Ottoman in Turkey is like Soviet in Russia or Berber in Morocco: sells well to tourists and has got little to do with the present life of the country. What looks like a wonderfully intriguing story to the outside world appears a complex matter of pride and shame for the locals.
Every time I am wandering around the Topkapi palace or the Grand Bazaar quarters I am smitten by the Ottoman grandeur and can’t stop fantasizing about the life back then. Abundance of goods from the vassal lands, grand construction projects undertaken luxurious decorations of the grand buildings, science, engineering, arts and crafts flourishing. Which nation would not be proud of such past?
Instead, in his book Istanbul: Memories and Memoirs of the City Orhan Pamuk revives the memories of the childhood in Istanbul of the 20s, right post-Ottoman era: he writes about the city enveloped in hüzün, melancholy of the glorious past, for once being the center of the world and now having found itself on its periphery. Struggling to become European and republican but so rooted in its essentially Asian and despotic past. Very little romance and quite a bit of drama, if you ask me.
When it comes to Ottoman cuisine there is much more to grieve over. My heart starts sinking every time I imagine the action that used to launch at the humongous kitchens of the Topkapi palace where the tastes and ingredients were brought from all over the Turkey, Balkans, Central Asia, North Africa and Middle East and presented to the royal family and its guest in exquisite combinations. Those tastes seem harder to reproduce than the patterns on the Ottoman rugs or ceramic plates judging by what is available at the stalls of the Istanbul bazaars and what is not in the menus of Istanbul restaurants.
Food seems to take more time and dedication. Masterful use of spices which adds complexity to the flavor, presence of fruits and ‘dessert’ spices in the meat dishes, ceremonial preparation and savoring the meal – all these typical features of the Ottoman dishes seem almost like a decadent luxury now which was only possible at the sultan palace which Clifford A. Wright describes as “a bottomless pit of food because he fed a huge palace population and didn’t care about expense”. Haute cuisine, royal by definition simply can’t be reproduced in scale and catered to the masses. But it doesn’t mean that this heritage should not be nourished, benchmarked or used as an inspiration.
This summer it seems only right to revive the Ottoman recipe of fresh vine leaves stuffed with cherries: it redefines one of the signature dishes of the Turkish cuisine – yaprak sarma, or stuffed wine leaves. This version calls for sour cherry that adds sweet-sour touch and wonderfully pink color to the allspice and cinnamon flavored rice.
Fresh vine leaves stuffed with rice and fresh cherries
(Visneli yaprak sarma)
Ottoman summer special dolma that celebrates the goodness of the fresh vine leaves, sour cherries and calls for a few laborious but enjoyable hours at the kitchen.
Prep Time: 30 Min
Cook Time: 2 Hr
- 60 fresh vine leaves can be replaced with brined (set aside 3-4 leaves)
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 75 ml olive oil
- 1 cup long grain rice soaked in hot water, washed and drained
- 3 medium size onions
- 2 tbsp pine nuts
- 1 tbsp dry currents soaked and dried
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp allspice
- 1⁄3 cup parsley finely chopped (set aside 2 stems)
- 1⁄3 cup dill finely chopped (set aside 2 stems)
- 300 g cherries 1/2 destoned and purred
- 1.5 cups water for rice
- 1 cup water for dolma
- Prepare dolma stuffing: Heat half of the olive oil in a large pan on a high flame and toast pine nuts. Add onion and cook occasionally stirring until transparent (about 10 min). Add rice and continue to cook for a few minutes until the rice soaks in the oil. Toss in dry currents, salt, sugar,cinnamon, and allspice to the mix; then add 1/3 glass cherry puree and 1.5 cups glass water. Cover, reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes, until rice becomes soft and water is absorbed. Add chopped dill and parsley; mix well. Set aside covered for about 20 minutes.
- Prepare vine leaves: Meanwhile, bring to boil a large pot of water with lemon juice; immense fresh vine leaves in the bowling water and keep for 2-3 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water. Then sort out the vine leaves, leaving the oddly shaped ones aside and cut the hard stems out. Set aside.
- Prepare dolma cooking vessel: Pick up a flat-bottom pot for cooking dolma. Lay out the bottom of the pen with the remaining vine leaves and a few stems of parsley and dill – this will be a little pillow of aroma but also a no-burning guarantee for the dolma.
- Stuff vine leaves: Now when the stuffing and the leaves are ready it’s time to make the dolma. Place one vine leave in front of you with the shining side down and with the stem side being closer to you. Place a teaspoon of the stuffing very close to the stem. To start the rolling cover the stuffing with the two down sides of the leave tightly: there will be a little hole in the middle because of the natural shape of the leave – this is great to get the air out of the roll. Now fold the right and left parts of the leave inside tightly. Finish by rolling the leave further up like a cigar. Please, have a look at the photos for the step-by-step visual instructions. Place in the bowl and continue in the same fashion placing the rolls tightly next to each other.
- Cook dolma: Once the rolled vine leaves are laid out, sprinkle over remaining olive oil, cheery puree, pitted cherries and a glass of water over the rolls. Then place a flat plate (porcelain and heat-proof) over the dolma and cover the cooking vessel with a lid. Cook for about 30 minutes, or until the liquid evaporates. Set aside to cool down once cooked. Serve chilled (best overnight at the refrigerator). Goes great as a starter or as a light meal if served with yoghurt and crusty bread.