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Feather & Flower Tiles
Diaspora Fragments || Diaspora Dolma 
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Part I: Diaspora Fragments 

When I was a teenager and a holiday or birthday was coming up, my mama would always ask me what we should make.


Что мы будем готовить?


At this point, we have been living in the United States for quite a few years, and our family was far away. My mama usually worked long, exhausting shifts as a registered nurse with little time or energy to cook complicated and time-consuming dishes. Being a self-absorbed and needy teenager, I, of course, always asked my mama to make the most complicated, time-consuming, “traditional” dishes for these special occasions. 

I wanted everything made from scratch. No—I insisted—we can’t buy pre-prepared dough for кутабы/qutabı/kutabi or replace homemade cream for my birthday cake with instant pudding powder or buy пахлава/paxlava/baklava from the Greek grocer off of Cheshire Bridge Road.


No shortcuts.


My mama, still in her scrubs, gave me a tired look, but we made whatever dishes I requested anyway, usually from scratch. I didn’t realize then that my inflexible insistence on made-from-scratch, no-shortcuts cooking was a result of some romanticized idea of “traditional” dishes.

I missed a connection to my family and our cultures when I was making these requests of my overworked mama.




Usually, the only times we would make these complicated, time-consuming, “traditional” dishes were on special occasions. I always thought it was because they took so long to make. After all, we had to go to several markets to get specific ingredients for each dish. This store had the best fresh dill and mint, but the other store had better and cheaper saffron and sumac. We had to spend the entire day prepping dough and peeling potatoes and soaking rice and chopping vegetables.


The kitchen was overwhelmed by flour and heat and vegetable trimmings and hot oil.


I think it is mostly true that we only engaged in these chaotic cooking rituals on special occasions because of time constraints. But I also think there was a lot of pain around making these dishes.

It was a reminder to us, in different ways, of being multiply displaced, far away from our family and cultures.


We carried our fragmented selves and passed them onto the next generation, from Shusha and Babruysk, to Baku and Moscow, to Atlanta and New York, to New Jersey and Nashville and Bloomington.


Maybe this is why ingredients have always been so important to each of us in my family. The pain showed up there, too, I think. While we can find a lot of what we need to make “traditional” dishes here in the United States, it just doesn’t taste the same. The tomatoes, the herbs, the fruits and berries. It’s like a mantra passed down from grandparents to kids to grandkids: it’s just not the same. When my mama or my auntie or I find a watermelon or berries or pomegranates or tomatoes that come even slightly close to what we miss, everyone in the family gets a text message update with at least ten photos as evidence and a play-by-play of how and when and what a miracle.

How do I live with this intergenerational pain so entangled with food?

Sometimes cooking and eating feels like an ongoing ritual of mourning. I feel something—a sadness or longing or excitement—when I smell each tomato and herb bunch before buying it, or when I eat my mama’s кутабы/qutabı/kutabi or борщ/borş/borshch or баклажанная икра / badımcan kürüsü / eggplant caviar or пирожки/piroqlar/piroshki or пахлава/paxlava/baklava, however rarely I get to nowadays. Even more so when I watch her and help her make these dishes. 


How do I live with this intergenerational pain so entangled with food?

I am learning how cultures have been and are always living and evolving. There is no purity or tradition to return to that is not always a part of a longer history and interaction and entanglement. I think about the geographical location of the southern Caucasus, in the midst of silk road routes and networks that connected so many places. Peoples entangled with peoples. Empires on empires. For example, I think about all the different peoples who celebrate Nowruz, our new year, from China to India to Central Asia to Turkey to southern California. I especially always loved Nowruz. It felt like an ancient ritual of celebrating spring and renewal that everyone in my family could partake in, Muslims and Jews and neither and both.



How do I live with this intergenerational pain so entangled with food?

I insist on making our “traditional” food. When we get to see each other, my mama still asks me what we should make for a special occasion. Что мы будем готовить? That special occasion is now just the time I visit her from far away, from Bloomington. I am more helpful now in the kitchen as an adult. I insist on making our “traditional” food when I am far away from her, too. I make плов/plov/pilaf and столичный салат / paytaxt salatı / stolichniy salad and довга/dovğa/dovga on special occasions or when I am just homesick and sad. I make them vegan and add paprika or hot sauce or za’atar that I picked up along the way.

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biber dolması





Feather & Flower Tiles
Part 2: Diaspora Dolma 

Dolma means “stuffed” and sarma means “wrapped” in Turkic languages. Dolma includes variations of stuffed grape, cabbage, or other leaves or stuffed vegetables, such as eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers. The stuffing is often rice and/or meat that is flavored with fresh herb mixtures and spices. There are also fruit- and nut-based dolmas that are more sweet. While types of dolma vary from country to country, as well as from region to region within each country, Azerbaijani yarpaq dolması, or grape leaf dolmas, tend to be smaller and rounder, include a great amount of fresh herbs, and are often served warm. However, everyone makes them a little differently. Below is a recipe of how I make yarpaq dolması, which I learned by watching my mama and my auntie over the years as well as being open to new possibilities of  preparing and eating this “traditional” dish. My dolma is not small, nor is it expertly wrapped, but it is delicious!






Various alternatives discussed under instructions. Precise measurements are not super important.

  • about 100 grape leaves, fresh or in a jar (16 oz or more)

  • 2 cups of dry, medium grain rice

  • ½ medium onion

  • fresh herbs: 1 bunch or ½ cup of cilantro; 1 bunch or ½ cup of dill; 1 bunch or ½ cup of mint or parsley

  • salt and black pepper

  • 1 (8 oz) can of tomato sauce (optional)

  • 1 lemon (optional)

  • paprika (optional)

  • cumin (optional)

  • to serve with (optional): vegan Greek-style yogurt or tzatziki; hot sauce


First, prepare the rice, grape leaves, and herbs. For the rice, you can use any kind of medium grain rice. I like to use white basmati rice because it is what I usually have at home. Please note that different types of rice have different cooking times. Take about two cups of rice and thoroughly wash it until the water runs clear. Then, soak the rice in cool water for about thirty minutes.


While the rice is soaking, prepare the grape leaves. You can use fresh grape leaves (if you are lucky enough to live near grapevines around!) or ones that come in a jar. If you use fresh ones, you need to blanch them first: briefly immerse them in salted boiling water for just a minute or two and then cool them off by letting them air dry or in an ice bath. If you use ones that come in a jar, you need to wash them in water because they are often a bit too salty from the jar liquid. Gently cut off the stems from the grape leaves. If you want smaller dolma and have large grape leaves, you can cut the leaves in half. If grape leaves are completely inaccessible to you, you can use swiss chard or cabbage leaves.


Then wash all of your fresh herbs. You can use any herbs you like, but make sure you use a lot! I like to use dill, cilantro, and parsley or mint because those are the easiest for me to get where I live. I will sometimes add a bit of fresh tarragon, basil, and/or thyme if I can get it. You can also even substitute with or add a bit of spinach or other leafy greens, but the fresh herbs are what give dolma the signature flavor. After washing the fresh herbs, pat them dry and then chop them very small. Chop half an onion into very small pieces as well, almost the same size as the rice. 


Combine all of the stuffing ingredients (rice, onion, and herbs) into a large mixing bowl. Add salt and black pepper. This is a bit tricky because I never measure spices. It’s also challenging to taste whether there are enough spices since the stuffing has not been cooked yet. I think about 1 tsp of salt and 1 tsp of black pepper will do. It’s always better to add salt later if needed than to oversalt! I also like to add a bit of paprika and cumin, but that is optional. Mix all the ingredients with your hands until well combined.


Get your prep staton ready: pile of rinsed grape leaves; stuffing; big pot; and a plate to roll the dolma on. Line the bottom of the big pot with grape leaves. This is a good time to use the less-than-perfect ones. Then stuff the grape leaves! Lay a grape leaf flat with the stem end toward you. Take about a (heaping) teaspoon of the stuffing and place it near that stem end. Fold the tops of the leaf down, then fold the sides of the leaf inward over the filling, and then roll the leaf tightly into a small bundle. Repeat many, many times! Hopefully you have a friend to help you—this is a great communal activity!


Arrange the stuffed grape leaves tightly next to each other (and then on top as you add more and more) in a circular pattern (folded side down to ensure they don’t unfold) in the pot. Once you run out of the stuffing or the leaves, you can top the dolma with tomato sauce (optional) and a few lemon wedges (optional), and then pour water to cover the dolma. I like to have boiling water ready to save time. Some people put a plate on top to keep the dolma from floating. Once the water boils in the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low and let it simmer until the rice is cooked through and the leaves are tender. Since I soak my rice before using it, it usually takes about 30 minutes for my rice to cook through and for the leaves to get tender. You can always check it periodically to see how it's doing.


You can eat immediately after the dolma is ready! I prefer it warm and with hot sauce and vegan yogurt (my favorite is Forager cashew milk yogurt, unsweetened plain).


Приятного аппетита! Nuş olsun!

yarpaq dolması.HEIC
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