about these miniature bites. But if wrapping grape leaves wasn’t time consuming enough, then ensuring every single leaf was cut and rolled to that size is a whole day project. I myself have opted for larger leaves to make the process faster. As you roll the filling into the leaves, it’s important to make sure it’s not over-stuffed and taught, but still wrapped tightly enough that the stuffing doesn’t escape during cooking. If you do over-stuff the rolls, they’ll likely split during cooking as the raw rice swells as it cooks.

Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

The second element is the leaves themselves: fresh grape leaves have a distinct, and in my opinion, superior flavor to the jarred variety. If you’re lucky enough to have access to fresh ones, harvest them in the spring when tender, tightly pack in cling film or vacuum pack, and freeze for use throughout the year. For most people, however, it is much easier to find the jarred varieties. This is a perfectly fine substitute, just opt for brands found at Middle Eastern grocery stores, such as California, Alafia, Ziyad or Orlando, and look for harvest dates that are earlier in the spring because by the time you get to summer harvest dates in July and August, the leaves are bigger and less tender. In any case, always make sure you cut out the stem and remove any veins that appear too thick or hard. If a leaf is more than one and a half times the size of your palm, you might want to consider cutting it vertically in half as well, then rotate it 180 degrees to fill and roll it.

Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

Another element to consider early on is the seasoning and spicing. The stuffing is contained inside the leaves, so it would be difficult to season properly after cooking. That is why it is important to ensure that both the stuffing and the cooking liquid are sufficiently seasoned and well spiced; if they’re not, the finished dish will possibly taste bland and one-dimensional.

The final key detail is cooking. The stuffed grape leaves are all packed together and cooked in a pot, either with or without pieces of meat layered on the bottom for more flavor. Regardless, low and slow is the way to go. It is possible to cook this dish vigorously on high heat, but it always comes out better when it is given the time it needs for all the flavors to meld, the rice to cook properly to a very soft consistency, and the meat to become fall-apart tender.

I like to use a nonstick pot for this, which reduces the chances that anything will stick once it comes time to turn all the stuffed grape leaves out. You can also use a heavy-bottomed stainless-steel pot, or an enameled Dutch oven, though the former has some risk of the food sticking and the latter makes flipping the grape leaves out more difficult because of its weight.

Once you’ve flipped the pot over to serve, all you need is a bowl of yogurt on the side and you have a perfect and complete one-pot meal that’s as festive as it is delicious.

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