There are few foods that have traveled the world the way cabbage rolls have. Sarmale, as they are called in Romania, are today considered an incredibly delicious dish with Romanian-specific ingredients. But, behind the tasty recipe, there’s a rich history of hundreds of years that has built its savor and prestige. It’s a festive dish, prepared especially at celebrations and festivities, but also consumed as traditional food.
Romanian cabbage rolls can be an equally healthy and fancy choice to cook as lunch or dinner. Find out everything about this dish’s cultural and culinary history, discover the best tips and tricks, and learn how to cook the most savory and successful sarmale the Romanian traditional way!
A Short History of Romanian Cabbage Rolls
Romanian cabbage rolls have one of the most interesting and rich histories among all dishes. In fact, this is a multicultural recipe, to which tens of countries from around the world have contributed.
Initially, cabbage rolls were created by the Turkish, who claim to be the original cookers of the dish. But as they conquered more and more territory, the recipe was spread and adapted by tens of other countries.
Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Poland, Sweden, Germany, Finland, Serbia, and Greece are only a few of these contributors. And yes, each of these countries cooks the cabbage rolls with its particularities. But Romania has made it an essential part of its own culture. And it is one of the few countries where sarmale is defined as a main traditional food.
They don’t say when, exactly, cabbage rolls were assimilated by the Romanians. But they have been included in the local culture for over a hundred years. So, even though Romania is not the actual origin of cabbage rolls, no other culture or country has fused its national identity and character as strongly with sarmale as Romanians have.
They are especially consumed at festive meals during national celebrations. Whether it’s Christmas, Easter, National Day, weddings, or a new year’s party, Romanian cabbage rolls are rarely absent from the menu. From the poorest families to the most prestigious restaurants, there is no Romanian who hasn’t tasted sarmale. This is how strong the bond is between the dish and the national tradition.
Cultural, Historical, and Gastronomical Facts About Cabbage Rolls
- The term sarmale, or sarma, comes from the Turkish sarmak, which literally means “roll or package.”
- In Romania, instead of cabbage leaves, they also use leaves of grapes, cauliflower, sorrel, or beet.
- In Croatia and Bosnia, cabbage rolls are made with ground meat and smoked beef. They also add bacon, sausages, or dry pork.
- In Dalmatia, they don’t add rice to the filling. They do add, however, lemon and spices, such as cloves, cinnamon, and peanuts.
- In Turkey, they have the largest variety of cabbage roll recipes. From vegan recipes to non-vegan recipes, they consider these real delicacies and treat them accordingly. The meat cabbage rolls are spiced with pine nuts, cinnamon, mint, black pepper, parsley, dill, raisins, and Pimenta dioica.
What Are Romanian Cabbage Rolls?
Romanian cabbage rolls are exactly what their title describes: cabbage leaves stuffed with several different fillings and served in a rolled shape. In Romania, they call these rolls sarmale, and the dish is one of the country’s most important traditional foods.. There is no festive meal, no holiday, and no national or traditional celebration without sarmale.
Basically, Romanian cabbage rolls (sarmale) are traditionally made with the following:
- Cabbage leaves: They can be either fresh or pickled. The latter is the best and most frequent choice of the Romanians. They use pickled cabbage leaves for a more intense, sour, and salty taste of the rolls. The filling is also easier to roll inside a soft pickled cabbage leaf than inside a fresh, harder one. In Romania, they also use grape leaves (vine leaves) instead of cabbage ones. They are softer and more accessible, especially in small villages, where people are used to growing grapes in their own yards.
- Meat: Traditionally, the filling is made on a ground pork base. It has a higher content of fat, which results in juicier and tastier rolls. But ground chicken, turkey, lamb, and beef—or mixtures of these—are also used often, according to the preference of each chef.
- Rice: Most frequently, the meat filling is mixed with boiled rice for a richer texture.
- Onion: Large onions, finely chopped, are added to the filling. They leave the sarmale with a nice, specific aroma.
- Fresh herbs: The filling contains fresh herbs, commonly used in most of the Romanian traditional dishes. Fresh parsley, dill, coriander, and bay leaves are the most common, but spring onion, rosemary, basil, cilantro, and thyme can also be added, according to the taste of each chef.
- Spices: Salt, pepper, and sweet paprika are usually the only spices added to the dish. The main savors come from the fresh herbs that are added to the filling.
- Tomato purée or tomato juice: Romanians are used to preserving tomato juice with a special recipe, just like they preserve pickles. Their specific recipe for tomato juice is called bulion (or tomato bouillon). This is the liquid added to the pot, in which the cabbage rolls sit and boil. In other words, Romanian cabbage rolls are cooked in a traditional tomato juice.
Below, you can find the complete recipe of the most delicious cabbage rolls, prepared after a Romanian traditional recipe:
- 2 large cabbages (recommended: pickled)
- 2½ pounds ground pork
- 2 cups cooked white rice (recommended: long or basmati)
- 2 finely chopped onions
- Optionally, 1 egg
- Optionally, a generous piece of bacon or smoked meat
- 4-5 cups tomato juice (recommended: tomato bouillon)
- Salt, pepper, and sweet paprika, to taste
- Thyme, bay leaves, parsley, dill, or other herbs, to taste
- Prepare the filling: Mix the ground pork with the boiled rice, chopped onions, herbs, and spices. You can also add in a beaten egg, for a richer texture, if you like.
- Prepare the leaves: Take them off the cabbage, and arrange them into an accessible pot. This way, you can easily grab and roll them.
- Prepare the cabbage rolls: Add 1 tbsp of filling to a stretched cabbage leaf. It should cover around half of the entire leaf. Cover the filling with the base of the leaf and fold its sides as well. Then roll it firmly until the end of the leaf. You should get small rolls, tightly wrapped up around the filling. Arrange them all into a large pot, where they are going to be boiled.
- Repeat the same process until you use all the filling and cabbage leaves. If there are any leftover leaves, you can roughly cut them and arrange them on top of the rolls.
- Add the tomato juice to the pot. If it is a thick sauce or tomato purée, dilute it with water. Also add the bacon or smoked meat to the pot, if you chose to use it.
- Let the pot cook for as long as it takes for the meat to cook properly, at low-medium heat. After the liquid starts to simmer, leave it on low heat for a few hours. The rolls are best cooked slowly, giving enough time for each ingredient to leave its own delicious aroma.
1. Romanian cabbage rolls are best served hot, covered with cold Greek yogurt or cold sour cream.
2. As a side for sarmale, you can use bread or freshly cooked polenta. The latter is traditionally preferred, especially in festive contexts.
3. For the best results, first cook the onion in little oil until it gets translucent. Then add the cooked rice and fry it for around 1-2 minutes, mixing it with salt, pepper, and paprika. Add the rest of the filling ingredients only after it cools down (around 15 minutes).
4. Even though it’s optional, the smoked meat is a key element and a secret of the savory traditional taste. Avoid skipping it if you want to enjoy the real recipe!
5. You can also bake the cabbage rolls in the oven. Simply add them to a tray instead of a large pot. Heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and leave the rolls inside for 2-3 hours. The rest of the ingredients and instructions are the same.