Sarmale (sar-moll-ayy) is a typical Moldovan dish, that also appears in many other parts of the world in slightly different varieties. Sarmale and similar dishes are common in countries of the former Ottoman Empire, from the Middle East, to the Balkans and central Europe. Below is a round-up of some countries where Sarmale is a common traditional dish.
In Turkey, the word “sarma” is used interchangeably with “dolma” for stuffed leaves or cabbage. Both are served with yogurt and generally contain minced meat (beef, veal, lamb) and are served hot. The filling of sarma in Turkey usually contains rice, herbs, onion, currants and pine nuts, herbs such as parsley and dill, and several spices including cinnamon and black pepper.
In continental parts of Croatia, sarma is identical to the Bosnian type, and includes rice and minced meat, as well as dried smoked beef. However, in Dalmatia, there is a special subtype known asarambašići (named after Turkish soldiers — harambaše). The stuffing of arambašići does not include rice, the meat is diced (rather than minced), and spices include lemon, cinnamon, cloves and muscat nuts. Unlike that of predominantly Muslim regions, sarma in Croatia is cooked in a pot with dry pork, prosciutto bone or sausages. It is traditionally served on New Year’s Eve and weddings.
In Serbia sarma is cooked the same way as in Croatia, by using sauerkraut leaves, ground meat, rice and seasonings. Sarma rolls are slowly simmered for a long time in large pots with lard and layers of smoked pork, seasoned with Vegeta (vegetable seasoning), bay leaves and paprika. Some family recipes include finishing sarma by baking it in oven which gives it distinctive flavor. Sarma is one of the staple meals for festive occasions like Christmas, New Year, Easter, birthdays, family saint patron’s day (slava) etc. Also, there are various Serbian recipes of sarma prepared in accordance to Orthodox Christian religious restrictions on using meat and animal fat during period of Lent. Lenten sarma is usually stuffed with rice, shredded carrots, onions, seasonings, occasionally walnuts or even chunks of smoked fish, and cooked in water and vegetable oil.
Sarma is also cooked by Italians who were exiled from Dalmatia after World War II, especially those who now live in northwestern Italy.
Unlike other Eastern European cultures, the people of Southeastern Europe overwhelmingly use sour cabbage as opposed to fresh cabbage. At the end of the autumn, families traditionally prepare the sour cabbage (as whole cabbage, or as individual leaves, but not shredded) for sarma-making.
The most common type of sarmale I have encountered in Moldova is cabbage leaves or peppers, stuffed with seasoned rice, mixed with chopped peppers, carrots and a few other vegetables and then baked in oil for a few hours. Sometimes the sarmale here has meat also mixed into this rice stuffing, but in general it does not and is usually quite oily. In Moldova sarmale is typically served with sour cream to dip it in.