Sarma – Myths and Legends of A Glorious Balkan Dish

Sarma – her majesty! Allow me to invent a word – “Sarmanostalgia”. It’s a feeling every person who grew up in the Balkan territory carries all their life regardless of their current location. They often spend their whole life in search of the forgotten taste of perfect comfort food. The emotional connection is even stronger knowing that it was usually prepared by their grandmothers. As Marcel Proust was obsessed with Madeleine cookies, so are all the Balkanians with Sarma. Every New Year celebration activates memories of mysterious Sarma. And with it, arises the hope to experience the exact same emotion while eating it again.

What in the world is Sarma?

Sarma, a piece of minced meat in the leaf of sauerkraut, will be produced this year in quantities exceeding the number of inhabitants of Balkan. The old rule says that there must be enough of Sarma, not just for the New Year’s Eve and the first lunch in January, but also there must be enough for the celebration of the three Kings. That would be January 6th which is a day before Orthodox Christmas for those who follow the old calendar. I will not make a misjudgment if I assume that more than thirty million Sarmas will be prepared this weekend on the Balkan peninsula.

Rolling it with style

After a whole day of preparation, the anticipation will grow. Those who will be lucky to try it at midnight will be the judges. But, Saram is getting better and better as the days are passing. There is a legend saying that Sarma is best after it was re-heated for the  9th time. Another legend says that nothing can cure the post-festivity hangovers as Sarma can. Especially if you consumed an alcoholic beverage of questionable quality that is usually served at public celebrations or Town’s squares.

Eat as much as you can

Numerous tastes, smells, colours and shapes that bind to sarma have attracted all family members for generations. People simply love this traditional meal! If not more often, then definitely on festive occasions. When Sarma is offered, the rule is “eat as much as you can”! Your hosts have been so busy trying to wrap the leaves and cook the perfect Sarma that it would be an insult not to eat as much as you can. Sarma lovers usually have only one question at lunch: how much free stomach capacity is still available, as part of the remaining space should be reserved for the following cakes. A bad tradition, but not something we can avoid!

There are no two Sarmas alike

In reality, it is impossible to make two same Sarams. Each set is unique! It is unique because it is made up of too many elements. Sour cabbage leaves themselves are different in shape, size and hardness. Then there is a varying degree of rootiness and salinity, different pieces of meat used, the ratio of beef and pork in minced meat, and the degree of mincing the mixture. Traditional version includes barley or rice. Keto version, as you can see in our Keto Greek version can include sesame seeds or even cauliflower rice. And then there are the spices… It’s all up to you!

But remember, the secret to perfect Sarma is in smoked bacon! Nothing smells better than smoked bacon combined with Medi spices!!! 

Sarma is the name for filled vine or cabbage leaves, usually for areas of South East Europe and neighboring regions. Sarma is traditionally prepared in Armenia, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Northeren Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Turkey, Ukraine and other countries close to geographical position and customs.

The word sarma is a noun derived from the Turkish verb “sarmak”, meaning to twist or roll.

In Turkey and Greece, sarm is called “Dolma” or “Dolmades”.

In the areas known and rich in vineyards, vine leaves have a special significance. That would be Herzegovina and Greece.
in Turkey, there’s a dessert prepared with wine leaves and cherries that is also called Sarma.

Keto Arambašići from Sinj – Croatia

Interestingly, there is a version called Arambašići (Originates in the area of Dalmatian inland town of Sinj) that is protected intangible cultural good by the Croatian ministry of culture. This version is prepared without rice, (Keto all the way!) but with the addition of bacon and smoked meat. The filling meat is not minced, it is usually chopped with a sharp knife. Here’s a Greek connection – cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves are added to the meat mixture. If you would like to give it a try, here’s the recipe you can follow.

A quick historical overview

The name of Sarma is derived from the Turkish word “sarma(k)”, meaning “twist, wrap”, but in Turkey, there is no similar dish under that name. However, Sarma comes indiscriminately from the east. Although the technique of filling and cooking is known from the Roman times. Moreover, the sauerkraut was filled in the Middle Ages in the Carolinian monasteries at the borders of France and Germany. Interestingly, the cabbage and meat combination is coming to Balkans through the Anatolian-Turkish East, which has succeeded Byzantium.

The mighty Sarma, in different versions and names, has been more widely spread than the Ottoman Empire has ever been. So, today we find it from Armenia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and of course Turkey. In Sweden, Sarma comes under the name “Kåldolmar”. It was brought by the Swedish soldiers who fought the Turks in the 17th century in Moldova.

Here’s our Keto version that is inspired by Croatian Arambašići

Keto Sarma

Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Total Time 2 hours 30 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine Keto Balkan
Servings 30


  • 30 large leaves of sour cabbage
  • 800 g (28.2 oz) minced meat half beef, half pork
  • 4 tbsp smoked bacon (or fatty part of prosciutto) finely chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbsp lemon zest finely grated
  • 1 tsp red paprika powder mild
  • 1 tbsp lard
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil extra virgin
  • 1 tsp black pepper freshly ground
  • 4 leaves laurel dried
  • 1/2 tsp Ceylon cinnamon powder
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg freshly grated
  • 1/2 tsp clove powdered
  • 3 cups beef broth
  • 6 thick slices of smoked bacon for the base in the casserole


  • First, prepare the filling mixture. Finely chop the garlic and smoked bacon. Mix this with minced meat and add salt, pepper, red paprika powder, lemon zest, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Mix using your hands and add 2 tbsp of olive oil.
  • Separate the leaves of sour cabbage (cut off the thick root at the bottom of the leaves so it is easier to roll).
  • In each cabbage leaf put about 1 tablespoon of the meat mixture. Roll and tuck in the ends so the filling does not come out during the cooking.
  • grease the casserole with lard and place large slices of smoked bacon on the bottom. Now place sarmas on top and try to fit them all so that you have 1 layer. If your casserole is smaller but deeper, you can make two layers of sarmas. 
  • Add bay leaves and pour 1-2 cups of beef broth. (If you haven't added spices to your broth while it was cooking, you can add spices and herbs of your choice at this point)
  • Cover the casserole with a lid and place it in the oven preheated to 200ºC (400ºF) Cook it in the oven and don't uncover for 1 hour. Add remaining beef broth and cook for an additional hour.
  • Serve warm and eat as much as you can! ;) 


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