THERE IS SOMETHING deeply soothing to stuff a fig leaf. Believe me, I know. In the first few months of the pandemic, I found solace in my kitchen, and to soothe my nervous system, I started folding and rolling grape leaf cigarillos. I had learned the recipe in Cyprus while researching my latest book, a collection of recipes from all over the Eastern Mediterranean.
Biting my lip in quiet concentration, I unfolded each leaf onto a plate, smoothing out its wrinkles with my fingertips before carefully placing a spoonful of rice at the base. I grinded the rice into an oblong shape and turned the sides of the leaves to meet. Then, deftly and – most importantly – confidently, I would roll each leaf tightly on itself and place it next to the others in a pot to braise it.
Across the Middle East, variations of stuffed vegetables abound, but rice-filled grape leaves may be the most prized. Known as dolmades in Greece, yaprak sarmasi in Turkey, koupepia in the Republic of Cyprus, and warak enab in Palestine, the dish receives a unique range of fillings, spices and aromatics depending on the context. When I was growing up, my Iranian mom would prepare dolmeh for special occasions, turning them into large triangles that she filled with rice, ground lamb, and yellow split peas, and steamed in a sweet and sour broth based of verjuice and sugar.
However, dolmeh has never been part of my own culinary repertoire. I found them tedious, time consuming. Life is too short to stuff a fig leaf, I thought. Until I cooked them with Çizge Yalkın and his grandmother, Nahide Köşkeroğlu, in a village just outside the Cypriot capital, Nicosia. Their Turkish-Cypriot version, filled with rice speckled with tomatoes and mint, contained the flavors of the sunny soil and turquoise waters of the region. I have been sold.
I had visited Cyprus to learn how the island’s food culture tells a larger story of migration. Cyprus’s position in the easternmost corner of the Mediterranean Sea – at the nautical crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa – has been conquered for millennia. Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Venetians, Ottomans, and British all claimed the island, and various flavors run through its culinary culture. Despite its long history of migration and trade, the island has, however, since 1974 been rigidly divided into two: the Republic of Cyprus in the south, predominantly Greek Cypriot, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, predominantly Turkish Cypriot. A buffer zone patrolled by the UN divides them.