Bursting with flavour, my vegan version of Romanian sarmale is easy to make, and packed with goodness. These cabbage rolls will keep for around 10 days in the 'fridge, and taste even better the longer they're kept.
What do you do when you have a garden full of cabbages? Why, you do what your neighbours do, and make enough sauerkraut to see you through the cooler months. Yum!
And then you use it to make sarmale.
Delicious, rich, hearty, comforting sarmale. My tummy rumbles, just thinking of these Romanian cabbage rolls! (Although, I admit, mine are only loosely based on Romanian ones.)
Until I went to live in Slovenia, I'd never even tried sauerkraut. It was one of those things on my pretty short list-of-foods-I-don't-fancy-because-I've-had-a-similar-thing-and-didn't-like-it. In this case, pickles. Apart from onions, I'm really not a fan of pickled foods. They're far too vinegary and face-scrunching for me.
Right about now is when all you fermented food fans will be rushing to tell me that fermented foods are not like pickles, right?
It's okay, I know this now!
The first sauerkraut I tried was out of a jar from a supermarket, and I really enjoyed it. And then my friend, Desa, made some, and gave me a very large bowlful. That was such a wow moment... Mind and taste-buds well and truly blown!
I won't buy commercially-produced sauerkraut now - not least because it seems it lacks the probiotic advantages of home-made fermented foods. As someone with IBS, I'm a big fan of eating (and drinking) stuff that can help my poor old tum when it has an episode.
It's entirely possible to make sarmale from non-fermented cabbage, by the way, but you will have to blanch the leaves in order to make them pliable enough to roll.
How to make sarmale
Making these sarmale is so simple, just separate the cabbage leaves, and rinse them under cold running water. Place any small or torn ones onto the bottom of a large pan or casserole dish. Remove the central ribs from the leaves, and put those in the pot too.
Mix up your stuffing in a large bowl, plonk some of it onto a cabbage leaf, wrap up, and place in the pan on top of the leaves. Repeat until you've used up the cabbage. Add some rich tomatoey gravy, cover the plan, and then cook over a low heat (or in a low-moderate oven) for around three hours.
If that's not clear, check out this video!
Assembling the cabbage rolls
Yes, it takes a bit of time to put these together but there's no law that says you can't sit down, and watch some TV while you're stuffing the cabbage leaves. I'm actually rather fond of watching Gardener's World while I'm prepping food like this.
By the way, Sarmale are such a huge part of Romania's food identity, you can buy rice that's labelled especially for sarmale. I think that actually, it's just a short-grain rice, such as is used for rice pudding in Britain, but I like that I can go into a supermarket and easily buy the best rice for the job!
Once the sarmale are cooked, serve them with some creamy, soft mămăligă (similar to polenta), one or two fermented/pickled chillies, and some sour cream or plain yoghurt. If you can find fresh cornmeal from your local farmers market, it's far superior to anything you'll buy in the supermarket.
Spicy wedges work well too. They may not be traditional but they're delicious when dipped in the sarmale gravy. 😉
How long do sarmale keep?
As I said at the beginning of this post, these will keep for around 10 days in an airtight container in the 'fridge, and the flavour and richness improves over time. I really do recommend making a lot because you will want to have them more than once!
Whether you serve these cabbage rolls in traditional Romanian style, or your own way, I'm sure you'll love them! Pofta buna!
Veganized Romanian Sarmale (Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)
- 200 g short grain rice
- 1 medium head sauerkraut c.1 kg/2 lbs (note 1)
For the filling:
- 500 g fresh mixed mushrooms rinsed and roughly chopped
- 1 large onion roughly sliced
- 10 cloves garlic roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- ½ teaspoon ground white pepper
- 2 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon Vegeta (note 2)
- 50 g fresh parsley chopped
- 75 g soy mince (or 250g/c.9 oz frozen veggie mince) (note 3)
- 1 large carrot grated
- Rinse the rice well in several changes of cold water, then leave to soak for 15 mins while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
- Cut out the core of the sauerkraut, carefully separate the leaves, and rinse them under cold running water. Shake off the excess water.
- Set the leaves aside, and prepare the filling.
- Place the mushrooms, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, coriander, and Vegeta into a food processor, and pulse for a few seconds, until you have a very coarse mash.
- Empty into a large mixing bowl, and add the parsley, soya mince, and grated carrot.
- Drain the rice, and add to the bowl. Mix everything together well.
- Take one of the cabbage leaves, and depending on its size, add 1-2 tablespoon of the filling, and roll up (see the images and video above). Place in the pan on top of the sauerkraut bits.
- Repeat until all the leaves have been used up. (note 7)
- Add the bay leaves, thyme, and savory (rosemary) to the pot, then mix together the rest of the gravy ingredients.
- Pour the gravy over the sarmale, and bring to the boil. Once boiling, cover the pot, reduce the heat to its lowest setting, and leave to simmer for around three hours. (note 8)
- Any leftovers can be kept in the 'fridge in an airtight container for up to 10 days... when they'll taste even more awesome than on the day they were made!
- If you can't get a whole sauerkraut, you can use a raw cabbage instead but you'll need to blanch the leaves to make them pliable enough to roll. As with the sauerkraut, put the 'scraps' on the bottom of your dish or pot, and then place the sarmale on top.
- Or use your favourite vegetable bouillon or stock powder.
- In the US, soya mince/veggie mince may be known as 'crumbles' or vegan/vegetarian ground beef.
- Or 1 tablespoon of dried thyme.
- Or 1 large sprig fresh rosemary / 1 tablespoon dried.
- I used sunflower in Romania because it's produced locally but do feel free to use any neutral-tasting oil.
- I use my own stock, made from veggie peelings but if you want to use stock cubes or powder, try to get low-sodium.
- If you have any filling left, this can be mixed in with the gravy.
- These sarmale can also be cooked in a slow cooker (e.g. Crock-Pot) on low for 10-12 hours, or in a low-ish oven (170°C/325°F/gas mark 3).
- 1 cup = US cup = 240 ml
- 1 tablespoon = US/UK = 15 ml
- 1 fl oz = US = 30 ml
Sarmale, Sarma, Dolma, Dolmeye
Whenever I write posts like this, someone pipes up that [insert random nationality] has no idea how to make a thing, and that [insert nationality of commenter] are the only people who know how to make the thing correctly. Or even worse, that [insert nationality] stole the thing.
Spoiler: food travels. And much of Balkan food was introduced by the Ottomans, and not invented by Romanians or Serbs (the most vocal accusers, in my experience!).
Like so many foods, dolmeye ('stuffed') - which are said to have originated in Persia (Iran) - were disseminated throughout the Ottoman empire, becoming as much a part of local culture as the people themselves.
In Turkey itself, we know them as dolması (as they are in Azerbaijan too), and as holiday-makers to Greece, I'm sure we've all feasted upon dolmades! In Armenia and Georgia, these stuffed rolls are known as tolma (toli = grape leaf, ma = wrapped).
Technically, however, dolma can be any kind of stuffed vegetable or leaf (e.g. stuffed peppers), whereas sarmale, sarma etc. are specifically leaves wrapped around a stuffing. Over time though, the two definitions have become interchangeable.
All around the world, you'll find variations of sarmale: in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria, they're called sarma.
In Poland they're gołąbki, in Slovakia and the Czech Republic they have holubky, and in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus they're known as holubtsi, golubtsy, and halubcy respectively. These all appear to translate as 'little pigeons' because the shape and size of the rolls resemble a pigeon breast.
I've never even seen a pigeon breast in the flesh, as it were, much less eaten one, so I'll have to take their word for it.
In Scandinavia, Sweden has kåldolmar - her neighbours in Finland favour kaalikääryle. Further south, across the Baltic Sea, the Estonians call them kapsarull. In Lithuania they're known as balandėliai - which Google tells me, means 'donkeys' - while in Latvia, they are called tīteņi. I'm not going to repeat Google's translation of this.
Sarmale are even to be found in East Asia, where they're known as bai cai juan in China, rōru kyabetsu in Japan, and cải bắp cuốn in Vietnam. (And I apologise to anyone for whom the Vietnamese text is displayed in a borkish manner.)
On the other side of the planet, in Argentina, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, and Chile sarmale are referred to as niños envuelto - wrapped children (although it's possible that Google is lying to me about this). Brazil's charuto de repolho is much less dodgy-sounding, however... it just means 'cabbage cigar'. As does the Quebecoise, cigares au chou. Phew!
If the Slavs and Hispanics are poetic in their naming of sarmale, the same cannot be said of the Hungarians, Germans, Austrians, French, Italians, Levantines, Egyptians, and Sudanese: töltött káposzta, kohlroulade, krautwickel, chou farci*, involtini di cavolo, malfouf mahshi, and mahshi kuronb all literally translate as stuffed cabbage.
In fairness though, most of the exotic-sounding names I've mentioned also just translate to stuffed cabbage or cabbage rolls!
* If you've ever wondered why stuffing used to be referred to as 'forcemeat', it's not because it's forced into the cavity of a chicken (for example), it's because it comes from the French, 'farcir' - to stuff.
Of course, native English-speakers are also less poetic - cabbage rolls sound less boring and unappetising than stuffed cabbage... But only just.
Pretty sure that as a kid, I'd have been more likely to want to eat malfouf mahshi than stuffed cabbage rolls!
In Jewish cuisine, cabbage rolls are known as holishkes... and these were my introduction to these little cabbagey wonders, courtesy of my friend, Pinchas, who as well as teaching me how to make bagels, taught me how to make holishkes. They were amazeballs, and I happily ate my bodyweight in them in my early 20s!