It ain’t pretty, but a plat­ter of meat-stewed stuffed veg­eta­bles will make your day

Friday - - Food - Arva Ahmed of­fers guided tours re­veal­ing Dubai’s culi­nary hide­outs (fry­ing­panad­ven­

Ire­cently worked my­self up to a full-blown mi­graine just dream­ing of Iraqi dolma. It was 1.30am, and all four Iraqi restau­rants in my neigh­bour­hood had shut. So in­stead, I tor­tured my­self with dolma recipes in the cook­books strewn across my bed.

Why fuss over stuffed vine leaves? Be­cause dolma served in Iraqi restau­rants across the city is never just stuffed vine leaves. Vine leaves are the del­i­cate and well-toned rice and meat bun­dles slick with olive oil. They are the petite and pre­sentable fin­ger foods that com­plete the pretty mo­saic of mezze on many Le­banese ta­bles across the city.

There is noth­ing petite about Iraqi dolma at all. It ar­rives as a plat­ter of volup­tuous veg­eta­bles, curvy and bulging, vis­i­bly sweat­ing with the juices of lamb chops over which it had been braised. Toma­toes, mar­row, cap­sicum and egg­plant are cored and stuffed with a gen­er­ously pep­pered trio of rice, minced meat and to­mato paste. Onions are slit at one side, the lay­ers peeled apart and then wrapped around the same rice and meat stuff­ing like silky white co­coons. Vine leaves make an ap­pear­ance too, but rather than chirping with high­pitched lemon, they hum the sonorous bari­tone of some­thing that has bed­ded with juicy meat for hours on the stove.

Dolma as I have seen it on Iraqi restau­rant menus is no longer at the level of minia­ture mezze. It is a full-blown adult main course pre­ceded by the cus­tom­ary salad, pickles and lentil soup that the restau­rant will price into your meal whether you choose it or not. I wish they would not. It hurts to pay 65 dirhams for a plate of stuffed veg­eta­bles.

The Ara­bic word for a dish of stuffed veg­eta­bles is ‘mahshi’. How­ever, the Turk­ish word for stuffed, dolma, re­placed mahshi and came into pop­u­lar use dur­ing the Ot­toman era. Both words are now used for this tra­di­tional home-cooked dish, which ac­cord­ingly to my favourite Iraqi food his­to­rian Nawal Nas­ral­lah, is of­ten pre­pared in a large pot re­served ex­clu­sively for sim­mer­ing lay­ers of stuffed veg­eta­bles. The base of the pot is usu­ally lined with lamb chops, fol­lowed by a hand­ful of fava beans and then an assem­bly of stuffed veg­eta­bles start­ing off with the onion co­coons, then cored cap­sicum, mar­row, egg­plant and toma­toes, and fi­nally the stuffed leaves. Hot sim­mer­ing salty wa­ter is poured into the crevices and some­times the cook will cap the lay­ers off with flat­bread. The flavours are left to marry over low heat for 45 min­utes, af­ter which the pot is in­verted onto a plat­ter so that the juicy bread lands first and the braised meat and caramelised onions crown the top.

My in­tro­duc­tion to dolma was at my first Iraqi love, at Bait Al Bagh­dadi’s Dubai branch on Mu­teena Road. The chef is a pas­sion­ate, proud Iraqi who was al­ways will­ing to teach me about spe­cial­ity dishes like paacheh (of­fal stew over soaked bread) and lamb stewed with onions and cheyma (desert truf­fles).

A few years ago, the street cor­ner caught fire and the restau­rant burnt to a crisp. Thank­fully the staff was un­harmed. But Deira had lost one of its most trea­sured Iraqi in­sti­tu­tions and I was heart­bro­ken.

.Ear­lier this month, I or­dered a lunchtime de­liv­ery of dolma from one of the re­cent Iraqi ad­di­tions on Rigga Road called Al Zaem. It ar­rived look­ing rather dull. Dolma is never one to look spec­tac­u­lar be­cause the veg­eta­bles are slow-cooked un­til their colour fades and their skins wrin­kle. A take­out con­tainer does it even less jus­tice. This is a bless­ing in my books, be­cause I’d rather that no one feels in­spired to ask for a taste. I will cer­tainly not of­fer to share.

Fava beans had stewed along with the veg­eta­bles, their mem­branes crin­kled, their flesh soft­ened and nutty like roasted chest­nuts. A thin sheet of bread sat ex­pec­tantly un­der the dolma, in­stantly snap­ping up any drip­pings of the to­mato and meat brais­ing liq­uid that es­caped the stuffed veg­eta­bles. A sin­gu­lar lamb chop was tucked into the side as proof that the dolma had been cooked in the tra­di­tional way over brais­ing meat. With ev­ery juicy, sat­is­fy­ing bite of stuffed onion, cap­sicum, vine leaf and mar­row, I felt the bit­ter­sweet emo­tions of lovers that must part in a few hours – I des­per­ately wanted to be present and happy in the mo­ment, but my over­anx­ious mind was al­ready pro­ject­ing it­self to the empty sad­ness

DOLMA as I have seen it on IRAQI restau­rant menus is no longer at the level of minia­ture MEZZE. It is a full-blown ADULT main course pre­ceded by the cus­tom­ary salad, pickles and lentil soup

of be­ing alone. I counted down the pieces and yanked my fin­gers away at half time, seal­ing the box and will­ing it to not open again un­til din­ner time.

If only I had the pa­tience to pre­pare dolma at home. It is a painstak­ing labour of love, which is why I grudg­ingly pony up the cash when­ever I crave stuffed veg­eta­bles. Cor­ing, wrap­ping and stuff­ing in a tra­di­tional Mid­dle East­ern kitchen sounds very ro­man­tic, but the ex­pe­ri­ence is best cap­tured by a say­ing that my mother ham­mered into her kitchen wall: ‘I started off by sink­ing into his arms – and ended up with my arms in the sink.’

Iraqi dol­mas, like these at Al Zaem restau­rant in Deira, come from a caul­dron of good­ness that in­cludes stuffed veg­gies, beans and meat

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