However, the most pleasant surprise will be when you find out that all our dishes are home cooked. Even the famous sarmale, our Christmas traditional dish, are homemade, because every family wants to have a big pot, full of sarmale for Christmas.

A traditional meal borrowed from the Turkish

To be accurate, the stuffed cabbage roll called 'sarma' has a Turkish origin. Most of the European people who came in contact with the Turkish when conquered, under the Great Turkish Empire, assimilated many of the Turkish dishes, such as sarmale, pilaf, baklava or Turkish delight, to name only a few.

A sarma I just made
In Turkish sarma means a roll-like cover, therefore any stuffed roll has the same name in Romanian. Multiple stuffed rolls are called sarmale. The Turkish prefer mostly grapevine leaves for making sarmale, which we have also borrowed. In addition, we like to use patience dock leaves for making lamb stuffed rolls on Easter. However, the pork stuffed cabbage rolls are our favorite and they became our traditional dish for Christmas and also for very special occasions such as weddings, New Year's Eve parties or anniversaries. Even at the most elegant wedding dinners in restaurants, the bride and groom want to have sarmale in the menu. For a home wedding dinner in the countryside, the food is cooked at home and the dinner is served in the yard in huge tents just in case it's raining. A few women from the village come to help with cooking, especially for folding the few hundred sarmale, which are cooked for the guests. It is a delicious dish, yet it takes a few hours for preparation and cooking.

Sauerkraut is a very important part of the sarmale

For sarmale we need sauerkraut, also homemade in our country. Over the years, our ancestors experienced everything about cabbage, sauerkraut and sarmale; when and how each should be done, in order to have sauerkraut ready for making sarmale during the winter. All of this process has also become a tradition and the Romanians follow it thoroughly. Most people in the countryside still grow their own cabbage in their vegetable garden (I'm one of them now!) not only for their use, but also to sell. Large fields are covered with fall cabbage, because most of the people in our country want to buy raw cabbage for making sauerkraut. The fall cabbage is grown especially for this purpose. Even if nowadays we can also find sauerkraut at the superstore, the Romanians prefer to make their own, so they know it is organic and made after our traditional recipe and it is even cheaper! The cabbage must be a specific variety, the 'Varza de Buzau' hybrid, which is perfect for making sauerkraut with its thin and crisp leaves. It takes only one cabbage head for enough leaves to make about thirty sarmale or more.
Lately, some of the farmers preferred other cabbage varieties, but those proved to be inappropriate for making sauerkraut, so they had to stop growing them. Since the cabbage has to be sour by Christmas, we start the sauerkraut two months before, on October 26, when the cabbage is picked from the field. On this date we're celebrating Saint Dumitru and also Harvest Day. Obviously, we are all thinking about the Christmas sarmale when making the sauerkraut!

It takes a whole day to make sarmale for a week

Sarmale are delicious and they are worth every minute that we spend making them. They aren't only tasty, but also advantageous, because they are very satiable. For me, only two sarmale are enough, but my husband or my son would need at least four, if not five. That's why make so many for Christmas, so we all can have enough. Since our Christmas table is full of all kind of goodies, a pot full of sarmale can last for a whole week, or until the New Year's Eve.

Sarmale aren't easy to make, but also not difficult. I might say it takes a lot of time, but the whole process is easy. So, if you have time, follow the recipe and do your own sarmale.

Ingredients for over 30 sarmale

- 1 lbs minced fat pork
- 1 lbs minced beef
- 4 tablespoons of rice, washed in cold water
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 1 dill bunch, chopped
- 1 sour cabbage head (sauerkraut)
- 1 chunk of bacon, sliced
- 2-3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 10-15 pepper berries
- 4 laurel leaves
- salt, pepper

You will also need some additional shredded sauerkraut

If you don't have a whole pickled cabbage head, you can always do your own, by following my sauerkraut recipe. You can either pickle the whole cabbage head or detach the leaves and lay one above the other in a pot or a large jar, then follow the recipe of the brine which you should pour over the cabbage.
The cabbage leaves can be detached from the core by dividng the head in a large pot, in hot water. Keep it in there for 2 minutes, then cut the base of each leaf and detach it carefully from the head, by using two forks, while it still stays in the hot water. Let stay in there for 2 more minutes. The leaves should be tender enough to detach easily after that. Get the leaves out on a plate, then put them in a jar or a pot and add the salty brine, until they are covered.
In two or three days your sauerkraut leaves should be pickled for making sarmale.
If you don't want to pickle your cabbage leaves, you can always use them as they are after getting them out of the hot water.
Once you have the cabbage (sauerkraut) leaves, then you can start preparing the filling. Put a large pan on a low fire, on the stove and fry the minced meat. Stir gently. Add the chopped onions and rice. Stir until the meat whitens. Add 1/2 a cup of water and stir. Add chopped dill, salt and pepper at taste. Stir well and leave the meat for a while, until you get the sauerkraut leaves ready for filling.
Get a large 12 quart pot for cooking the sarmale and place your cabbage (sauerkraut) leaves ready for stuffing, on a plate. If you have a pickled cabbage head, cut each leaf from the base and put it on a plate. A large cabbage leaf can be divided in 2, by cutting along the thick rib in the middle, which has to be removed. This way you get 2 leaf parts for folding two sarmale. Continue, and cut the thick rib of each cabbage leaf until you get to the smaller leaves, which can't be used for folding. Shred the smaller leaves and save them for later.
Ready the tomato paste, the bay leaves and the pepper berries at hand, while you start folding the sarmale.
You need some shredded sauerkraut for laying on the bottom of the pot, some for laying in between the sarmale layers and some for laying on top of them. You can either shred another cabbage head or maybe you can buy it in a can, from the store.
Now you can start folding the sarmale. Put a leaf on the sauerkraut layer, lay a tablespoon of the meat filling on it and fold. You can see how to fold a sarma here.
Once folded, arrange each sarma along the edge of the pot, in circles, from the edge to the centre.

Sarmale layer in the pot with pepper berries, bacon and bay laurel leaves

Once the first layer is finished, add a few small chunks (slices) of bacon in between the sarmale. Add a bay laurel leaf on each side of the sarmale layer, between 2 sarmale. Spread 10-12 pepper berries over the sarmale layer. Spread 2 tablespoons of tomato paste over the sarmale. Spread a handfull or two of shredded saurekraut over the sarmale, to cover it completely.
Start over with the second sarmale layer and all other ingredients the same as for the first layer. Add shredded sauerkraut on top of the last sarmale layer. Pour plain water over the sarmale until it covers them. Put the pot with the sarmale on the stove, on a medium fire, until it starts boiling. Then cover with a lid and reduce the fire to low. Let the sarmale boil on the stove for one hour. Check after half an hour and add more water if necessary.(if you can't see water on the top of the sarmale)
After an hour, you need to put the sarmale pot into the oven for another 2 hours at high fire 420F. If the pot is too full, better place it on a flat pan, to prevent the sauce and grease boiling over the pot onto the oven.
Let the pot in there for 2 hours, until the cabbage is tender. Pour more water if necessary. Shake the pot from time to time, to prevent sticking. After 2 hours, turn off the oven and remove the pot. Let it cool. You can keep the sarmale in the fridge for a week. Warm the sarmale up before serving.
We're serving sarmale with polenta and sour cream on top. Also, hot pepper adds more taste to the sarmale.

Three pork stuffed cabbage rolls with polenta and a hot pepper in it
Was it hard? I know it was, but it was worth it! For those of you who succeeded in making sarmale, I'm wishing a good appetite!
For all others and for all of you guys, have a Merry Christmas!

You can find the sarmale recipe step by step with pictures on my food blog here.