Salima’s Lebanese Waraq Enab
“The concept of stuffed vegetables itself opens many debates. Traditionally known as dolma, it is a prized food from the Balkans to Central Asia and whilst every nation claims it as its own, I am sharing the Lebanese version that we refer to as ‘the King of Food’…”
Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves are my all-time favourite dish that I grew up eating and actually grew up helping my mum make! In Arabic, we call it “warak enab” which means leaves of grapes, and traditionally it’s stuffed with rice and meat or rice and veggies. This is the Lebanese version from my family hometown, the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, the country’s second largest city after Beirut.
Tripoli itself has a proud history. Stretching back to at least 1400 BC, it has been settled by a number of great empires including the Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Assyrians, Crusaders, Arabs and Ottoman Turks. Each left an impression not just on the city but also its cuisine!
The concept of stuffed vegetables itself opens many debates. Traditionally known as dolma, it is a prized food from the Balkans to Central Asia and whilst every nation claims it as its own, I am sharing the Lebanese version that we refer to as ‘the King of Food’, made by my mum, her mum and many, many earlier generations of my family.
My own parents came to Australia in 1970 as migrants and remained when civil war tore apart their homeland. They gave us many things we cherished including our prized traditional dishes. This dish, warak enab, the King of Foods, is in itself a journey. It was the food of celebration, served at only very special occasions; weddings, family arriving from overseas, pilgrims returning from hajj, special guests for a Ramadan iftar and of course the Eid celebration marking the end of the fasting month. Lebanon being a multifaith nation, warak enab was also a prized dish at Christmas, Orthodox Easter and the many feast days of the saints.
As a young girl growing up in Bankstown, Sydney, I, like most other young Lebanese girls, for years sat with the older ladies helping with the preparation, listening to stories of their childhoods. So this dish was also a journey into the history of my heritage and at 15, when you were finally invited to cook the dish, it was like a rite of passage, a sign that you had grown from a girl to a young woman. My mum hails from the old Tripoli suburb of Abu Samra, an area used previously as a naval centre for the ancient Phoenicians and Greeks, a fort by the Arabs and the Crusader forces of the Knights Hospitalier with the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles in its shadow. My great grandmother gave her an old stone from that ancient land that was traditionally placed on top of the dish as it cooked. Today I use that same stone, passed down to me from my mum as it was passed to her from her mum and from many previous generations. Today most cooks use a plate to keep the dish in place. I still use that old stone. It has witnessed a great history from the ancient Phoenicians to my home in suburban Sydney and is an indelible link to my heritage. I look forward to someday passing this stone on to my daughter, Sarah.
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Wash and soak the fresh leaves in water to remove any excess dirt. The leaves should be a fresh vibrant green colour. Bring a pot of water to the boil and submerge a handful of leaves at a time to blanch until they turn a khaki green colour. Ensure stems are removed. Repeat with all the leaves. Put in a strainer over the sink and run cold water over them to cool down. Allow to cool and then place on a tray ready for rolling. It is important the leaves are cool so as to not spoil the stuffing mix.
Whilst the leaves are cooling you can begin to prepare your stuffing mix. Combine the rice, mince, salt and spices by kneading together with your hands so as to bring it all together.
On a clean, flat, wet surface such as a counter. Lay a leaf flat with the rough side facing you and the smooth side of the leaf on the counter. The amount of filling will depend on the size of the leaf, but the aim is to have uniform rolled leaves to allow for even cooking. Therefore, if you have two quite small leaves you can place them alongside one another overlapping halfway to form a bigger leaf or if you have a giant leaf you can cut it in half down the centre. The average leaf should be palm size and requires 3/4–1 pinkie length and thickness of stuffing, remembering the rice expands when cooking. Ensure you are relaxed and not tense whilst rolling the vine leaves to avoid ripping.
Place the filling in the centre of the leaf, about a centimetre from the base. Starting from the bottom, rollthe leaf over the filling, tucking the edges to create a cylinder shape. Tip: while rolling, press on the centre and pull it towards you to keep it tight. Each piece when rolled should be around 1cm in thickness.
Place the meat and bones in a clean sink and rinse very well with cold water. Place meat and bones into a pot with water and bring to the boil. Remove the layer of scum that comes to the surface. Then drain the meat in the sink and wash off any excess that is on the meat with cold water.
In a 10 litre pot add a tablespoon of ghee and toss the meat and bones over high heat to seal, adding salt and Baharat spice to the pot. Turn the stove off and assemble the meat and bones as compactly as possible in the middle of the pot. Pack the vine leaf rolls in a circle around the pot one by one and in any gaps in between the meat and bones. Repeat this all the way to the last vine leaf roll.
Add 6 cups of water to the pot. Tilt your pot to the side, if the water gushes to the side you have plenty of water for your 20 hour cooking. If not add your 7th cup of water. However, 6 should be enough.
Place a heat proof plate face down to press down on the vine leaves and put a big rock on top to apply pressure to the plate. Cover with the lid.
Cook on high for 30 mins and then turn down to low and leave on the stove-top to cook through overnight. After about 15 hours of cooking squeeze 3 lemons, maybe even 4 depending on personal taste and add to the pot, lifting the stuffed vine leaves away from the sides of the pot and swirling the lemon juice all around. Ensure you keep tasting the juice of the vine leaves and adjust with more lemon accordingly. By now the liquid in the pot should be a shiny, dark and a rich green colour. Cook on high for approximately 20 mins. Then bring down the heat to medium and keep the pot covered for 20 mins. Uncover pot and keep cooking for another 20 minutes to cook and sizzle the top layer this will also caramelise the lemon with the pan juices of the vine leaves.
Serve by tipping the pot into an extra-large deep serving dish, the vine leaves should fall to the bottom and the meat should be falling off the bone at the top. This is a two- or three-person job!
Serve with fresh radish, spring onion, garlic cloves, mint and fresh Lebanese bread.
Best enjoyed eating with your hands.