Sarmale: stuffed cabbage rolls from the Balkans

Sarmale in foi de varza– the Romanian version

Stuffed cabbage rolls are a delightful dish that just everyone loves, whether or not from the Balkans. There are many versions: the following is in the Romanian tradition (athough there are many versions also in Romania).


Sarmale are not difficult to prepare, but it is a rather lengthy procedure.

Tradition requires varza acra, that is sour cabbage, prepared many months ahead, not readily available in the West. Simple cabbage will do just fine.

The more you make, the better – these tangy rolls tend to taste even better the day after!

MAKES: about 20 rolls
COOKING: 2 hours


sarmale_in_foi_de_varza.png1 head of cabbage
6 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2.5 tbsp. long-grain rice, cooked
1/4 cup water
1.5 lbs. pork, minced
1 slice soft bread
2 tbsp. fresh dill, chopped
1 tsp. ground thyme
2 tsp salt
1 tsp. black pepper, freshly ground
1 tsp. hot red papper, crushed
3 cups + 2 tbsp. water
3 cups sauerkraut (retain 1 cup of the liquid)
bouillon cube or flavour enhancer
10 black peppercorns
4 bay leaves
6 strips bacon
6 fresh dill sprigs


Take the cabbage, remove the outer leaves, cut their thick centre vein out and blanch the leaves in boiling water, then drain and pat dry.

Chop up the heart of the cabbage and save to add to the sauerkraut.

In a saucepan, sauté the onion, garlic and cooked rice for 4-5 minutes, until golden.

Dip the bread slice in a bowl of water and then squeeze it to remove excess water.

Put the minced meat in a bowl and add the bread and the onion and rice mix to meat. Stir well. Add the spices and 2 tbsp. water. Mix well.

In another bowl, mix 3 cups water with the juice of the sauerkraut (you will need to strain the sauerkraut for this) – cup will do, add the flavour enhancer, peppercorns and bay leaves.

Mix the sauerkraut, rinsed with cold water, with the chopped cabbage.

Spread about a tablespoon of the meat mixture, or more depending on the size of the leaf, onto each cabbage leaf, roll it up and tuck the ends under to seal the roll. Continue until all meat is used up.

Oil a large casserole with lid and cover the bottom with a layer o the sauerkraut mixture. Place 3 strips of bacon over the sauerkraut. Cover with a layer of cabbage rolls. Repeat and finish with a final layer of sauerkraut. Spread the fresh dill over the last layer and pour the rest of the olive oil on top and finally the sauerkraut juice mixture over the whole casserole.

You may want to spread a few of the tougher, outer leaves of the cabbage to cover the casserole and keep moisture in.

Place the casserole over high heat on stovetop until the sauce starts to bubble. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, pre-heat the oven to 375°F/190°C and cook covered for 1.5 hours in the oven. Don't worry about overcooking – the more it cooks, the better it tastes.

Serve hot with thick whole yoghurt or sour cream ladeled on top, accompanied by mamaliga (polenta) or boiled potatoes.

Pofta buna!

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