I can't believe I'm finally writing a blog post on Iraqi Dolma. This has been the most intimidating dish for me to write about. Not just because it takes some technique to make, but also because of the immense amount of history and culture tied to this dish. I needed to make sure I could do it justice and give you a recipe that will make my mom proud! Iraqi dolma is famous throughout the middle east as one of the most delicious types of dolma you'll eat. There are so many versions of dolma just within Iraq (let alone outside of Iraq), and I love them all. But I'm going to share the one near and dear to my heart; my mom's dolma.
What is Iraqi Dolma?
Now before we get into the juicy details of how to make this epic dish, let's talk about what dolma actually is. Dolma is a stuffed vegetable dish that has so many variations across the Middle East, Turkey, the Balkans, and Central Asia. Although the word itself is of Turkish origin, dolma has been part of Middle Eastern cuisine for centuries and found in Arabic cookbooks pre-ottoman era. But I'm not much of a history buff so let's get to the actual details of the dish itself.
Iraqi dolma stuffing is typically made up of short or medium grain rice mixed with ground lamb (or beef), finely diced vegetables, tomato paste, pomegranate molasses and a few spices. The ground lamb mixture is usually made with 30% - 50% fat content and this can vary based on preference. The vegetables used can also vary region to region and season to season. My mom told me that in the summer time one of the main things used is grape leaves because they're tender and fresh at that time in Iraq, and in the winter swiss chard is used in place of the grape leaves.
Now let me try to describe the taste to those who haven't had it before. It's like an incredible melt-in-your mouth bite of rice, meat and vegetables that tastes tart, sweet, tomato-y and full of umami flavour. It's really really hard to describe, so your best bet is to make it. You just have to.
Types of vegetables stuffed in Iraqi dolma
For this specific recipe, you'll see what I used in the next section, but here are all the types of vegetables that can be used in Iraqi dolma. It can be made with all or a combination of these, depending on availability and seasons:
- Eggplant - Indian eggplant (the really small ones) and Italian eggplant will work well. I used Italian eggplant and cut it in half to make 2 pieces. You want to avoid the really big eggplant variety
- Green zucchini, cut into 3 pieces
- Onions - this is absolutely essential and in my mind what makes Iraqi dolma amazing
- Bell peppers
- Swiss chard, grape leaves or cabbage, or combination of them (basically a "leafy" vegetable) - my favourite is the swiss chard!
Ingredients you'll need
For the stuffing, you will need the following:
- Short or medium grain rice. Long grain rice works too but won't have that soft and somewhat "sticky" quality of a great dolma. My favourite brand to use is Calrose rice.
- Ground beef or lamb. I typically use lean ground beef and add in olive oil to make it lighter and healthier, but you can also use regular ground beef or ground lamb with fat content up to 50%. Also, for a truly top-notch dolma, you can hand mince the meat or use a coarse ground beef (ask your butcher) vs using regular ground beef and my mom swears this makes a huge difference. I agree that it does, but not worth my effort, know what I mean? I'm trying to make it easier for you.
- Finely diced onions, bell peppers (orange, yellow or red - not green), and garlic
- Tomato paste and pomegranate molasses for that tartness that's needed
- Salt and black pepper. Some people love it spicy so the amount of black pepper here is up to you!
Other varieties of Iraqi dolma may also include a mix of spices (such as allspice, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, paprika) and/or various herbs (such as finely chopped dill, parsley, cilantro).
For the actual vegetables that we'll be stuffing, I used the vegetables pictured below. One onion will yield about 4-5 useable layers. The amounts in the recipe filled a 7 quart pot, and you can feel free to use less or more of each vegetable based on preference and based on your pot size. If you don't have a large enough pot, you can use 2 and save one for later! More on how to adjust this recipe below.
How to make Iraqi Dolma
I won't sugar coat it, dolma is hard work! Try to plan for it the night before to make it less tiring. I also have some hacks on how to make it the "quick" way below. And although it is time consuming, it is surprisingly quite forgiving in terms of measurements/technique. It almost always turns out amazing, even if you did something wrong or cored your vegetables imperfectly. But I don't want you to be intimidated so I've given you the most detailed instructions I can to make sure you taste the dolma I grew up eating. So let's get into it. Here's the general process it follows:
- Preparing the stuffing. This involves finely chopping the vegetables and mixing all the ingredients together
- Preparing the vegetables to be stuffed by coring them/separating them
- Stuffing the vegetables and stacking them in the pot
- Cooking the dolma
Watch me make dolma in this video:
How to make the stuffing
Making the stuffing is the easiest part! All you need to do is finely chop the onions and peppers, and mince the garlic. Then mix together all the ingredients very well until everything is combined.
How to core and prepare the vegetables
Coring the vegetables is the trickiest and most time consuming part of the dolma making process, but only the eggplant and zucchini are actually tricky. I have experimented with coring using a regular pairing knife, which is how my mom does it, as well as using a vegetable coring tool like this. Personally, I find the pairing knife to be the easier method and you don't need to spend extra money on a corer. However, some people are more comfortable using a corer. Both methods work! So experiment and find what works for you. Here's how I find is the easiest way to core each of the vegetables (watch me doing this in the video above - it's super helpful to visualize!):
- Eggplant: cut the eggplant into pieces similar in size to the below photo. Then using a sharp pairing knife (which is a knife with a short blade), place the eggplant on a cutting board sideways with your hand on top. Using your dominant hand, start coring around the inside of the eggplant, going around and around and slowly inserting the knife in deeper as you go around. Do this until you reach the other side or until you can use your fingers to scoop out the flesh. If you don't get it all out, no worries, keep using your knife to cut away the flesh. You can also insert your knife from the other side to help loosen the flesh further. It doesn't have to be perfect - just core it out!
- Zucchini: after scraping off the zucchini peel (don't use a peeler as that will take away too much of the flesh) using a sharp knife, core the zucchini the same way as the eggplant.
- Pepper: peppers are really easy to core. Carefully cut around the stem and remove it, then using your fingers, remove the inner seeds and any white parts. You can use a small knife to get in there and loosen them.
- Onions: onions are also easy and there's a cool trick. First peel the onion, then dig around the end where the root was and carve it out slightly (this helps separate the layers). Make a long cut lengthwise all the way to the centre - do not cut past the centre. Then microwave the onions for 1 minute to soften the layers slightly (you can also boil for a minute). Wait for it to cool, then use your fingers to carefully dislodge the layers and pop them out (watch the video!).
- Swiss chard: before stuffing, wash the leaves well and then submerge in a bowl of boiling water for 3 seconds. Remove them and place them on a tray. This helps wilt the leaves and makes them more pliable for stuffing. Then, cut the thick stems off the leaves, and cut the leaf into 2 or 3 pieces, depending on the size
- Grape leaves: grape leaves come in jars submerged in water (I don't recommend using the frozen ones). Generally the leaves are salted, so before using them, soak them in water for at least an hour to get rid of excess salt, then wash them a few times and drain. You can squeeze them carefully to get rid of excess water
Make sure you don't discard the flesh of the eggplant and zucchini! We use it to line the bottom of the pot and you can also chop it up and toss it into the stuffing mixture.
How to stuff the vegetables and layer the dolma pot
Start by putting a good glug of vegetable oil at the bottom of your pot (I suggest a non-stick wide pot). Then line the bottom with the flesh of the eggplant and zucchini after chopping them up into medium sized pieces. This is optional, but we also love adding in lamb ribs at the bottom of the pot - they add amazing flavour!
Start with stuffing the "rigid" vegetables first like the eggplant, zucchini, and peppers. Make sure you stuff them ¾ of the way through because the rice will expand when cooked. Then stuff the onions and try to squeeze them into the empty spaces to ensure they are all tightly packed in. Finally, add the stuffed swiss chard and/or vine leaves if you're using them at the top. We stuff the leaves last because they are easy to fit into all the little cervices and help us keep all the vegetables packed in well so they don't open up while cooking.
Follow the steps below to stuff the swiss chard and the vine leaves:
- Start with a small amount of rice in the middle
- Fold the edges of the leaves inwards, then start rolling
- As you are rolling, keep a tight grip on the roll so it stays in tact and doesn't open up
- Place it in the pot seam side down
If you're in a rush, you can make bigger rolls and the process will be much faster! Trust me, I know it's tedious, but it's WORTH IT!
How to cook the dolma
To make the cooking liquid, mix together water with tomato paste, pomegranate molasses, salt and pepper. You can use hot water to make it easier for the tomato paste to melt. You can also sub tomato sauce for the paste. The aim is to have a slightly coloured cooking liquid but it should not be thick - it needs to be watery.
Pour the liquid into the pot until you reach halfway through the top layer of the dolma. Do not fully submerge it in water, because too much water will yield an overly mushy dolma. Too little water will yield a dry on the inside dolma. So follow the steps I give and use your instincts - there will be some improvisation depending on how you stacked your dolma and how large your pot is. Generally, it is better to add less water than too much. That way if you need more halfway through, you can add it. Once the liquid is in, add a flat plate on top to help keep everything in place during the cooking process.
The first step of cooking the dolma is to cover it and bring it to a rolling boil on high heat for 15 minutes. After that, taste and adjust the cooking liquid for seasoning. Add more salt if you feel it needs it. Then decrease the heat to medium, remove the plate and give the pot a bit of a shake to help the liquid move downwards, cover and leave it to cook for another 15 minutes. Finally, after 15 minutes, decrease to low and cook for 1 hour covered. Taste the dolma and ensure it is soft and delicious. You're done!
How to flip and serve Iraqi dolma the authentic way
Dolma is traditionally flipped into a large metal tray. If the idea of a hot heavy pot being flipped by you is scary - don't worry, you can just use a spoon and spoon it carefully into a platter. But flipping is actually not that hard! Here's how to do it:
- Uncover the pot and grab a large metal tray with raised sides if you have one (if you don't, any circular platter that fits over your pot with edges will work - otherwise don't flip! It needs to be circular)
- Place the tray on top of the pot and grab the tray as well as both handles of the pot
- Have someone near you to support you when you flip. In a swift motion, flip the pot upside down and have the person helping you grab the tray to support the weight on your arms
- Leave it in place for a few minutes, then tap the bottom of the pot a couple of times and slowly remove it
- Watch the beautiful dolma pieces tumble down and scrape any pieces left stuck to the pot (the bottom of the pot is the most delicious part because it gets really caramelized)
- Dig in!
Ways to make Iraqi Dolma faster and easier
Now I know, the traditional Iraqi Dolma is quite the labour of love! I won't lie, I make it once every few months. This is a treat around here and I mostly go over to my mom's whenever she's making it! BUT there are ways to make a delicious pot of dolma MUCH faster. Here's how:
- Use vegetables that are quick to prepare and stuff like onions and peppers. I ALWAYS make an onion and pepper dolma - it is so quick. In fact, I have a stuffed pepper recipe that uses a vegetarian dolma filling, so that's always a great option. Onions are also super quick to stuff and only take a few minutes to prepare, plus they're one of my favourites!
- Only make a small amount of the swiss chard and/or grape leaves if you find it time consuming. Also you can make the rolls larger which will be faster. Who cares what it looks like, right?
- Prepare the vegetables the night before that way it's much quicker for you on the day
How to halve this recipe
This recipe will fill a 7 quart pot and will feed approximately 7-8 adults with generous portions (obviously depends on the appetites of these adults :D). If you want to halve the recipe, you can halve the filling and halve the amount of vegetables I used to stuff. Keep in mind that the yield will be approximate because the stuffing to vegetables ratio will all depend on the sizes of your vegetables and how many you use. For example, eggplant will use up more stuffing than the swiss chard or grape leaves. So keep that in mind!
If you do make it and you end up with some stuffing left over, no worries! You can either get another onion and stuff it, or you can use it to make the perfect rice pilaf that kids absolutely love. I simply place it in a pot and cook it using the same cooking liquid I used for the dolma. Cover the rice mixture with water about 1 inch above the rice, bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover and reduce heat to low and leave it to cook for 20-25 minutes.
For any leftovers, store in an airtight container and place in the fridge for 4-5 days. I usually don't have any leftovers because it's THAT good. But when I make a large amount, my favourite way to enjoy it the next day is to lightly fry it in an oiled pan on medium low heat until it heats through and develops a crust on the outside. It just takes it to a whole other level.
More Iraqi recipes you will enjoy
- Arabic Biryani with Chicken
- Maqluba with Lamb (Arabic rice dish)
- Okra Stew (Bamia)
- Fasolia Yabsa (Iraqi white bean stew)
Iraqi Dolma (Middle Eastern Stuffed Vegetables)
For the stuffing mixture:
- 1.5 lbs lean ground beef
- 4 cups medium grain rice I use Calrose
- 3 teaspoons salt
- 1.5 teaspoon black pepper
- 8 tablespoons tomato paste equivalent to 156 mL the small cans
- ⅓ cup pomegranate molasses *see notes
- 3 small onions or 2 medium ones
- 4 small cloves garlic
- 2 red or orange bell peppers
- ½ cup olive oil
For the vegetables:
- 3 Italian eggplants medium sized eggplant - if using Indian use 6 because they're smaller
- 2 green zucchini
- 3-4 onions narrow in shape (avoid really round onions)
- 4 small red peppers
- 2 bunches of swiss chard
- 20 - 30 grape leaves if using - you can also use more grape leaves instead of the swiss chard
- ¼ cup oil for bottom of the pot before layering
For the cooking liquid:
- 5 cups water
- 4 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1.5 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoons black pepper
- ¼ cup pomegranate molasses *see notes
- 1 teaspoons citric acid *see notes
For the stuffing mixture:
- Start by finely dicing the onions and red peppers and mincing the garlic
- Wash the rice well until the water runs clear and drain
- Mix together the all the ingredients for the stuffing: meat, rice, vegetables, garlic, tomato paste, pomegranate molasses, oil, salt and pepper. Use your hands and mix until very well combined. Set aide.
Preparing the vegetables:
- For the eggplant: cut the eggplant into 2 pieces similar in size to the photos. Then using a sharp pairing knife (which is a knife with a short blade), place the eggplant on a cutting board sideways with your hand on top. Using your dominant hand, start coring around the inside of the eggplant, going around and around and slowly inserting the knife in deeper as you go around. Do this until you reach the other side or until you can use your fingers to scoop out the flesh. If you don't get it all out, keep using your knife to cut away the flesh. You can also insert your knife from the other side to help loosen the flesh further. Refer to recipe video for detailed method.
- For the zucchini: start by scraping away the skin using a sharp knife, then trim the ends. Cut the zucchini into 3 pieces then core using the same method as the eggplant
- For the pepper: carefully cut around the stem and remove it, then using your fingers, remove the inner seeds and any white parts. You can use a small knife to get in there and loosen them
- For the onion: first peel the onion, then dig around the end where the root was and carve it out slightly (this helps separate the layers). Make a long cut lengthwise all the way to the centre - do not cut past the centre. Then microwave the onions for 1 minute to soften the layers slightly (you can also boil for a minute). Wait for it to cool, then use your fingers to carefully dislodge the layers and pop them out
- For the swiss chard: before stuffing, wash the leaves well and then submerge in a bowl of boiling water for 3 seconds. Remove them and place them on a tray. This helps wilt the leaves and makes them more pliable for stuffing. Then, cut the thick stems off the leaves, and cut the leaf into 2 or 3 pieces, depending on the size.
- For the grape leaves: grape leaves come in jars submerged in water (I don't recommend using the frozen ones). Generally the leaves are salted, so before using them, soak them in water for at least an hour to get rid of excess salt, then wash them a few times and drain. You can squeeze them carefully to get rid of excess water.
Stuffing the vegetables and stacking:
- Start by adding ¼ olive oil to the bottom of the pot, then line the bottom with the flesh of the eggplant and zucchini that you carved out
- Then stuff the "rigid" vegetables first: eggplant, zucchini and pepper. Fill them ¾ of the way because the rice will expand during cooking. Stack the eggplant and zucchini together so they remain in place
- Then stuff the onions and squeeze them into all the empty spots
- Finally stuff the swiss chard and grape leaves and use them to fill in all the cervices and tightly pack everything in.
- To roll the leaves, place a small amount in the middle of the leaf. Fold the sides over, then roll the leaf keeping a tight grip. Place in the pot seam side down
Cooking the dolma:
- Prepare the cooking liquid by mixing all the ingredients together well until the tomato paste has dissolved (you can use hot water to help this)
- Pour the liquid into the pot ensuring it goes all the way up to half way through the top layer. Don't completely submerge the top layer.
- Place a flat plate on top of the pot to keep everything in place
- Cover the pot and bring to a boil on high heat for 15 minutes. Then, taste and adjust the seasoning of the liquid (add more salt or acid if you need to).
- After 15 minutes, remove the plate and give the pot a jiggle to help the water travel downwards. Decrease the heat to medium and allow it to cook for another 15 minutes
- Finally, decrease the heat to low and cook for 1 hour. Taste it after the hour and make sure all the vegetables are really soft
- Allow the dolma to stand for 10-15 minutes, then flip it into a round metal tray with raised sides. If you don't have a round platter or tray, you can use a spoon to spoon the dolma into a platter.
- To flip the dolma, place the tray on top of the pot, then grab each handle and flip in a swift motion. Make sure there is someone beside you to grab the tray as soon as you flip it and ease the weight off your arms.
- Dig in and enjoy!
- If you can't find pomegranate molasses, which is used in the stuffing mixture and the cooking liquid, you can replace it with lemon juice and a bit of sugar. Use the juice of 2 lemons and about 2 teaspoons of sugar for every ¼ cup pomegranate molasses
- Citric acid can be found at any shop, but if you don't have it, add some lemon juice to the cooking liquid in place of it. Use the juice of 2-3lemons.
- You can replace the swiss chard with grape leaves or vice versa if you can't find one of them
- If you have leftover stuffing, check the blog post for how to use it to make a rice pilaf
- If you find you need more cooking liquid as the dolma cooks, you can just use a splash of water
- Use a wide non stick pot for best results
- This is optional, but you can also add small lamb ribs to the bottom of the pot to add extra flavour