15 steps to the perfect Balkan sour cabbage sarma

15 steps to the perfect Balkan sour cabbage sarma

This winter dish is pure comfort food in the Balkans, stuffed with tender meat and rice

Sarma, sour cabbage rolls stuffed with minced beef
Sarma, a Balkan dish of cabbage rolls stuffed with minced beef, is made of fermented cabbage Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

While now a massive trend, fermentation has been traditionally used in the Balkans for centuries as a way to preserve fruits and vegetables, and a way of surviving long, cold winters. Living in a sunny Dubai now, Balkan residents (expatriates from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia) here still continue the tradition, using fermented products in various recipes for the fruitiness, acidity and umami they bring to dishes.

Sarma is a classic example of this process and a Balkan staple for lunches, dinners and celebrations, made with slight variations in different countries across the region. It’s similar to a Turkish dolma. Typical filings include rice or bulghur or broken wheat, minced meat and various herbs, while typical wrappings include cabbage, vine or Swiss chard, served with a side of potatoes.

This version made by head chef Urosh Mitrasinovic of the restaurant 21Grams is served with crispy beef bacon and a filling of minced beef, and a wrapping of cabbage leaves. Bomba rice is used, as it contains less starch.

Preparation time: 45 min

Cooking time: 40 min

Yield: 30pcs


700gm onion, finely diced

250gm carrot, finely grated

150gm celery, finely grated

100gm beef bacon, diced

20gm garlic, finely chopped

1500gm minced beef (30 per cent fat - meat with good fat marbling)

100gm Bomba rice

10gm paprika

Salt and pepper, to taste

30pcs sour cabbage leaves, available in most hypermarkets

0.5l stock

50gm butter

50gm flour


1. To a wide pot, add the onion, carrot, celery and bacon.

Step 1 Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/GN

2. Sauté until the onion is translucent, then add the garlic.

Step 2 Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/GN

3. Once all the liquid evaporates, add the minced beef to the mixture.

Step 3 Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/GN

4. Add the rice.

Step 4 Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/GN

5. Add the paprika.

Step 5 Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/GN

6. Add the seasonings - be generous with the salt as the rice will absorb a lot of it.

Step 6 Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/GN

7. Cook the rice on a low heat, gradually adding a bit of vegetable stock. Once the rice is half cooked, get it off the heat.

Step 7 Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/GN

8. Spread out the sour cabbage leaves - trim the roots that are too thick, as this will help you to roll them easier. On the root of each of the leaves put 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture.

Step 8 Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/GN

9. Fold the sides of the leaves one over the other covering the meat. If there’s meat exposed, reopen the roll and remove some of the filling, then refold.

Step 9 Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/GN

10. Roll each of the cabbage leaves from the bottom of the root to the top.

11. Place the sarma rolls in a shallow baking pan, and add water to cover 1/3rd of the pan, along with some paprika.

Step 11 Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

12. Bake without the lid on at 180° C for 40 minutes. After, preserve the stock to make a sauce.

Step 12 Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

13. To prepare the sarma sauce, make a white roux. Add the butter and flour to a pan on medium high heat and whisk vigorously until you have a creamy texture and the butter and flour are incorporated, about a minute.

14. Add the reserve liquid from the sarma rolls and mix, then simmer on low heat for about 5-6 minutes. This helps ensure the intensity of the sauerkraut’s acidity remains, while a slight caramelisation happens. Season the sauce with paprika, salt and pepper.

Step 14 Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/GN

15. Serve the cabbage rolls with crispy beef bacon or any other cured meat, along with the sarma sauce.

Sarma, sour cabbage rolls stuffed with minced beef
Sarma with sauce

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