Persian Dolma | Stuffed Grape Leaves — Vegetarian Style!

Fresh herbs (mint basil dill savory) on chopping board for Persian stuffed grape leaves dolma Caption Description Fresh herbs (mint basil dill savory) on chopping board for Persian stuffed grape leaves dolma

If you’re looking for a vegetarian grape leaves dolma recipe, you are in the right place.  If you want to know how to make the traditional stuffed grape leaves dolma with minced meat, you are still in the right place but you’ll just have to mosey on over to an earlier post called: From Ghoreh to Grape to Dolma | A Food Odyssey.

What are Dolmas?

Dolma refers to a genre of dishes made with vegetables or fruits that are stuffed with fillings. Vegetable dolmas like tomato, bell peppers, or eggplants; fruit dolmas like stuffed quince (so yummy) or stuffed apples; leafy dolmas like stuffed cabbage leaves or stuffed grape leaves.

Stuffed grape leaves dolma (دلمه برگ مو) is a dish that has been popular forever in the Middle East and Mediterranean countries, with each culinary culture bringing its own variations on stuffings and seasonings.

History of Dolma in Iran

The Iranian species of dolma (here in Iran it is pronounced “dolmeh”) has been traced to at least the 17th century — and the culinary diary of a 19th century Qajar king’s head chef records dolma varieties such as vine leaves, cabbage leaves, cucumbers, eggplants, apples, and quinces stuffed with ground meat, sauteed mint, rice, and saffron. [Wiki]

Continuing on till modern times, dolma’s popularity endures as a beloved genre and staple of Persian food and Persian home cooking culinary culture.

Fresh or Preserved Grape Leaves? 

fresh grape leaves, stacked in a cloth bundle for dolma recipe food blog

Store fresh grape leaves in the fridge until you are ready to use them.

Freshly harvested grape leaves which taste more fresh and vibrant would be your best option. I mean, obviously.

Fresh grape leaves are in season from May throughout early summer. After that, the leaves are too “old” and turn too stringy and tough for dolma. In Iran, grape leaves are stacked in a pile and you can’t cherry-pick the leaves, but if your market allows you to pick and choose, make sure to pick a fairly even-sized batch of sweet tender leaves that have led an innocent and blemish-free life.

If you can’t use freshly harvested grape leaves, I personally can’t stand canned leaves –that tin can after taste? NOPE! — but jarred grape leaves could potentially work fine. As long as:

  • They are made by a brand you trust (I Googled “jarred grape leaves best buying guide” and got this link, just FYI) &
  • You properly prep the preserved leaves as explained in the recipe directions.

Opened jars stored in the fridge with enough juice to cover them could last around two months. But why in the world would you want to do that? You know that jar of leaves will sit lurking in the fridge brooding its neglected fate till you finally notice it’s gone bad and then you’ll toss it out. 

Ideally, make enough stuffing to use up all the leaves all at once. You can use up some of the leaves to cover the serving platter and then arrange the dolmas on top of it — which is a traditional food-styling touch in Persian cuisine.

Does the Shape of Dolma Matter?

Fresh herbs (mint basil dill savory) on chopping board for Persian stuffed grape leaves dolma Caption Description Fresh herbs (mint basil dill savory) on chopping board for Persian stuffed grape leaves dolma

A cigar-shaped dolma is how most culinary cultures wrap the grape leaves around the stuffing except in Iran where the traditional preference is to make a little square-shaped bundle of it. Like a little pillow.
Does the shape affect the taste of dolma? Probably not. But, what I can tell you is that even if made by the same cook with the same stuffing in the same pot, the pillow-shaped dolmas that I grew up with are the ones that definitely taste better to me than the cigar-shaped dolmas.
Psychology of food. Weird but true.
How to wrap the leaves, you ask? You will find written instructions in the recipe direction below. I also have how-to video demos on my Instagram’s “highlights” saved as “Dolma” as a visual reference.

Recipe yields approximately 30 stuffed grape leaves.

  • 1/2 pound fresh grape leaves
  • 2 cups rice (cooked till al dente)
  • 1 cup split pea (cooked till al dente)
  • 2 1/2 cups of fresh fragrant herbs (I used basil, mint, savory, dill and parsley); or if you don’t have fresh herbs use 1 cup of dried fragrant herbs mixture
  • 1 -large onion (finely chopped)
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 2 tablespoons of tomato paste (more or less to taste)
  • turmeric, salt & pepper (seasoning to taste)
  • Mix 1 1/2 cup water, 1 cup lemon juice, 4 tablespoons of sugar and 1/2 cup of oil for the marinade


How To Prep Grape Leaves

Fresh grape leaves boiling in pot, juxtaposed w/ image of boil grape leaves draining in colander

(L) Boil leaves for 2-3 minutes (R) Immediately drain in a colander, rinse with cold water and drain again. Part of the epic journey of fresh grape leaves to delicious dolma.


stuffed grape leaves blanched rinsed and drying on towel

After blanching and rinsing leaves with cold water in a colander, pat dry or spread leaves on a clean surface to air dry.

Whether using fresh or preserved leaves, you’ll need to blanch them in boiling water. Fresh leaves need it to tenderize them, and the preserved types need it to rinse off the brine.

Rinse fresh leaves with cold water. If using preserved leaves, rinse twice with hot water then twice with cold water to remove all the brine.

Bring a large pot of unsalted water to a rolling boil. Plunge the leaves (the veiny part facing the top) in the boiling water and cook for 2-3 minutes till leaves soften and are pliable to touch. Halfway through, use a spatula to reposition the stack upside down to avoid overcooking the bottom layer leaves and undercooking the top layer of leaves.)  Drain immediately, rinse with cold water to stop cooking, drain again, then spread leaves on a clean surface and leave to air dry. You could lightly pat them dry as well.

Don’t blanch until you’re ready to cook with them.

How to Make the Dolma Filling

Teaspoon of turmeric added to white rice boiling, juxtaposed with image of cooked turmeric rice

Golden yellow turmeric, Persian food’s favorite spice. Add it to dolma’s rice to make it prettier, tastier, healthier. Stop cooking rice once al dente.

Cook rice as you would normally but remove from heat once rice grains are al dente. Add a bit of turmeric to the rice while cooking to enhance the color of the filling.

Rinse split peas and soak in water for an hour. Cook till al dente.

Fresh herbs (mint basil dill savory) on chopping board for Persian stuffed grape leaves dolma

Persian cooking uses lots of fresh herbs. Fragrant ones like mint, basil, parsley, dill, savory & tarragon are mixed & chopped up for grape leaves dolma.


Coarsely chop the fresh herbs. I used a mixture of fresh savory, mint, basil, dill, and parsley.  In a pinch, you can use just a mix of mint and basil or even just mint by itself. The main thing is that some fresh fragrant herbs should be mixed in with the rice and split peas for the stuffing.


Raisins sautéed with onions and turmeric juxtaposed with image of it mixed with fresh herbs and rice for stuffing grape leaves dolma

Persian grape leaves dolma stuffing: caramelized onion, raisins, turmeric rice, fresh herbs. Dash of cinnamon never hurt any body either.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil till sizzling then add the onion. Season with salt and turmeric. Cook over medium heat for about 6-8 minutes, or until the onion is soft and translucent, but not browned.

Add rice, split peas & raisins, mix well & saute for a couple of minutes.

Now add the fresh herbs, stir to mix & continue to cook for a few minutes. As a final touch add tomato paste and mix well. Remove from heat. This is your filling mixture. You are now ready to fill and wrap the grape leaves.

How To Wrap the Grape Leaves

Photo collage of 1)Fresh grape leaves lining pot, 2) stuffed with mixture and wrapped, 3) then cooked

1) Line pot with a few grape leaves, 2)stuff grape leaf with a dollop of stuffing then wrap into a bundle, 3) stack stuffed grape leaves tightly in the pot to cook. Tip: In Iran, it is customary to place a plate or a bowl filled with some water on top of the dolmas in the pot to keep them from falling apart while being cooked.

Place a leaf, smooth side down (veiny side up) with the tip of the leaf pointing towards you on a clean working surface. Place about one tablespoon of filling in the center of the leaf, wrap the leaf from corner to corner around it to make a tight bundle. Continue till you’ve wrapped all the leaves.

I also have posted how-to video demos on my Instagram’s “highlights” saved as “Dolma” as a visual reference.

Arrange in a Pot & Add the Marinade

Line a large pot with a layer of grape leaves. Arrange the stuffed grape leaves tightly, flap-down, next to each other in the pot. Once the bottom layer is full, arrange the second layer of stuffed grape leaves on top of it — like a pyramid.

Once all the grape leaves are placed in the pot, add the marinade mix of lemon juice, water, sugar and oil to the pot. Tip: Place a plate on top of the dolmeh to keep everything in place and close the pot’s lid. Cook on low-medium heat for an hour or two or longer till dolmeh is thoroughly cooked.

Simmering the stuffed grape leaves with the lemon and sugar mixture gives the dolma a brilliantly tangy tart & sweet flavor that is a killer.

How To Serve Stuffed Grape Leaves

If you have any grape leaf leftovers, use them to layer the serving plate as a decorative touch. This is a very traditional serving style in Iran.  Arrange cooked stuffed grape leaves in the tray layered next to and top of each other.

Stuffed grape leaves can be served as an appetizer or as a main dish.

Dolmas are generally served warm, but they are also delicious when cold.

Serve with yogurt and some bread. YUM!








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Comments (2)

  • Josiane 1 year ago Reply

    Thank you so much, Azita! I really appreciate that you took the time to create and share this vegan dolmeh recipe. Getting to savour the Iranian flavours I love in a dish I can eat? Pure bliss!

    Azita Houshiar 1 year ago Reply

    Hi Josiane,
    My pleasure & thank you for your delightful comment! 🙂

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