My Granny’s traditional Romanian cabbage rolls or stuffed cabbage (sarmale) recipe is the epitome of scrumptious taste and irresistible flavor. This traditional Romanian recipe is made with sour cabbage stuffed with fat pork meat (and/or beef), rice and onion. Granny also used a lot of smoked bacon that gives it a heavenly flavor and smoky taste. I have helped prepare or made sarmale every Christmas and Easter for the past 42 years.
This post is an homage to my Granny Victoria. I’ve learned almost everything I know from my Granny, and I owe her my life, my sanity and above all, the ability to get up stronger after being knocked down. She taught me that nothing is as important as it seems, and what is paramount today is forgotten in 3 weeks. She taught me that love heals and conquers all.
The origin of Romanian cabbage rolls sarmale
Traditional Romanian cabbage rolls or stuffed cabbage (sarmale) have origins that date back over 2,000 years. Cabbage rolls are prepared in many cultures and countries around the world and apparently, they can be traced back to Jewish cuisine from thousands of years ago.
What we know for sure is that Romanians borrowed and perfected the recipe coming from Turkey. What makes Romania’s version of cabbage rolls (sarmale) unique is the use of sour cabbage or grape leaves rather than regular cabbage.
In what countries is the cabbage rolls sarmale common?
Unsurprisingly, cabbage rolls are popular in approximately 50 countries! The dish is popular in Azerbaijan and Turkey, almost all Balkan countries, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Egypt, China and the United States to name a few.
For what occasion are cabbage rolls sarmale served in Romania?
Romanians traditionally serve rolled cabbage sarmale for holidays (Christmas and Easter). Additionally, rolled cabbage sarmale are also typically served at events such as weddings or christening parties.
Do you want to know how Romanians celebrate Christmas? Check out these Romanian Christmas dishes on Cooking Romania by Vivi:
The perfect side dish for sarmale? Mamaliga!
Looking for some awesome Romanian recipes? We have a few easy recipes here on Cooking Romania by Vivi. Try them for yourself!
When did my daughter Adara start helping out in our Romanian kitchen?
Sometime in 2009, when she was 9 years old, my daughter Adara – now my partner in crime on Cooking Romania by Vivi – started helping out in the kitchen. Here are some cute photos of her and my Granny Victoria Paladi, my angel and inspiration. We were preparing the Christmas dinner:
Oops, I must have overstayed my welcome in the kitchen! Adara and Granny Victoria both look quite unhappy, don’t you think? 🤣🤣
My Granny’s story
Granny passed in 2012 after suffering for 20 years from kidney, mental and eyesight issues. She was blind for the last 11 years of her life and suffered from severe Alzheimer’s starting Christmas 2007. The woman with whom I laughed so much, the lady who taught me love and kindness, my angel and protector was thus in my care for a long time.
As you can see, in 2009 she was still helping out in the kitchen. What was her secret, being blind and all? Granny used her other senses – touch, smell, hearing wasn’t good either – in order to chop vegetables, peel garlic or onion and so on. She ironed Adara’s clothes when Adara was a few months old, and I remember Granny (Buni as we used to call her) ironed in the dark, as she did not need the lights on anymore. Surprisingly, she did not hurt herself ironing, and she wouldn’t quit her job for the world! She needed to feel needed, so we always supported her when she wanted to perform household chores.
What do I remember fondly when I think of Granny? The laughter. The innumerable word puns, jokes and stories. Granny, I love you and I miss you every day. I was so lucky to have you in my life!
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Back to our famous Romanian rolled cabbage sarmale. As we have mentioned above, Romanian cabbage rolls sarmale are made with sour cabbage and you need to add smoked meat and bacon to give the sarmale a great taste and flavor.
How to make Romanian cabbage rolls sarmale
This recipe is very easy to prepare. Don’t get scared of the rolling process, it is quite simple (if you have any doubts, first check out the recipe video below).
How to keep the rolled cabbage sarmale
One of the things we do in Romania is we keep food for way too long in winter. Let’s take the example of sarmale: we cook them on December 24 and we keep them until January 2nd!
Yes, unhealthy, I don’t recommend it. However this is how I grew up in communist Romania and I turned out quite healthy 💪.
What we do though, is reheat them some 30 minutes to one hour almost every day. The longer we keep them, the more delicious the taste, trust me! The delectable rolled cabbage sarmale fragrance is present in every neighborhood, apartment block, city or village in Romania at the end of December. The only reputable rival is the Romanian sweet bread cozonac. Check out these Easter and Christmas beauties!
Romanian Cabbage Rolls or Stuffed Cabbage (Sarmale)Course: Main, DinnerCuisine: RomanianDifficulty: Easy
Traditional Romanian Cabbage Rolls or Stuffed Cabbage sarmale are made with sour cabbage stuffed with pork and/or beef and smoked bacon. 1 kilo of meat yields 50 to 80 sarmale, depending on their size. If you make them approximately 8 cm long, the yield is 60 sarmale. You can serve 3-4 cabbage rolls sarmale per serving.
Prep time is 30 minutes, however, the baking time is minimum 8 hours. These are the best cabbage rolls you will ever have. Try the recipe out for yourself!
1 kilo of minced fat pork meat (and/or beef)
200 g rice
5 tbsp olive oil
4 medium onions chopped
2-4 tbsp tomato paste
1 l tomato juice
sour cabbage leaves (2 large cabbage heads)
peppercorn to taste
4-6 bay leaves
1 tbsp thyme
1 tbsp dill
1 tsp pepper
1 tbsp sweet paprika
salt to taste
- Preheat the oven 180° C.
- Chop the onions.
- Heat the oil in a skillet, add the onion and cook until golden. Add the rice and cook for 2 minutes.
- In a large bowl add the ground pork, the onion and rice mixture, thyme, dill, pepper, salt, sweet paprika. Be careful with the salt, don’t add much because the sour cabbage is already salty. Mix well using your hands (most enjoyable part, you’ll see ❤️🔥.)
- Remove all the cabbage leaves and cut each leaf in half or in square pieces with sides of approximately 15/20 cm = 6/8 inch each. Finely chop the cores, don’t discard.
If you have any cabbage left over (and you should make sure you do), keep half and chop half up to use later together with the chopped cores spread over the bottom and between the cabbage roll sarmale layers.
- Chop bacon in generous slices.
- Add olive oil to a large baking pot.
- Add bacon, cabbage leaves and some chopped core (not all of it, because you need some to add on top of the next layers). You will probably end up with 3 cabbage roll layers.
- Fill each leaf with about 1-2 tbsp of the meat mixture and roll. Each cabbage roll sarma should be around 8 cm = 3.15 inch long and no thicker than 2 fingers. Make sure that you push the ends inside with your index, just like in the video. The cabbage rolls sarmale need to be completely sealed, or the filling will come out when you cook them. Repeat with all the remaining meat and cabbage.
- Place first layer of cabbage rolls sarmale and add bay leaves. Add some chopped cabbage on top.
- Lay all the cabbage rolls sarmale in the pot and add the tomato juice over the rolls. Add the tomato juice. Add more water if needed, the juice should cover the cabbage rolls entirely.
- Place the pot in the oven (preferably covered). Bake for minimum 5-6 hours, remove the lid and place back in the oven and cook for another 3 to 5 hours. I know it sounds crazy, but Romanian rolled cabbage sarmale need at least 8 hours cooking time.
- Serve hot with a bit of sour cream on top and with a side of polenta.
- Sometimes it’s the size of the cabbage leaves that determines the size of your sarmale. Feel free to make them smaller or larger, as you wish.
- Check the sarmale every hour and add more water if needed.
- Use a large stockpot. The rolled cabbage sarmale triple in size while cooking.
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🥘 Easy low carb and keto recipes for busy people | Cooking blog dedicated to my Granny, Victoria | Videos and editing by my daughter, Adara 👩👧| Best Romanian 🇷🇴 traditional recipes with step-by-step videos and photos.