Ask any Romanian what is their definition of a traditional dish and they will all tell you sarmale (Romanian cabbage rolls) served with mamaliga (Romanian polenta). I don't think I've ever been in a Romanian household where this coveted dish was not celebrated one way or another.
Food plays such an important role in every Romanian family. Whether is the Sunday lunch where we all chip in to create a lavishing feast, usually eaten over a bunch of stories and memories, or for the holidays where sarmale and mamaliga are 100% on the menu.
Perhaps what I'm about to tell is a little embarrassing. In Romania, every woman (and some men, of course) learns how to make these Romanian cabbage rolls. I, unlike many others, was never fascinated about traditional Romanian dishes, hence I never devoted any of my time learning how to make sarmale or mamaliga or anything else, really.
However, as I expressed in my last post, I feel ready and excited to get back in touch with my Romanian heritage and am thrilled to discover the joy of cooking traditional dishes. I started by making mamaliga (Romanian polenta) which turned out really, really good.
But mamaliga is a side, usually served right next to sarmale (Romanian cabbage rolls). I always found them intimidating. I'd see my mum and gran spend so much time making them.
But, how can I not know the most interesting traditional Romanian food there is? And so, I set aside a few hours this past weekend and decided to face my fears. I asked my mum about the recipe and, of course, I made it with my own twist. Rather than adding just plain boiling water to the sarmale, I wanted to add subtle milky oolong tea. Alright, I know what you are thinking: tea with tomato paste and paprika? Well, it's not the first time I experiment with milky oolong, as you may recall my delicious chana masala. The point of the milky oolong is to add a subtle flavour of sweetness to the dish.
Of course, this is entirely optional and you can add just boiling water if you prefer. Just one important note! Do not attempt this with any other tea. Milky oolong is incredibly delicate. Green or black teas will be too strong and will spoil the dish. So better stick with boiling water if you don't have milky oolong in the cupboard.
Well, it finally happened. After my first ever attempt to make sarmale, I feel amazing. They are perfect. I'm really grateful I had the energy and patience to do this dish and I now feel like I acquired a new skill. So Christmas in Romania? No problem, I can make a mean dish of Romanian cabbage rolls with delicious vegan polenta on the side.
What are sarmale (Romanian cabbage rolls)
Sarmale are Romanian stuffed cabbage rolls traditionally served on Christmas and New Year's. You will find them in all authentic restaurants and they are served throughout the year at weddings, baptism or pretty much any other celebration (including Sunday dinners with the family).
Back in the days, the original sarmale recipe contained absolutely no meat whatsoever, whereas nowadays a large part of the dish has mince in it. I like to keep it traditional but as a vegan, I put absolutely no meat in them. Turns out, these were the best sarmale I've ever tasted in my entire life.
The Romanian sarmale is a super versatile dish. They last in the fridge for days and they be reheated the next day. They can be served with any type of side you prefer, ranging from crusted potatoes to mashed potatoes.
How to make Romanian cabbage rolls (sarmale)
You and I are both novices, so we will learn from one another, what do you say? I know the recipe looks a little long and daunting but honestly, I just tried to be as detailed as possible. Once you read it once, you will see it's actually super easy to make.
We will start by making the filling. Cook the buckwheat and the brown rice.
To cook the buckwheat to perfection: add 3/4 cups (125 grams) of buckwheat to 1 cup (250 ml) of salted boiling water. Simmer until the buckwheat absorbs all the water. It usually takes 15-20 minutes. Set aside. (Don't forget to check how to make buckwheat patties)
Follow this recipe to make the perfect brown rice. Honestly, it works every single time. I will never go back to white rice now that I know to cook wholegrain rice. It's just delicious.
In a deep frying pan, heat up a little olive oil. Add the chopped onion and fry for 3-5 minutes, mixing frequently until translucent. Add the thyme and paprika and fry for another minute. In a large bowl, mix the spiced onion, the rice and the buckwheat. Add the aquafaba. Using a wooden spoon, mix the ingredients together.
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That's it! The mixture is now ready. It's time to actually stuff those cabbage rolls. Everyone has their own way of stuffing cabbage rolls and you just need to find what works for you. For example, my mum does them differently than me. I always thought the technique is passed down from generation to generation but it turns out, everyone has their own dexterity. So you do you!
Remove around 24 largest cabbage leaves from the fermented cabbage head. Finely chop the remaining of the cabbage and set aside in a bowl.
Cut the 24 large leaves in half, horizontally. The half of the leaf with the hard stem, chop finely and add to the chopped cabbage bowl. On a different plate, lay flat the top of the leaf which is tender, and easily foldable. This will be used for stuffing.
Right, are you ready for this? I'm going to teach you my own technique which I developed over the weekend after trying several ways.
On a chopping board, lay down a tender cabbage leaf. Make sure it's as flat as possible. Fill the leaf with about a couple tbsp of the mixture and roll. I like to put the mixture towards the bottom of the leaf then roll it once upwards. I then fold the sides in, to make it look like an open envelope. Then I continue rolling until it's fully folded.
Repeat with all the remaining filling and cabbage leaves. You should get around 24 Romanian cabbage rolls. Time to bake them! A quick note here: you can also cook them on the hob. My mum, for example, cooks them on the hob. I personally prefer baked items. Also, the first time I tried making sarmale I baked them and I thought they tasted best! But it's up to you if you want to do it differently.
Preheat the oven to 150C / 300F.
In a large oven tray, add a little olive oil to the bottom. Add a layer of the finely chopped cabbage. Now arrange the cabbage rolls close to one another. I like really stuffing them next to one another, so they don't unroll during the cooking process.
Scatter the bay leaves and the peppercorn. Add another layer of the finely chopped cabbage. Mix the tomato paste with a little water and juice it over the cabbage and the cabbage rolls. Now pour over the stepped oolong tea.
Important! Around 3/4 of the tray should be filled with liquid, so feel free to add a little more boiling water / tea if needed.
Bake for 2 hours. Check every 20-25 minutes to ensure there is still enough water in the tray, so the cabbage rolls don't burn. Oh, I cook them uncovered because I really like them a bit crisper. Also, this way, the liquid reduces so the sarmale taste a lot more intense.
What do you think? Are you ready to give these Romanian cabbage rolls a try?
This recipe has been developed entirely by Yuzu Bakes. Any resemblance with other recipes is purely coincidental.