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Sarma: delicious Serbian stuffed cabbage leaves

Where did sarma come from?

Nobody really knows where exactly the story about sarma first came from. It is likely that the dish originates from the area of South-Eastern Europe or, more precisely, the Balkans, however, many of the peoples living in this region call sarma (or a variation of sarma) their own national dish.

And it’s no wonder! If you have ever tasted sarma in your life, you would understand why (verbal) wars are being led among the peoples claiming an uncontestable right to say that this recipe first came out of their national kitchen.

Let me tell you, all of us would want to claim something as special and delicious as our own!

Personally, I believe that sarma came into being as a result of cohabitation of peoples from different regions. If you look at the dish, you’ll probably realize that it looks similar to Arabic stuffed grape leaves, but the similarity ends with the looks, as they are different in terms of ingredients.

In the 14th century, the Ottomans settled in the Balkans. My theory is that probably they were the ones who brought the idea of rice-stuffed grape leaves and the Slavs of the Balkans then contributed with minced meat and sauerkraut or onions. I think this is a fairly reasonable way to think about how sarma came into being.

Sarma or dolma?

However, the story does not end there. As the time went by, there different variations of sarma appeared and each nation in the Balkans developed their own way of making it!

Serbs most often make it with sour cabbage leaves (or sauerkraut), which they stuff with a mixture of ground pork and beef, as well as rice and spices. While in Bosnia, they also call this dish ‘dolma’ or ‘sogan dolma’ and instead of sauerkraut, they use onions for stuffing. Other popular green leaves used for stuffing include grape leaves and spinach leaves.

Nevertheless, the main ingredients for the stuffing remain the same – the sauce is made from rice, ground meat and spices.

The Serbian original version, however, comes with sauerkraut leaves, bacon and a mix of ground pork and beef which adds to the juiciness and smoky smell of the dish.

If you ask me, I enjoy all variations of sarma or dolma, however, the one with sauerkraut and pork meat is my favorite one! That is why I decided to present you the original Serbian version.



  • 1 sour cabbage (sauerkraut) or about 20 leaves
  • 300g ground pork
  • 200g ground beef
  • 200g bacon
  • 100g rice
  • 1 large carrot
  • 1 large onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 teaspoons ground red pepper
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 50ml (about 3 tablespoons) vegetable oil


  1. Heat the oil in a pan on medium heat. Finely chop the onion and carrot and add them to the pan. Fry until onion becomes almost translucent, about 7 minutes.
  2. Chop the garlic cloves, add them to the pan and mix with onion and carrots. Leave for 1 minute.
  3. Add ground pork and beef and half of the bacon, chopped. Mix well to combine.
  4. Rinse the rice and add to the meat sauce. Add one teaspoon of red pepper, one teaspoon pepper and one teaspoon of salt. Then remove from heat – the meat and rice should not be fully cooked at this point, additional cooking will come later.
  5. Prepare sauerkraut leaves by separating them from each other, cutting off the tough ribs and lightly rinsing the leaves with water. That way we will reduce sourness.
  6. Fill the sauerkraut leaves one by one with the meat-rice filling, following the procedure:
  • first place a leaf on a plate;
  • then take an amount of the filling corresponding to the size of the leaf (for example, if it is a 20cm-long leaf you may fill it with two tablespoons of the meat-rice filling) and place it in the middle of the leaf;
  • now fold the sauerkraut leaf by folding left and right sides first and then starting to roll from the third side that is closer to you and keep rolling until a sarma is fully folded, taking care that none of your filling falls out.
  • Repeat the procedure until you have spent all of the ingredients.
  1. Lightly oil a pot or a casserole dish with a lid that can go into the oven and place 2 sauerkraut leaves at the bottom.
  2. Then place your sarma rolls in the pot. After you have placed all of them, distribute the rest of the chopped bacon on top of the sarma.
  3. Fill with water up to 2cm below sarma and sprinkle with the remaining red pepper and black pepper. Add bay leaf, too.
  4. Cover the dish and place on high heat until the water starts boiling. Then reduce the heat and simmer for 3 hours on low.
  5. After 3 hours, uncover the sarma, transfer it to the oven and bake for additional half an hour on 200oC or until it starts getting golden brown on top.

Let sit 20 to 30 minutes before serving. Sarma is great served with cottage cheese or Greek yoghurt!

*If you find it hard to find sauerkraut, there’s another option – you can use a fresh cabbage instead. This is the process:

  1. take a large pot corresponding to the size of the whole cabbage (you do not want to cut the cabbage, as you want your leaves to be nice and whole so that you can stuff them later).
  2. Fill the pot with water and add 1 teaspoon of salt, then let it boil.
  3. Take a fresh cabbage and submerge it into salted boiling water for 5 minutes. Then take it out and let cool.

This will make the leaves soft and easy to fold without cracking and letting the filling out.


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