Friday, August 9, 2013

How to Make Palestinian Rolled Grape Leaves, or Waraqa Dawali

We are back from a nice long visit with my family in Michigan.  The trip was glorious, full of excellent food, and plenty of sun and lake adventure.  My mother, the most talented Rhoda, bossed me around in the kitchen, taught me a great deal, actually measured her ingredients, and waited patiently for me to photograph food.  She was such a trooper.  The first dish that I asked her to teach me how to make was this dish, rolled grape leaves.  I have helped her make it several other times before, but this time I took notes.  

Stuffed grape leaves are something to get excited about.  The lemony flavor of  Palestinian grape leaves, cooked until tender and stuffed with a spiced rice and meat mixture, served with a squeeze of lemon juice and a bowl of yogurt - who can resists them?  Most Americans are probably familiar with the Greek version of this dish, dolma, which are also delicious but flavored differently.  Waraqa dawali, which means "rolled leaves" is usually prepared with another dish, stuffed squash, or cousa mahshi

What is Food?  And Other Foraging Questions

I learned the hard way that when I go on a walk with my mother, I carry a bag.  Because she is going to find food.  And it is really awkward to walk for an hour carrying a massive stack of grape leaves. 

My mother is a natural forager.  She goes on a walk in the Michigan countryside and comes home with handfuls of blackberries, sprigs of wild herbs.  She can spot a wild grapevine anywhere.  She used to amaze my American grandmother by going for a morning walk in their neighborhood in Michigan and coming back with grape leaves, which she prepared for dinner.  What is this, Marilyn?  my grandfather would ask.  Oh, your daughter-in-law picked some leaves today and made them into dinner.  They would all have a good laugh and then eat up.

What I love about this dish is that it forces us to ask ourselves:  what is food?  Are leaves food? What is the difference between a cabbage leaf and the leaf of a grape vine?  If one plant's leaves are food, why not another?  When I think of how little of the earth's bounty we deem to be "food," it seems that we must be missing so much variety and nutrition.

There is something truthful in the way that traditional peoples have sought out food.  While I appreciate the earth as a place of wild beauty, they have seen it as the source of nourishment.  Just as my eyes roam over the grocery store bins to find something good to eat, my mother's mother, my teta's eyes would roam over the wild plants along our path in the hills of Palestine.  Look, its artichoke!  Wild thyme!  You can eat this, she would say to me, and then she would dig it up and wrap it in a bag to take home.  As a teenager, I was amused, but also impressed.  Where I saw weeds, she saw food. 

Finding Grape Leaves
Wild grapevines near my parents' house in Michigan

If you are fortunate enough to live near a vineyard, or have wild grapevines growing in your woods (Look for them!  You might be surprised!) then you can pick the leaves yourself and enjoy fresh grape leaves for dinner.  When you pick the leaves, pick ones that are medium-sized, free of holes, and relatively young-looking.  A good rule of thumb is to count the two newest leaves at the end of the vine, then pick the next three leaves, and then move on to another vine.  The best time of year to pick grape leaves is early to mid summer, before the leaves become too tough, but you can certainly pick later than that. 

If you don't have access to fresh grape leaves, you can find jars of grape leaves at Middle Eastern or Mediterranean markets, or even at larger grocery stores.  You will need to rinse and flatten them before proceeding with the recipe.

Preserving Grape Leaves

Strawberry-Banana Tapuzina?  What is that?
If you have access to grape leaves, consider picking a large batch and storing them for later use.  You can freeze the grape leaves, or pickle them for a great boost in gut-building probiotics (Nourishing Traditions has a recipe for this), or you can dry store them. 

I find the dry store method fascinating.  All you have to do is clean and dry your leaves,  roll a small stack of leaves and stuff them into a jar (I would use a glass Mason jar).  Stuff as many leaves as you can into a jar, packing as tightly as possible, and seal up the jar.  Store this in a dark place for a year or longer.  The grape leaves will darken, but they will still be tasty.  Once you break the seal, you must use all of the grape leaves at once or freeze them.  You will need to rinse and blanch them and flatten them out, and work carefully with them because they are fragile. 

Throughout the West Bank, villagers sell plastic bottles stuffed with grape leaves.  My mother gave me this one. 

Waraqa Dawali, or Palestinian Stuffed Grape Leaves

40-50 grape leaves

1 cup rice, soaked, rinsed and drained
1/2 lb grassfed ground beef or lamb
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp allspice
2 tbsp olive oil

Seasoned stock (chicken, lamb, beef) or water, enough to cover

1.Before you make your grape leaves, make sure that your leaves are clean, and the stems are removed.  Blanch the grape leaves for four to five minutes until they are tender but still firm enough to roll. 

2. Mix together the rice and meat stuffing.  Line the bottom of your pot with grape leaves to prevent sticking.

3.  Roll your grape leaves (see tutorial below)

4.  Pack your grape leave in tightly into a heavy pot, seam side down, creating a new layer when necessary.  Pour in enough stock or water to reach the top of the grape leaves.  Whether you use stock or water, make sure to add a little salt to taste.  If you like, you can place an inverted plate on top, and weigh it down with something heavy, to prevent the grape leaves from unfurling. 

5.  Bring to a simmer and cook for an hour to an hour and a half, or until the grape leaves are very tender. 

To Serve:  Squeeze some fresh lemon juice over your grape leaves and serve with a bowl of plain, whole yogurt for dipping. 


A Few Other Suggestions

*Turn this into a meal:  brown pieces of chicken, beef or lamb, season with salt and pepper, and layer into the pot.  It will also make the grape leaves extra delicious.  If you do this, you can use water instead of stock.  If you are not using meat, I would highly recommend using stock as the cooking liquid. 
*Make a little extra stuffing and add in a few stuffed peppers and tomatoes.
*Layer slices of tomato for extra flavor.

Tutorial:  How to Roll Grape Leaves

Start with washed grape leaves.

Boil for five minutes, or until tender.  Arrange into stacks, facing the same direction.

The leaves have a smooth side and a side with raised ribs.  Make sure the ribbed side is facing up.  Then place one teaspoon of the filling on the leaf, and shape it like a small log.  If you're like me, you'll be tempted to over stuff it.  Try to resist.  My mother made me reduce my stuffing on my first several attempts. 

Fold over the base of the leaf, pressing down tightly.

Turn the sides in.

Roll as tightly as you can.

Place seam side down in your pot, packing in your leaves tightly.  Follow the recipe above, and soon you will be able to dig into this: 


May this dish double your health.

Related Posts:

*Stuffed Sweet Peppers and Tomatoes

*Stuffed Summer Squash, or Cousa Mahshi

*How to Make Yogurt


  1. Great Tutorial! I wish I had access to fresh grape leaves :(

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  3. i am sooooooo glad i found your blog!!

  4. A great recipe I can't wait to try out. I love Stuffed Grape Leaves and those adventurous enough to try them! I wish more would.

    I came up with my own version of a Stuffed Grape Leaves, inline with an Arab style. While different from your own, I think mine is a unique take on the dish. I'm new to the Food Blog scene and would love some feedback from a pro like you. Check out my recipe if have time.

  5. My mother used to make this, and it was always made the day more special when she did. I have a question, if I used jarred leaves (the ones you buy in Lebanese stores and come packed in a liquid) do I have to use the whole jar once it is opened? Is there a way to store them? They were quite expensive, and I don't want to waste them.

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  7. My cousin married into a wonderful Palestinian family. They taught me to make dishes using grape leaves. Over the ywars I added my own touch. I use a rice/lamb mixture. When i cook them I add pieces of chicken(legs and thighs) on top of the rolls and add a can of diced tomatos and simmer for a few hours. The chicken fat adds a nice flsver and texture. But lately my grape leaves I buy have heavy thick veins. No matter what i do they come out hard to chew, even just biting into them is tough. Any suggestions?


Trying this recipe? A question or a comment? I'd love to hear from you!