Vegan Yalanji (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Food Stories is a new column in which Best of Vegan community members share recipes from their cultures and personal stories connected to those dishes. Today, Waseem Hijazi of demeals shares his recipe for vegan yalanji, also known as the Middle Eastern version of stuffed grape leaves, and Waseem’s all-time favorite dish.

If I were to ask you what your favorite food is, how many dishes would come to mind first before you finally pick one? For me, only one would pop up. And without a thought, I’d say it’s Yalanji! Not just the one with the grape leaves, but in all of its forms.

I come from multiple countries (Palestine, Jordan, Syria), and it was always through food that I really got to know my culture.

For as long as I can remember, Yalanji has been my favorite thing to eat. Maybe growing up with grapevines in our garden had something to do with it… I was always asking if we can make more! So when we’d run out (yes, we really did), or when they’re not in season, my mom would make the same savory filling and stuff it in all kinds of veggies. Zucchinis, eggplants, bell peppers…you name it!

Vegan Yalanji stuffed in bell peppers

What Is Yalanji?

Yalanji is a popular cold appetizer, wildly made across the Middle East. It’s also known as: dolma, tolma, yebraa, waraa inab bil zeit, waraa dawali bil zeit, amongst many other names. In Arabic, Bil zeit means “in oil”, referring to the savory oily filling that’s wrapped in grape leaves. It’s packed with pomegranate molasses, lemons, and olive oil for a tangy zesty kick.

It is said that Grape Leaves (as a dish) originated from Greece, and made its way around the Middle East, where it was adapted into individual cuisines. It’s traditionally rolled with minced meat and warm spices. But there’s another common version out there, which happens to be vegan already!

Yalanji takes a lot of work and a lot of time. But it’s all worth it in the end!

I like to describe it as a Tabouleh (Syrian/Lebanese salad), minus the bulgur, mixed with rice and rolled up in vines. Slow-cooked until soft and tender. Served cold with a squeeze of lemon and a garnish of parsley. It’s a must-have starter for any type of mezze — a selection of small appetizers served as a meal.

As a way of helping out with the dish, I used to go out to the garden and pick out the fresh leaves to bring back to my mom so she can “teach me” how they’re made. Turns out there’s more to it than picking and rolling… After watching the process of picking, snipping, washing, blanching, rolling, and cooking over and over again, I now know why mom did her best to avoid making them so often. And when she did, there would always be a big batch to last a few days. It’s a lot of work and a lot of time. But it’s all worth it in the end!

Yalanji stuffed in zucchini & eggplant

How Vegan Yalanji Is Made

Since I’m all about Delicious & Easy Meals, I like to swap out a few of the never-ending steps with jarred grape leaves. No need to pick and blanch, or wait for them to cool down before rolling. Less work, less clean up, and you get to enjoy them sooner!

Though I must say, it hits differently when you hand-pick the leaves yourself… It’s all about the prep! The recipe can be broken down into 3 main parts: preparing the filling, preparing the vine leaves, and preparing the pot. Let’s break it down:

1) Preparing the filling:
It’s a rice mixture, with veggies and herbs, soaked up in an oily pomegranate molasses sauce. You can chop up the vegetables by hand, or blend them up in a food processor with parsley and mint. Make sure to have the rice already rinsed, soaked, and drained beforehand.

2) Preparing the vine leaves:
Since they’re jarred, there won’t be a need to blanch them. But we still have to rinse the leaves to get rid of the preserved liquids from the jar. Snipping off the strings and placing them in a stack, soft side down. Followed by adding the filling to the centre of each. The key to rolling is to not overfill the leaves.

3) Preparing the pot:
It’s layered with sliced potatoes and tomatoes, followed with the stuffed grape leaves. Packed tightly in the pot, so they can hold together while cooking. Covered with garlic and reserved liquids from the filling from earlier.

Once everything is prepped, it’s a matter of time to let them cook slowly until they’re ready. And then more time to cool down and refrigerate. Vegan yalanji is a recipe that requires a lot of patience!

Yalanji held in chopsticks

Vegan Yalanji Is a Perfect Party Food!

No matter what you call this dish, and whether they’re rolled in leaves or stuffed in veggies, they’ll always make a great party food! These bite-size snacks are perfect for picnics, potlucks, or a special family celebration. They’re also more fun to make as a group activity!

Yalanji stuffed in eggplant, held in hand

Vegan Yalanji Stories & Tips

Although I’m obsessed with its irresistible divine flavours, my real connection to Yalanji stems from the stories I heard while learning how to make it. I come from multiple countries (Palestine, Jordan, Syria), and it was always through food that I really got to know my culture. Sitting down with my mom and late grandmothers, listening to their stories of how they first learned the dish. What it meant to them. How they’ve passed down their recipes. The tips and tricks they picked up along the way.

Here are a few of my favourite tips about grape leaves:

Tip #1. Roll them in batches
On a large surface, spread out as many leaves at once as possible. Add the filling to the centre of each, then roll them up all at once. You won’t believe how much time this saves!

Tip #2. Keep tucking as you roll
When folding over the bottom to roll, keep on tucking in the sides as you continue on rolling. This helps keep the grape leaves from falling apart.

Tip #3. Stack & Freeze
If they’re freshly picked and you’re left with extras after blanching, with no more filling to roll, stack and freeze in small batches. Next time you have a filling, you’ll have ready to roll leaves!

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Vegan Yalanji (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Vegan Yalanji (Stuffed Grape Leaves)


Ingredients

Scale

For the Filling:

  • 2 cups short-grain rice (Jasmine/Egyptian rice)
  • 2 large tomatoes, small dice
  • 1 cup (tightly packed) curly parsley, finely chopped
  • 3 stalks green onion, thinly sliced
  • ⅛ cup (tightly packed) fresh mint, finely chopped

Spice mix/sauce:

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 2 lemons, freshly squeezed
  • 1 tbsp salt, adjust to taste
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper

For the Pot:

  • 2 potatoes, sliced into ½ inch circles
  • 2 tomatoes, sliced into ½ inch circles
  • 56 garlic cloves
  • Reserved liquid from the stuffing
  • Jarred grape leaves, will need about 80. Store the rest for later.

Instructions

  1. Rinse the rice until the water runs clear. Soak for 30 minutes. Drain and drop into a large bowl. Set aside for later.
  2. Finely chop the veggies for the stuffing. Whisk up the spice mix/sauce in a small bowl. Add everything to the bowl of rice and give it a good mix. Let it sit to soak up the flavors for 30 minutes. Once done, place a strainer in a separate bowl, and drop in the Yalanji filling, reserving the liquids for later.
  3. Rinse the vine leaves under water (room temp) to wash off the liquids caught from the jar.
  4. Snip off the hanging strings, and place each vine leaf on a clean plate with the soft side down.
  5. Add 1 heaping tsp of the stuffing to the center of each individual leaf. Fold over the bottom, tuck in the sides, and roll all the way through.
  6. Slice the potatoes and tomatoes. Place them at the bottom of a large pot.
  7. Add the stuffed grape leaves on top of the tomatoes, holding them tightly in place. Stick in the garlic cloves in between layers.
  8. Add the reserved liquid, with more water to top off the grape leaves, if needed.
  9. Bring it to a boil. Place a heat-proof plate upside down to cover and hold everything in place.
  10. Turn down the heat to low and cook for an hour to an hour and a half, until soft and tender. Serve cold.

Notes

If you want to stuff veggies instead:

You can use the Yalanji filling from this recipe to stuff vegetables rather than rolling grape leaves. I used 8 small eggplants, and 4 large zucchinis (or 8-10 small).

Using a corer, carefully core out the insides, as close to the skin as possible.

Using your hands, fill in the veggies with the Yalanji filling to stuff it all the way through.

Make sure not to stuff them tightly here. Instead, tap the bottom of the eggplant/zucchini on a surface to spread the filling evenly inside.

The rest of the process is the same, but the cooking time will be slightly different.

It may take longer to cook the vegetables, depending on their size. Keep an eye out until they’re soft and tender.

If the zucchinis are large, you will want to cut them in half first, before coring.

Find more of Waseem’s recipes on his website & Instagram.

Video recipe:

Text, recipe, photography and video by Waseem Hijazi.

Waseem Hijazi is the recipe creator and food blogger behind demeals. An accountant by day, and a foodie all throughout the day, he creates plant-based recipes for tasty food, that’s simply made. He focuses on implementing diversity of plants within the recipes he shares, and bringing out the vegan-friendly foods from his culture, often mixing middle eastern flavours that take him back to his favourite childhood dishes.

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If you loved this Vegan Yalanji recipe, you might also like…

Vegan Kurdish Aprax / Dolma (Stuffed Vegetables with Herbed Aromatic Rice)

Or click here for more vegan Food Stories!

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