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Zelevi Sarmi – cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat & rice

When I think of simple, slow cooked and homemade food, one of the things I imagine is Zelevi Sarmi. A simply prepared dish that brings me a sense of home or contentment every time I eat it. Probably the dish is not of Bulgarian origin but it’s so popular that every second Bulgarian will tell you that Zelevi Sarmi is a traditional Bulgarian dish.

Cooked and consumed during winter months Sarmi were normally a heavy dish, prepared with pork fat. However, with today’s shift to healthier eating many people have substituted the traditional pork fat with sunflower or olive oil.

Traditionally, a pot filled with Sarmi is usually prepared for an entire family. But you can half the proportions if your family is not too big.


Serves: 6-8Zelevi sarmi

2 tbsp sunflower (olive) oil
1 onion, peeled and finely diced
500g beef (or pork or combination of both), minced
150g (1 cup) of any white rice
2/3 cup (150g) medium grain rice, washed and drained
3 tbsp tomato paste
1-2 tsp mild paprika
1 tsp dried peppermint
1 tsp dried savory
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
20-30 pickled cabbage leaves (if too large, cut in half)
1litre boiling water (or stock)

For the tomato salsa (optional, for serving)
4-5 canned tomatoes
a sprig of fresh dill
1 tbsp of olive oil
salt & pepper to taste


Heat oil in a large frying pan (low-medium), add onions and a sprinkling of salt, sauté without colouring (for about 5 minutes). Turn heat up, add the minced meat and cook for another 8-10 minutes, stirring from time to time.

Add rice and stir until translucent (2-3 minutes). Add paprika and the tomato paste (diluted with some hot water) and cook for further 2-3 minutes. Then remove from heat and add all the remaining herbs and spices. Allow to cool a little bit so you can handle it.

In a large pot, place few cabbage leaves on the base. If the cabbage leaves are too salty, soak in cold water for up to 30 minutes. Drain cabbage leaves before starting to roll them.

How to roll up pickled cabbage wraps

Place a cabbage leaf on a chopping board with the thickest part closest to you, spoon 2-3 tea spoons of the mix and fold over each edge to form a neat cylinder. While rolling the cabbage leave try to create a tight sausage-like shape.

Place on the bottom of the pot. Continue until all the mix is used up, layering the sarmi (there will be 2-3 layers).When filling and rolling, follow the natural curve of the cabbage leaves.

Cover with 2-3 cabbage leaves and lace a large plate on top to hold the sarmi down. Pour boiling water over them and cover. Cover with lid and bring to the boil. Lower the heat to medium and cook for 30 minutes or until the rice is cooked.

While your sarmi are cooking, prepare the tomato salsa: put all ingredients in blender and whizz together.

To serve, pour some of the tomato salsa on a serving plate, line 2-3 sarmi and serve. Best served hot with crusty homemade bread.

7 comments to Zelevi Sarmi – cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat & rice

  • Jan Krontz

    We lived in Bulgaria for eight years. I miss the foods there so much and am looking forward to trying to cook these recipes myself. Thanks for sharing them!

    • Hi, Jan! I hope with our help you can prepare real Bulgarian food whenever you live now. Pls, tell us if you crave a dish we still haven’t posted a recipe for, and we will cook it and post it for you. Good luck!

  • yakir

    thank you for a good recepie and photos
    my mother (bulgarian of course) puts “chubritza” and paprica in the minced meat.
    the sarmi are cooked in souce made of crushed tomatos diluted with water and seasoned
    with salt , black peper, sugar, paprica and olive oil.
    when almost ready they are backed in the oven until slightly brouned

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  • Olivia

    I am Bulgarian and real Sarmi is made of grape leaves, not cabbage leaves.

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