Among the many delicious plates we all share in the Levant, Wara’ Inab (Stuffed Grape Leaves), also known as Wara’ Dawali is certainly the flagship of Tartoussi cuisine. It is by far the most important entrée, offered on special occasions and enjoyed anytime by the entire family. Everybody likes well prepared, freshly green grape leaves with a succulent heap of mutton meat and bones. I have to admit that this is not one of the easier recipes to prepare. It requires some hard work and plenty of time as with all the good things in life. Groundwork starts either early in the morning or one day in advance. I am certain that those who have had the pleasure of repeatedly eating this dish agree with me that it’s worth all the trouble, but it should be mentioned to those who hadn’t been fortunate yet. Wara’ Inab is a culinary masterpiece and it certainly deserves international recognition as one of the most significant achievements of the human imagination and determination in creating an edible objet d’art.
There are two main variants to Stuffed Grape Leaves. The first one is the light version and it consists of grape leaves stuffed with rice & vegetables only, called Yalangi in Arabic (from Turkish no doubt) and Dolmades in Greek. This dish is prepared with olive oil and lemon juice and is totally vegetarian. It is easier to put together than the second recipe and is considered an appetizer or a plate of Mezza. If enough interest is generated to write another post about it I will certainly oblige. The second recipe, the topic of this post, is a main entrée and is often the centerpiece of the table.
OK, let’s roll our sleeves and get at it.
-2 cups of Rice short grain
- ½ Kg ground lamb meat
-1 ½ to 2 Kg of lamb meat and bones + ¼ Kg of (optional) lamb fat (a friendly butcher is a definite plus if you live in the west).
-1 kg of fresh and tender (not too large) grape leaves. Canned grape leaves are an acceptable substitute but be warned: they don’t taste the same. In this part of the world we buy the grape leaves in season and freeze them in individual vacuumed wraps of 1 Kg each. They fall in between fresh and canned grape leaves as far as their taste is concerned.
-6 sticks of cinnamon
-8 whole cardamom pods
-4 bay leaves
-½ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
-1 cup of fresh lemon juice
-4 cloves of garlic
-Salt & pepper
-The ground lamb meat is cooked briefly over medium fire until light brown. Then it’s mixed with the rice along with salt and pepper (as per taste).
-Individual grape leaves are stuffed with the rice & meat mixture as per attached photos (above) and kept aside.
-The lamb meat and bones are placed in a large pot of water and brought to a boil for 5 minutes. The water is thrown away and the meat and bones are moved to a new clean pot. -Fresh water is added and brought to a boil along with the cinnamon sticks, the cardamom pods, the bay leaves and the grated nutmeg. Cooking time 2 hours over low heat.
-The lamb meat and bones are removed from the sauce and evenly distributed on the bottom of another pot. The stuffed grape leaves are arranged over the lamb and on top of each other in a tight circular pattern and the cloves of garlic are thrown in.
-The sauce is added until it covers all the grape leaves. Some heavy cover is used to press the grape leaves in place so they don’t get disfigured during the cooking. The top of a smaller pot is ideal along with some heavy object to keep it steady in place (how about a brick!)
- Once the sauce starts boiling (visible from the edges of the smaller top), reduce heat to minimum and cook undisturbed for 2 ½ hours. Remove top, add 1 cup of lemon juice, and cover with top again for ½ hour.
- Get a circular serving pan larger in diameter than the cooking pot and place it on top. With one swift movement turn upside down so that the lamb is on top of the grape leaves now.
- Serve and enjoy. The above quantity should be enough for 5 people with some delicious leftovers for the next day.
- In Tartous we serve stuffed grape leaves with salted yogurt on the side, green mint leaves and peeled garlic.
Eat as much as you can since you don't get this everyday. Release your belt buckle. Lean back in a lazy chair. Have some tea. Savor the after taste of garlic. Don’t feel ashamed or guilty of what you have just done (you’ve definitely over-eaten, but so what). Think about tomorrow and the leftovers in the fridge. Smile and be happy, that’s all.
Photos illustrating how to roll the grape leaves in this post are courtesy of What’s Cooking America .
Photos of the actual dish and plate taken by Abu Fares. Actual plate consumed by Abu Fares. Leftovers eaten by Abu Fares. Actual dish prepared by Om Fares. This is her recipe as well.
For a step-by-step instruction on how to stuff and roll the grape leaves only (not the recipe itself), check out the photos offered by Nancy Gaifyllia at http://greekfood.about.com/od/greekcookinglessons/ss/foldleaves.htm . She uses a totally different Greek recipe with beef and pork, but the rolling is the same.