While grapes may get most of the attention in the U.S., for Palestinians, “grape leaves are prized as much as the fruit,” says Palestinian food writer and cookbook author Reem Kassis. Though grapes are utilized to make a variety of foods in Palestinian cuisine, like hosrum (a pungent, sour condiment) or dibs (grape molasses), the leaves demand a much higher price because they’re the critical ingredient in warak dawali, stuffed grape leaves. In a typical season, the leaves can sell for five times the price of grapes themselves.
The dish is one part of a broad family tree of vegetarian and meaty stuffed vegetable dishes dating back 500 years to the Ottoman Empire, including versions of stuffed grape leaves across the region. In comparison to other Mediterranean variations like Greek dolmas, which are short and fat, warak dawali are rolled long and thin, approximately one centimeter in diameter. Like other Palestinian dishes, which carry meaning for community members living in the diaspora, stuffed grape leaves have become a labor of love for many Palestinian home cooks around the world.
Grape leaves are the first step in the multipart harvest that takes place on Palestinian vineyards each spring and summer. This year, the later stages of that harvest were cut short by the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas. The fighting and the generations of violence that preceded it are complex, and fruits such as grapes hold a difficult position within that history; agricultural areas have served as sites of violence, even as foods utilizing those crops have helped Palestinians maintain cultural traditions.
In talking to Palestinians who grow and enjoy grapes, nearly everyone has a recipe to share. This recipe is inspired by Habib and Minerva Daoud, owners of two restaurants in Israel serving Galilean cuisine: Kabakeh in Jaffa and Ezba in Rameh.
Much of the latest war between Israel and Hamas has centered on Gaza, but violence has spread to the West Bank as well, raising questions about whether the vast majority of Palestinian vineyards, which are based in the area, can survive. While the loss of a field, a business, or a recipe is incomparable to the loss of human life, the land, traditions, and people of Palestine and Israel are wrapped up together in conflict. Warak dawali is not a solution to violence, but it is one recipe that allows Palestinian families to preserve their traditions.
Note: Grape leaves are in season at the beginning of summer. The preserved version can be found year-round in the international foods aisle or at Middle Eastern grocery stores.
Warak Dawali, Vegetarian (Vegan) Stuffed Grape Leaves Recipe
Serves 3 to 4 as a main dish or 6 to 8 as a side or appetizer
About 50 grape leaves, fresh or preserved in brine (approximately 200 grams)
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more for oiling the pot
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 heaping cup medium-grain rice
½ cup finely chopped parsley, packed
¼ cup finely chopped mint packed,
½ cup currants or raisins (currants are preferable because they are smaller and less sweet than raisins, but if you can’t find them then raisins will do)
½ tablespoon table salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon black pepper
1-2 medium tomatoes, sliced to ½-inch thickness
2 cups vegetable stock or lightly salted water, plus more as needed
⅓ cup lemon juice (from 1-2 lemons)
Step 1: Prepare the grape leaves: If you’re able to find fresh grape leaves, blanch the fresh leaves in simmering water for 5 minutes. For preserved grape leaves, gently remove the leaves from the jar, discard the liquid, and place in a large bowl. (If the leaves come stacked with the stems aligned, trim the stems as described in step 3.) Fill the bowl with water, agitate the leaves to remove the brine and separate one from another, being careful not to tear them. Pour the water out and repeat the rinsing process once more. Then soak the leaves for 15 minutes in room temperature water.
Step 2: While the leaves are soaking, begin preparing the filling. In a medium saute pan, saute the diced onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil on medium-high heat until the onions are soft and translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook, stirring, for another 30 seconds until fragrant.
Step 3: Combine the sauteed onions and garlic in a medium bowl with the dry rice, remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, parsley, mint, currants (or raisins), salt, cinnamon, and pepper.
Step 4: When the grape leaves are done soaking, drain them and use scissors to trim the short stems as close to the leaf as possible without tearing the leaf. Save any torn leaves to line the pot in which you’ll cook the grape leaves.
Step 5: Brush the bottom and sides of a 4- to 6-quart pot with olive oil. Cover the bottom with 5-10 grape leaves, using any torn leaves. Then place the sliced tomatoes on the bottom of the pot in an even layer.
Step 6: To roll the grape leaves, lay a leaf on your work surface, vein side up, with the stem-end closest to you. Use about 1 teaspoon of filling per medium-sized leaf (approximately 5 inches in diameter). Adjust the filling based on the leaf size. Don’t fill too much since the rice will expand while cooking. In Palestine, stuffed grape leaves are rolled long and thin —approximately one centimeter in diameter before cooking — in comparison to Greek dolmas, which are short and fat.
Step 7: Spread the rice mixture into a thin line along the base of the leaf, leaving space around the edges. Roll like a small burrito: fold the sides inward over the filling, then roll away from you, tucking in the sides as you go. Make sure not to roll too tightly so the rice has room to expand while it cooks.
Step 8: Arrange the rolled grape leaves in the pot, seam side down, either in a concentric pattern or simply in rows one next to the other.
Step 9: Place a small plate on top of the grape leaves to ensure that the grape leaves don’t float while they cook. Then add the broth or salted water and lemon juice until it comes to the level of the plate.
Step 10: Cover the pot with a lid and bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Then reduce the temperature to low and simmer for 45 to 60 minutes until the liquid is gone, or until the rice is tender when a grapeleaf is opened and tested.
Step 11: Let the pot rest for 30 minutes, and then flip it onto a serving platter. To do so, place a large plate or tray over the pot. Using one hand to hold the plate to the pot and another to hold the pot from the bottom (use pot holders so you don’t burn yourself), quickly flip the pot over. Tap the bottom of the pot so the grape leaves invert onto the serving plate. If the liquid in the pot hasn’t evaporated, you can also serve the grape leaves directly from the pot with tongs.
Step 12: Remove the grape leaves that were used to line the pot and serve with mezze dips and spreads, like tzatziki, labneh, tahini, and hummus. The grape leaves can also be made in advance and served at room temperature.
Adam Sella is a journalist based in Tel Aviv covering Israel and Palestine. He’s written about topics ranging from food and the environment to war and conflict.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Ivy Manning