I recently worked myself up to a full-blown migraine just dreaming of Iraqi dolma. It was 1:30AM, after all four Iraqi restaurants in my neighbourhood had shut. So instead, I tortured myself with dolma recipes in the cookbooks strewn across my bed.
Why fuss over stuffed vine leaves? Because dolma served in Iraqi restaurants across the city is never just stuffed vine leaves. Vine leaves are the delicate and well-toned rice and meat bundles slick with olive oil. They are the petite and presentable finger food that completes the pretty mosaic of mezze on many Lebanese tables across the city.
There is nothing petite about Iraqi dolma at all. It arrives as a platter of voluptuous vegetables, curvy and bulging, visibly sweating with the juices of lamb chops over which it had been braised. Tomatoes, marrow, capsicum and eggplant are cored and stuffed with a generously peppered trio of rice, minced meat and tomato paste. Onions are slit at one side, the layers peeled apart and then wrapped around the same rice and meat stuffing like silky white cocoons. Vine leaves make an appearance too, but rather than chirping with high-pitched lemon, they hum the sonorous baritone of something that has bedded with juicy meat for hours on the stove.
Dolma as I have seen it on Iraqi restaurant menus is no longer at the level of miniature mezze. It is a full-blown adult main course preceded by the customary salad, pickles and lentil soup that the restaurant will price into your meal whether you choose it or not. I wish they would not. It hurts to pay 65 dirhams for a plate of stuffed vegetables.
The Arabic word for a dish of stuffed vegetables is ‘mahshi.’ However, the Turkish word for stuffed, dolma, replaced mahshi and came into popular use during the Ottoman era. Both words are now used for this traditional home-cooked dish, which accordingly to my favourite Iraqi food historian Nawal Nasrallah, is often prepared in a large pot reserved exclusively for simmering layers of stuffed vegetables. The base of the pot is usually lined with lamb chops, followed by a handful of fava beans and then an assembly of stuffed vegetables starting off with the onion cocoons, then cored capsicum, marrow, eggplant and tomatoes, and finally the stuffed leaves. Hot simmering salty water is poured into the crevices and sometimes the cook will cap the layers off with flatbread. The flavours are left to marry over low heat for forty five minutes, after which the pot is inverted onto a platter so that the juicy bread lands first and the braised meat and caramelized onions crown the top.
My introduction to dolma was at my first Iraqi love, at Bait Al Baghdadi’s Dubai branch on Muteena Road. The chef is a passionate, proud Iraqi who was always willing to teach me about speciality dishes like paacheh (offal stew over soaked bread) and lamb stewed with onions and cheyma (desert truffles). True to its name (The Baghdadi Home), the baker and servers treated me like family—laughing, teasing, monkeying around with my istikhan of black tea and forever urging me to eat more to attain the curvaceous figure required to prove that I loved food. A few years ago, the street corner caught fire and the restaurant burnt to a crisp. Thankfully my friends were unharmed. But Deira had lost one of its most treasured Iraqi institutions and I was heartbroken.
Rather than switch to their Sharjah branch, I have waited patiently for Bait Al Baghdadi to return to the city. With every passing year, it seems less likely. There is a growing number of Iraqi restaurants in Dubai, but the difference is about eating in someone’s home rather than at a restaurant. While I have eaten around the block, I still haven’t fully moved on.
Earlier this month, I ordered a lunchtime delivery of dolma from one of the recent Iraqi additions on Rigga Road called Al Zaem. It arrived looking rather dull. Dolma is never one to look spectacular because the vegetables are slow-cooked until their color fades and their skins wrinkle. A takeout container does it even less justice. This is a blessing in my books, because I’d rather that no one feels inspired to ask for a taste. I will certainly not offer to share.
Fava beans had stewed along with the vegetables, their membranes crinkled, their flesh softened and nutty like roasted chestnuts. A thin sheet of bread sat expectantly under the dolma, instantly snapping up any drippings of the tomato and meat braising liquid that escaped the stuffed vegetables. A singular lamb chop was tucked into the side as proof that the dolma had been cooked in the traditional way over braising meat. With every juicy, satisfying bite of stuffed onion, capsicum, vine leaf and marrow, I felt the bittersweet emotions of lovers that must part in a few hours – I desperately wanted to be present and happy in the moment, but my overanxious mind was already projecting itself to the empty sadness of being alone. I counted down the pieces and yanked my fingers away at half time, sealing the box and willing it to not open again until dinner time.
If only I had the patience to prepare dolma at home. It is a painstaking labour of love, which is why I grudgingly pony up the cash whenever I crave stuffed vegetables. Coring, wrapping and stuffing in a traditional Middle Eastern kitchen sounds very romantic, but the experience is best captured by a saying that my mother hammered into her kitchen wall: ‘I started off by sinking into his arms – and ended up with my arms in the sink.’