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Azerbaijani Dolmas: Tapping Into My Family Tradition

I’m often surprised when I find out that a longstanding family recipe is actually approachable. When I was younger, the thought of making any dish that was my mom’s standby was unthinkable–how could I ever compare? Of late, though, I’m pleasantly taken aback when I discover that not only can I cook, but I am perfectly capable of recreating dishes that have been cooked by my mother, her mother and her mother before that.

Case in point: the dolmas that Matt and I made this weekend. Dolmas come in a variety of forms depending on what region they’re from, but the key ingredients seem to always be the same: grape leaves, herbs and rice. Part of my mother’s family lived in Baku, a region that belongs to Azerbaijan, and therefore my mother’s and grandmother’s cooking have always been influenced by the flavors of this small nation.

In the four times that I have been back to Russia, I can hardly recall the number of authentic Russian restaurants that I visited. Rather, I relished the opportunity to indulge in my favorite ethnic foods–Azerbaijani, Armenian..Traditionally, Azerbaijani dolmas are made with meat–specifically, lamb. Farida has a great recipe on her blog.

My mom has been making hers with a mixture of beef and lamb, and most recently, a mixture of beef and turkey. Her cooking style is what I’d call eyeball-friendly. Whenever I ask her to email me a recipe it usually has few measurements, but somehow (after 3-4 phone calls), I figure it out. After purchasing a rather expensive jar of marinated grape leaves and picking up our meats, Matt and I rented a movie, I chopped 5 inches off my hair at the stylist and proceeded to return home to fold and roll.

The result? Pretty delicious–and let’s just say, a mountain of food (we’ve been eating through them for about a week). When you make these, be sure to roll them carefully and tightly, and don’t overstuff the meat. Also, don’t forget the yogurt sauce. It really does elevate the dish to another level.

Here’s the recipe to get you started. Also, I took a crack at a little video to help you get a better visual for how these come together. Keep in my mind this is my first video and I was lounging around in sweats at home (pre-haircut), so the focus is really on the counter.

Azerbaijani Dolmas
*Serves an army or 2 for a week

1 jar of marinated grape leaves (you can find these in Iranian, Russian and other international markets)
2.5- 3 lbs of mixed ground meat (beef + turkey–my mom suggests ‘not the leanest’)
1 cup of long grain rice
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large bunch of cilantro, finely chopped
1 handful of dill, finely chopped
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
salt and pepper, to taste

1. Take the leaves out of the jar, unroll them and wash them well with cold water. Lay them out flat on a large plate.
2. Put rice in a medium bowl and cover with boiling water while chopping and mixing all of the other ingredients.
3. In a large bowl, combine the meat, herbs and chopped onion.
4. Strain the rice with cold water, add to the mix and add cinnamon, salt and pepper (between 1/2- 1 teaspoon).
5. Wrap about an over rounded teaspoon of meat mixture into each dolma (roll the leaf and wrap the edges tightly).
6. Line a dutch oven (or large pot) with dolmas. Place them tightly against each other, in rows.
7. Add about 1 cup of water to the pot once all of your rows are arranged. Place a plate of the dolmas and push down firmly (this will help keep them tight and will allow them to cook evenly). The water should cover the dolmas. If not, add more water.
8. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to simmer, cooking for about 30-45 minutes. You can add more water throughout the cooking process, but be sure not to add to much. In the end, your bottom row of dolmas should be engulfed in water.

Yogurt Dill Sauce
1/2 cup of plain yogurt
1-2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 stem of fresh dill, minced

1. In a bowl, mix together the yogurt, dill and crushed garlic. Serve alongside warm dolmas.

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Posted by Kasey


Kasey is the food editor and co-founder of Turntable Kitchen. She loves dark chocolate, warm crusty bread, and traveling to new places. She speaks Russian, but does not like vodka.

  • Peter M

    It’s a delight to learn of another take on Dolmades and I didn’t know the Azerbaijani made them too!I find myself all of a sudden wanting some.

  • farida

    Hey you did a fantastic job! Your dolma looks so good. Azerbaijani dolmas is usually rounder, sort of smaller in shape, but I sometimes make them bigger too :) as long as it tastes good, it doesn’t matter:) Great video clip! Thanks for referring to me too. Cokh sagh ol!

  • Kasey

    Peter: Looking forward to hearing how your Azerbaijani takes comes out–and thanks for reading!Farida: Thanks for the sweet comment. I can always use more practice and especially more advice anytime. The video is a bit of an experiment, but hopefully you’ll see more on here! :)

  • R.

    I loved the video addition!!! Your dolmas look great – I can’t wait to enjoy them next time I visit… I might try to make them, but you’ll have to be on the phone with me!!!

  • Sean

    My husband does not love the dolmas … but if they’re stuffed with lamb? I think this is an experiment that is worth undertaking.

  • Kasey

    R- can’t wait to make you some dolmas and happy to talk you through the process any day.Sean- you should definitely give these a try. They’re not much like their Greek counterparts. Not 100% traditional, but 100% delicious.

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