We learn how to cook from our families; we roast, boil, bake our way through our personal histories every day. This makes the food we eat a powerful measure of time and history and identity. The ways we cook in diaspora are different because we integrate new ingredients, cultures, methods. Within a generation our food becomes wholly different yet still part of the same thread within a narrative.
When I say I'm Iraqi American it's only because I don't have the language to express how my complex identities create something new in me. My friend, Pedrum, was recently telling me how much he admires the Chicano Movement of the 1960s. That the term "Chicano" transforms how we look at identity, history, culture in and through migration. We have yet to give language to our own new identities as the children of Middle Eastern immigrants and yet we experience it.
The work of my friend and Iraqi food blogger Yasemin of Fig Tree Roots resonates with me in this way. She, too, is an Iraqi in diaspora; and the ways in which her blog reflects this new identity -- merging recipes and methods and stories in migration; as well as, romanticizing those of our own migrational histories -- doesn't need explanation, you see it in the recipes themselves. A few weeks ago we inspired one another to each post on the same Iraqi recipe and write how it tells a story within our own families. And since Iraqi Dolma is, perhaps, the single most important Iraqi dish in the diaspora, we easily chose it. [You can find her Iraqi Dolma post HERE.]
For me, Dolma has been a vital way in which I connect to my Iraqi heritage.
When we were children, my mother would labor all day, sometimes two or three days depending on her schedule, stuffing every vegetable: onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini, grape leaves, cabbage leaves. She would even roll beef fat dolmas that my aunt calls fat rolls. She'd layer meat or fresh fava beans, then the stuffed vegetables by order of cooking time, with the longest cook times at the bottom of the pot. My favorite part of my mother's dolma is how sour it is, with lots of sumac and lemon. Her dolma is a mixture of both "clear" and "red" as the tomato paste from the meat and rice stuffing would turn the dolma red. My dad used to argue that his mother made hers even redder, and thus best -- everyone's mother's dolma is the best to them -- but my mother would always win because, after all, she was the one cooking and complaints can stay out the door.
When I was maybe seven or eight, my mom decidedly took me and my two brothers to this beach we used to call the "142 Step Beach" because we counted 142 steps down from the parking lot to the beach. This beach was covered in these smooth, oval stones. One summer afternoon we were sent on mission to help her find the perfect Dolma Stone. We'd meticulously judge stones that we would bring to her for evaluation, either "too light" or "too round" until we found the perfect one. I don't remember who exactly found the one, it was probably her. My mother still uses that perfect stone to this day, placing it on top of a downward facing dinner plate atop the large pot of dolma sitting on the stove, its weight putting the desired pressure on the dolma to cook just right, on low, for what, as kids, felt like almost all day.
Once it was finished cooking the time would come for the Dolma Flip. She had carefully picked out a specific Dolma Pot, Dolma Stone, and Dolma Serving Plate: important purchases in the diaspora. She'd place the large serving plate on top of the pot, grab both sides of the pot with towels, making sure to also hold down the plate, and then flip it towards her as we would cheer at how perfectly she'd do it all: the perfect mountain before it all came tumbling down and around. We, as kids, lived for that flip.
And now, in my thirties, I have found my own way with dolma. I definitely do not make it nearly as delicious as my mother -- to have her dolma means visiting her, which, yes, I should do more often, because, obviously, my mother's dolma is the best. Even my baba requested a Dolma Cake rather than a traditional cake for his 70th birthday, in which we placed candles in the center of the mountain and sang.
The way I make my dolma in the whole story of my existence is to make it vegan, and then top it with yogurt once it's plated. Cooking meat for me is an event; I don't usually do it. And I don't make nearly as much dolma my mother makes, feeding us for a week. But that is the point.
In diaspora our recipes change; and that is such an inherently deep reflection of the intergenerational culinary transformations of immigration.
It tells the story of Iraqis in Los Angeles when I stuff poblano peppers or use cilantro in the stuffing or that it's, yes, vegan.
When Yasemin and I planned this project -- in which we both post the same recipe simultaneously on our blogs -- I thought I'd use my mother's recipe. Yet, if I were to tell the story of my own life it would have to reflect this new identity in the diaspora.
Iraqi Dolma in Diaspora
Serves 4-8, depending on the company you keep
- 4 cups of white basmati rice, rinsed and soaked for at least 30 minutes
- 8 roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped
- 2 bunches of flat parsley, coarsely chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1 can of tomato paste (or more)
- about 1/3 cup pomegranate molasses (or more, to taste)
- about 1/2 cup lemon juice (i almost always have a jar of juiced lemons)
- a dash of extra virgin olive oil
- sumac, quite a bit
- salt, to taste
- (note: you'll need to reserve the inside of your cored vegetables, too. see below)
vegetables, to be stuffed:
- 2-3 onions
- about 10-12 baby bell peppers
- 2-3 small tomatoes
- 4-6 baby eggplant
- 4 small zucchini (I used Mexican squash in the photo
- about 10-12 grape leaves
- water + 1 1/2 cups of lemon juice, to barely cover the stuffed vegetables when pressed down with a plate
- Organization is key, so make sure you have a nice comfortable station whether on the counter or on a table. You'll need a big bowl for the stuffing mixture; a medium-large stock pot for cooking; and a bowl for usually discarded parts of the cored vegetables (you want to keep those).
- Soak the rice first so it'll be ready when you're done coring.
- ONIONS: Peel the onions. Make a slit length-wise less than halfway through -- don't go through the center. Place the onions in a microwave safe bowl, then in the microwave for no more than 2 minutes. This is the fastest, most efficient way. You can also boil the onions until just a bit tender. Then immediately rush them to a cold water bath. Then carefully take the first 4 or 5 layers off each onion. Those will be for stuffing. Save the rest of the onion for the stuffing in a discard bowl.
- BELL PEPPERS: Slice the tops off. Save tops if you want to cover the stuffed pepper for visual appeal but not necessary. All you have to do is rinse the inside to make sure there are no seeds.
- TOMATOES: Slice the tops off, save, tomatoes need their hats. Remove the inside of the tomatoes carefully. Save the insides in the discard bowl, along with the remaining onion.
- EGGPLANT AND ZUCCHINI: Slice the tops off. [Only If you couldn't find small enough vegetables, cut them in half, too, so they are manageable.] Save the insides in the discard bowl, along with the remaining tomatoes and onions.
- GRAPE LEAVES: Delicately handle. Separate and keep in a cool water bath to rinse.
- In a food processor, work the Roma tomatoes, parsley, garlic, and contents of the discard bowl.
- Drain the rice well.
- Add the mixture from the food processor into the rice and mix.
- Add the tomato paste, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, and olive oil to the rice. Mix.
- Add generous amounts of sumac. Add salt to taste. Mix.
THE PROCESS/ LAYER ORDER IS IMPORTANT:
- At your station you should have the empty cooking pot to your left, a bowl with the stuffing in front of you, a bowl of cored vegetables to your right, and a small bowl of grape leaves.
- Add a thin layer of olive oil to the bottom of your cooking pot.
- Begin by stuffing the onions. Add them to the bottom of the pot.
- Then stuff the eggplants and zucchini, add to the pot.
- Then stuff the baby bell peppers, add to the pot.
- Then stuff the tomatoes, add to the pot.
- Then roll the grape leaves, add to the pot.
- Press everything firmly down.
- Take the Dolma Pot to the stove.
- Add a mixture of water and lemon juice to the pot so that ONLY when you press the vegetables down firmly does the water then barely cover the vegetables. The liquid from the vegetables will come out later so you don't want to add too much extra liquid.
- Place a dinner plate downwards on the vegetables. This helps put pressure on the vegetables.
- Cover with the pot lid.
- Bring to a boil for about 5 minutes. Then simmer on low for about 40 minutes.
- The onions will caramelize at the bottom so be careful not to burn them.
- Remove lid and plate.
- If there is still red liquid in the pot when it's done, carefully drain that liquid.
- OPTIONAL: Take the extra red liquid and cook it in a small sauce pot with garlic confit, to pour over the dolma once it's served -- so yummy!
- Place a really big serving plate on top of the pot and carefully flip the dolma onto the plate. Make sure to keep the pot on the plate until the plate is on the table so that it's safe!
NOTE: I did not flip the dolma in the photos, because flipped dolma isn't always very photogenic!
- OPTIONAL: Top the plated dolma with yogurt, kefir, or labneh!