I arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan at 3 AM not knowing a soul. The taxi driver took me to a hotel; it was full. Everyone looked tired, and they didn’t seem to know what to do with me so I ended up sleeping in the spare room belonging to the night staff. Walnuts on the bedside table were offered before being whisked away with shoes and other personal belongings.
The next morning I borrowed a phone from the front desk and began calling second and third hand contacts. Friends of friends of people I barely knew.
Why did you come to Kurdistan? Where is your family? They let you travel alone? What can we do to help?
I said that I was doing research for a film and that I wanted to produce a show about Kurdish cuisine for a website I had with my friend. We like to teach people in the US about food and culture from different parts of the world.
Have you tried dolma?
Once the oddity of my presence had passed this was always the first question.
I went on a field trip with students from the Institute of Tourism; amidst high winds and a stormy sky we set up a picnic between the two school buses. Picnics are a beloved pastime in Kurdistan, and they are always an elaborate affair. Vegetables for salads were chopped, portable stoves were turned on and large metal pots heated up the meal. Student poured the hot dolma onto wide metal trays. We sat around large rectangular table cloths and enjoyed the hot food despite the blustery winds.
“Mmm, delicious dolma. This must be made by a Turkmen woman,” my Turkmen translator and new friend declared, “they make the best dolma.”
Dolma is not uniquely Kurdish; it is widely made throughout the former Ottoman Empire, with slight regional variations. That did not matter; from everyone I spoke to, this was a dish that defined Kurdish cuisine.
The day after the field trip I stayed home with the family that had adopted me for the week; the mother said she was going to make dolma for us and that I could film it. I tried to get a recipe, but everything is done by sight and taste and years of experience. I’ve written the steps below for those who are feeling adventurous.
Step 1: Prepare the vegetables
Onions- beaten on the ground, peeled, ends removed, sliced down the middle on one side, layers separated.
Eggplant and Zucchini- ends removed, sliced in half lengthwise, hollowed out with a knife (I tried this, and it’s not as easy as it looks in the video).
Grape Leaves- stems snipped at base of leaf.
Cabbage- cut stalk out from bottom (there is no easy way of doing this- just hack away), separate leaves.
Tomato- cut top off but not all the way, hollow out.
Rinse all the vegetables and set aside.
Step 2: Prepare the filling
Chop onions and fresh herbs, mix with rice, whatever spices you like, small cubes of lamb meat and fat (they told me this was optional), tomato paste, plenty of salt, a few tablespoons of boiling oil, and a grated tomato
Step 3: Stuff the vegetables
Pretty self explanatory, but do be sure to put a little less rice than you think is necessary because it expands!
Step 4: Cook it
On top of all the stuffed vegetables put a layer of grape leaves and salt, then pour the water (boiling) over and cook on a low flame. I was incredulous about amount of water they put in. Only 3 cups for the big pot and 2 cups for the little one, but I guess the water from the vegetables also contributes. Make sure that the vegetables have a weight (plates work well) over them to keep everything in place during the cooking. Cover pots with a lid and cook for about an hour.
By Emma Piper-Burket