101 Tastes of Croatia: 5. Sarma

Total Croatia News

Tea Hrzica

Meet Her Majesty, the Sarma!

Sarma (no English equivalent I’m afraid) is a traditional winter dish of Croatia and the Balkans.

It’s made out of minced meat, which is rolled into sour cabbage leaves and cooked along with more sour cabbage. It’s also one of those meals a woman should know how to make in order to get married (so they say).

Although sarma is considered a national dish in Croatia as well as in Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia (even Bulgaria and Romania) its historical roots come from the Ottoman empire, all the way back in the 16th century. And they stole the idea from the Persians! So, it’s little to say that sarma has been around for some time now.

The original version was meat free, made with wine leaves and stuffed with rice, then boiled in hot water, which is the recipe known today as yaprak sarma (yaprak is the Turkish word for leaf). This kind of sarma is still eaten in more Muslim oriented countries, like Turkey and Bosnia. Other countries prefer the meat filling and sour cabbage combination, although in the south of Croatia and Herzegovina they use leaves of a plant called raštika (wild blitva) and that dish is called Hercegovački japrak. Many nations, twice as many varieties of sarma.

The most common sarma in these areas is the one with cabbage and meat. Each household has their own ”unique” recipe and while some use only minced pork meat, the others use pork/beef mixture. Some put more spices in the meat mixture, other keep it clean with salt, pepper and paprika. Some make the sauce more flavourful by adding a bit of ajvar to the whole story, others don’t. Some roll big sarmas, some make them small. And there’s also a dispute over the right amount of ”sourness” when it comes to the cabbage. As it usually goes in Croatia, everyone is right and wrong at the same time.

The cultural impact of this dish is huge. Everyone I know and will ever know, has had sarma in their life and also said that their mum/grandmother make the best ones. It’s the first dish you’ll have after the New Year party and you’ll probably eat it for the whole week. Because when sarma is made in Croatia, it’s made in 10l pots in order to feed the whole family for a week. And the best part is, it tastes the best after the third day. Because it’s so time friendly and practical, people cook and pack it when they go skiing, as it provides energy, comfort and all the protein you need. It also gives you gas, so stay away from it if you’re planning a romantic date night.

A person (especially if they’re of Croatian origin) who doesn’t like sarma is not considered human, and a man who can’t eat a minimum 3 of them in one sitting is not considered a man. If you eat just the meat and leave the cabbage it’s considered a national tragedy, and if you leave the meat and it the cabbage, well, you’re nothing but a disgrace.

As I stated before, there are million versions of the recipe so I won’t be able to proivde you with the original, IT recipe for sarma. But I will be able to give you the recipe that does the trick for me. In any case, you’ll be needing one sour cabbage. We have the luxury of buying them vacuumed in stores or fresh from the market. I get mine from my grandmother, who pickles her own cabbage. Of course she does.

The wider the leaves, the better and more compact the sarma.

Ingredients for 15 medium sarmas:

– 1 sour cabbage head, around 1,2 kilo

– 500 g of mixed minced meat

– 100 g of rice

– 100 g of bacon

– 100 g of onions

– 2 cloves of garlic

– Salt, pepper, sweet paprika

– 200 g of meaty bacon

– Creme fraiche or very fatty sour cream


1. Remove 15 leaves of cabbage. If they seem too salty or too sour, rinse them under some running water, but not too much! Otherwise it could seem tasteless.

2. If the stalk of the leave at the bottom is thick, cut it out.

3. Mix the meat with the rice, 1 tea spoon of salt, 1 tea spoon of pepper and 1 tea spoon of paprika. Add 100 g of chopped bacon.

4. Chop the onions and garlic until very fine and fry for couple of minutes on a table spoon of oil, adding the garlic at the last moment. Add them to the meat mixture and using your hands, mix thouroughly.

5. The making of the sarma: take a table spoon worth of meat and put it on the bottom of the leaf, in the centre. Cover over with the bottom part of the leaf. Then bring in the sides, right and left. Then roll until the end, like a burrito.

6. Slice up the rest of the cabbage. Use the half to cover the bottom of the pot. Then place over the sarmas.They should be snuggled tight, but not too tight as they’ll have grown while cooking.

7. Cover with the other half of sliced cabbage and place the rest of sarmas. Cut the bacon into 4-5 bigger chunks and place around the sarmas.

8. Cover with water until just covered.

9. Cook for 2 hours. If you’re brave enough, add a table spoon of ajvar into the pot while cooking.

10. Serve with some mashed potatoes and a dollop of creme fraiche.

This dish can sit in the fridge for days and be frozen for months. It’s time to sarma it up!


Subscribe to our newsletter

the fields marked with * are required
Email: *
First name:
Last name:
Gender: Male Female
Please don't insert text in the box below!

Leave a Comment