In this episode of “Cooking with Grandma”, Tatev and her grandmother make an all-time favorite from Armenia: Tolma- meat stuffed into some kind of vegetable (bell pepper, tomato, eggplant) or wrapped in a leaf (vine leaf or cabbage), cooked in a very, very big pot.
How you pronounce Tolma, or Dolma, depends on which part of the Caucasus you are from and also what your family used to call it when you were growing up. There has been a long running debate regarding the origins of Tolma. Does it come from Armenia, Georgia or Turkey? Or perhaps some other region of the world? Because of this, it was difficult to decide whether I wanted to present Tolma as a traditional Armenian food or not. Օn the other hand it was easy to choose, it is the one food that I remember being present throughout my life and it also has a special association with my grandmother. Every time she visited us, it meant it was Tolma for dinner. Tolma with vine leaves and meat in winter, Tolma with cabbage leaves and meat in spring and autumn, Tolma with vegetables and meat in summer. My grandma sometimes even prepares Tolma with various grains instead of meat. Prepared like this, it’s called Lent Tolma.
Having a big family made my grandma’s work harder; she had to prepare a lot of Tolmas so that everyone would get enough to eat. From my childhood I remember this big silver pot that my mum would take out of storage when grandma was coming, and I remember how patiently my grandma would fill this big pot with lots of Tolma which seemed to be in infinite supply.
So what does Tolma mean and how does one prepare it? “Tolma” is a word that has Urartu language roots; “toli” and “ma” mean “vine leaf” and “wrapped” respectively, while “Dolma” is considered to be a verbal noun of the Turkish verb “dolmak”, which means “to be stuffed”.
Preparation of the Tolma depends on the season; during the summer one can cook all types at once. You need minced beef with onions, as well as rice, vegetables, salt and pepper. Then fresh cabbage and vine leaves (which have to be boiled first), peppers, tomatoes and eggplants, for wrapping the meat. Although Tolma is very simple to make, it takes patience and skill; one has to be tender and caring towards every leaf and vegetable! The most noticeable differences between Tolmas is which spices are used. Of course, this depends on which location you come from…
Tolma is very popular here in Armenia, to the extent that there is an annual Tolma festival held in the country. Each region presents its Tolma for the festival. These festivals bring lots of attention to the region and there is lots of media coverage. There are so many different types that there is even a ‘Top Five’ Tolma list, which includes Vine Leaf Tolma, Echmiadzin Tolma (with cabbage and other vegetables), Lent Tolma, Yerevan Tolma (like Echmiadzin Tolma but with the addition of quince), and Mush Tolma, made of chopped meat and bulgur.
But every variety of Tolma prepared by my Grandma is the tastiest and the best!