Rediscovering Palestinian Cuisine

Warak Dawali: Stuffed Grape Leaves

Warak Dawali: Stuffed Grape Leaves

Warak (leaves) dawali (grape vine) is what you may more commonly know as dolmas (the Turkish word for fill or stuff). Warak dawali is the Palestinian version, and instead of dolma, our word for stuffed is mashi. The fact is, we love to stuff everything: eggplant, courgette, cabbage, tomato, potato, collard greens, bell peppers, squash, marrows, and whole chickens. And in Palestinian society, being a good mashi cook is a badge of honor–often an indicator of your readiness to cook for your husband and household. I don’t know exactly what it is about one’s ability to core a vegetable that brings such joy to Palestinian mother-in-laws, but no sense in questioning it. Mashi = marriage material. Somehow, I escaped the marriage part but still make a mean mashi and can roll a grape leaf as though I spent my life working in a cigar factory. Interestingly, my brother also has a talent for rolling grape leaves, so, ladies, put him to work!

 It’s unclear where in the Eastern Mediterranean stuffed vegetables originated, but what’s for certain is this dish is pre-Ottoman, meaning vegetables were being stuffed all over the Arab world and Mediterranean for centuries before Turkish rule. Warak dawali is the crowing glory of the mashi, and hugely popular throughout the Middle East and in the Balkan countries as well.

Traditional warak dawali is stuffed with spiced minced meat and rice, but there are dozens of vegetarian/vegan iterations that include rice, herbs, green onions, and chickpea filling. The dish is typically made on Sundays or for special occasions, since it is quite labor intensive. The recipe here is simple and the stuffing takes five minutes to make. However, the majority of your time will be spent on rolling. While I’m sure even one Palestinian grandmother would have done this in half the time, it took three of us about 1.5 hours to roll 120+ leaves. This endeavor was fueled by wine, cheese, and a soundtrack by Amer Diab, Nancy Ajram, and other modern greats. Sure, Alex might have been driven to the brink of insanity by the Arabic dance party that occurred halfway through rolling, and the neighbors *might* have considered calling Homeland Security, but absolutely no friendships were lost during the making of these delicacies. We are now bound in solidarity by warak dawali.

**Have a large pot ready to receive the vine leaves, or as in our case, a dutch oven. Because our hedonism knows no bounds, we cooked our warak with a French rack of lamb on the bottom. This is optional but really rounds out the flavor. Remember to place a plate on top of the warak as they cook, which will keep them from floating to the top and ensure the stuffing is cooked evenly. When finished, you will turn the pot upside down onto a platter, much the way it’s done with maqloubeh, making a beautiful centerpiece for the meal.


To line the pot:
Extra or torn grape leaves
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
4 lamb chops or 1 French rack, separated (optional)

To cook:
1-2 jars of grape leaves preserved in brine (or fresh and blanched, if you have them)
Juice of 2 lemons
1 cup of tomato puree (optional)
3 cups water if using lamb chops, chicken broth if not

1 pound ground beef or ground lamb
1 cup long grain rice, such as Basmati
1 tablespoon tomato paste or tomato puree
1 tablespoon Baharat or 7-spice blend (allspice, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cumin, ground ginger, coriander)
1 tablespoon butter or semneh (ghee)
Salt & pepper, to taste

1. Remove grape leaves from the jar and soak them in cold water for at least 15-20 minutes to de-brine. Then place in a strainer and drain, or gently squeeze out excess water.
2. Prepare the filling by mixing rice, ground meat, spices, salt, pepper, butter (or semneh), and tomato paste in a bowl. Mix together with your hands, if you wish.
3. Lay soaked and drained grape leaves flat, individually, on a large surface. Think of it as an assembly line, so lay out as many as you can reasonably fit.
4. Place a teaspoon + a little more of the filling in the middle of one of the grape leaves. Bring together the sides of the leaves around the filling, then roll from the bottom up, tucking in the sides as you roll. Give the finished product a gentle squeeze to seal it. A good roll is not too tight as to prevent the filling from cooking, but also not too loose so that the leaf bursts and the contents spill out. Continue this way with each leaf until you have used all the filling.
Like so:

For further instruction, because I don’t know how to edit my own videos and Dede here really knows how to roll. Go to 5:31:

5. If using lamb chops, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in your pot or dutch oven on medium high. Brown the chops on all sides, but do not cook through. Turn off the heat.
6. Place any torn or extra grape leaves in one layer over the lamb chops, then place a layer of sliced tomatoes on top of this. Begin to arrange the warak, one by one, in another layer in whatever configuration you please. Do this layer by layer, until they have nearly reached the top of the pot. We also stuffed some sweet peppers, which we added as the final layer.

7. Add the water to the pot, or the stock. If 3 cups is not enough to cover the leaves, add more until they are just submerged. Cover the warak with a plate and gently press down to keep the rolls in place. Then cover the pot with its lid and turn the heat to high until it comes to a boil. Then turn down the heat to medium low and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Halfway through cooking, add the lemon juice and tomato puree, if desired. Cook until most of the water is absorbed and the rice inside the leaves is cooked. Take one out and taste it to know. If the rice is cooked but there is an excessive amount of stock leftover, increase the heat and cook the pot uncovered until most of the stock has evaporated.
8. Turn off the heat and let the pot rest for at least 20 minutes before flipping it onto a platter for serving. Once flipped, the lamb chops will be on the top and the layers of warak on the bottom. Serve with fresh yogurt and lemon wedges.

3 thoughts on “Warak Dawali: Stuffed Grape Leaves”

  • Great post! I learned some interesting information about Palestinian food and culture, so thank you. I also just took a set of goat chops out of the freezer to make this!

    I have a couple questions, if you are willing to help me:
    – It seems like the Palestinian version often utilizes tomatoes on the bottom of the pot. Would you estimate that the tomato sauce is typical for warak dawali or are whole/sliced tomatoes typically used?
    – Can you explain your reasoning for adding the lemon juice halfway through cooking? Does it help reduce bitterness?
    – Is ghee a common cooking fat in Palestine or is olive oil more common? Or both!


    • I’m thrilled you’re enjoying our blog, and I imagine the goat chops will be very tasty with warak dawali! I’ll get to your questions, below:

      1. There is variation in what Palestinian cooks put at the bottom of the pot. Some use sliced tomatoes and potatoes, potato slices only, just a few flat grapeleaves, and/or meat (lamb, as we suggest). The reason for this is to help keep the mold of the dish when you turn in out–something on the bottom gives structure. Cooking in tomato puree is optional and reflects our preference–tomato puree gives a lovely flavor and I imagine would be a richer taste than just sliced tomatoes alone. Many people simply use water or broth (vegetable, chicken) and omit the tomato puree to slow cook the rolls.
      2. Yes, I add the lemon juice later or even just in the last 20 minutes to reduce bitterness. Lemon juice cooked too long does not taste great, as you may know. I also give the leaves a squeeze of lemon before serving, and top them with fresh plain yogurt, as is customary where my family is from (Bethlehem).
      3. Ghee is indeed a common cooking fat, but olive oil is of course primary, since Palestinian cooking is based on what was and is avaiblable from the land. Olives have been grown and harvested for thousands of years. Semneh (Arabic word for ghee) is typically homemade and lasts for months in the fridge. It has a richer flavor than olive oil. I would say cook to your taste preferences and dietary restrictions if you have any, as olive oil is of course healthier.

      I hope this was helpful. Love your questions! Keep ’em coming. Let me know how the warak with goat chops turned out!!


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