Sarma is probably one of the most popular dishes in Croatia, especially during the winter season. Every household has their own recipe for these stuffed cabbage rolls. Today I will share with you my favourite recipe for a delicious vegan sarma.
Original sarma consists of minced meat filling wrapped in sauerkraut leaves and cooked in a large pot. Even though Croatian sarma is often considered too sacred to be veganized, I am totally on board with the idea of veganizing it properly.
After many attempts, I am finally completely happy with the result, so it would be a shame not to share it with the world.
My non-vegan friends absolutely loved this vegan sarma. They said it was one of the best meatless sarmas out there. Hearing that from a Croatian person means everything, and I hope it will convince you to try out this recipe too.
Ingredients for vegan sarma (cabbage rolls)
To make this delicious vegan version of the beloved Croatian stuffed cabbage dish, you will need:
- sauerkraut a.k.a. kiseli kupus in Croatian (fermented cabbage heads to use for wrapping, plus shredded sauerkraut for the cooking). No cheating; real sarma has to be made with naturally fermented sauerkraut.
- semi-firm tofu – it will be our main “meat substitute” in this recipe. Tofu is full of protein and has a slightly chewy texture. With the right combination of spices, it will be one of the most important ingredients for this delicious vegan cabbage roll filling.
- rice – one of the main ingredients of the original sarma filling with minced meat. Uncooked rice is mixed with meat and spices and wrapped in sauerkraut leaves. As the rolls are cooked in a pot, the rice soaks up the water and makes the mixture more compact. The most common rice to use in sarma recipes is long grain white rice.
- pearl barley (ječmena kaša in Croatian) – barley grains without outer hull and with some of the bran removed; it is normally used to cook barley porridge. I like to use it in this recipe because it will make the mixture more compact compared to whole grain barley.
- bread crumbs – I make my own breadcrumbs from all types of leftover sourdough bread and soda breads. I don’t use wheat in my cooking, so these breadcrumbs are usually a mix of spelt, oat and corn.
- celery root
- parsley root
- tamari, shoyu or other naturally fermented soy sauce – it will help you achieve the umami that is usually present in meat dishes. It is an important ingredient if you’d like to get a rich flavour that reminds of a traditional sarma.
- miso paste – I prefer using light (shiro) miso because of its mild and sweet flavour that doesn’t take over the dish, but still adds depth to its flavour.
- nutritional yeast – the inactive yeast used for seasoning dishes, especially in vegan cooking. It is not absolutely necessary, but it will definitely give this sarma even more flavour.
- black pepper
- smoked paprika.
Making the perfect filling for vegan sarma
To make the vegan sarma filling that will make these cabbage rolls super delicious, you will first need to crush the tofu with a fork and mix it with all the spices and seasonings. Then you’ll slice the vegetables and chop them up in a food processor.
Uncooked rice, barley and millet are then added, and all the ingredients are mixed with hands. At this point, the mixture is naturally falling apart. But as it cooks after being rolled in the cabbage leaves, the filling will become perfectly compact.
The only challenge is to wrap it up in cabbage leaves, but don’t worry – it is not that big of a deal once you get the hang of it.
Rolling the sarma like you learned it from Croatian grandma
It is a bummer if your sarmas fall apart. Vegan sarmas can be even more prone to that kind of a disaster, since they are naturally less compact. But, have no fear. This is a skill that can easily be mastered.
To roll it like a pro, you can follow these easy steps:
- Remove the thick part close to the base of the sauerkraut leaves with a sharp knife, leaving only a thin layer (similar in thickness to the rest of the leaf). This will make the whole leaf more flexible and easier to roll. The leftover leaf bases can still be used in the cooking – I always cover the bottom of the cooking pot with some sauerkraut, including those bases.
- Put some filling on a sauerkraut leaf – near the middle, but closer to the base of the leaf. Start rolling the leaf around the filling, starting with the base; when the filling is covered and the roll is half-wrapped, flip the sides of the leaf over the rolled part, and continue rolling until it is fully wrapped. Do not wrap the rolls super tight – the filling will increase its volume in the cooking, because all the grains in it will soak up the liquid.
- Bonus tip – do not overload your cabbage rolls. Use the amount of filling that is easy to wrap, to prevent the scenario of sarmas falling apart in the cooking. Remember that the filling will absorb water in the cooking and grow a bit. The exact amount of filling depends on the size and thickness of cabbage leaves, so it can be some trial and error with the first few rolls.
Cooking vegan sarma
I like to use a wide, large cooking pot with a lid, so I can fit as many cabbage rolls as possible in one layer. Before filling the pot with sarma rolls, I like to put a thin layer of shredded sauerkraut and sliced sauerkraut leftovers to cover the bottom of the pot. This will prevent sarmas from sticking to the bottom and getting burnt.
I also like to use some of that shredded sauerkraut to fill in the empty spots between sarma rolls after I’ve put them into the pot. Leaving as little empty space between them will keep them compact and prevent them from falling apart during cooking.
Serving sarma – the traditional way
In Croatia, sarma is traditionally served with boiled or mashed potatoes. Since this is one of my favourite childhood dishes, I never even have it with anything else. So, the only serving ideas that I have for you today are:
- sarma with boiled potatoes
- sarma with mashed potatoes
- sarma alone (yes… I am that person).
Some people also like to have it with home-baked bread, which can be cool if you need something to dip in the cooking liquid. Still, I prefer to just have that liquid as a soup, with a spoon.
If you decide to combine it with something else, I will not judge. Let me know in the comments if you do, I would love to know your impressions.
Since sarma is usually made in big enough batches to feed your family, friends, neighbours… for many days, you will naturally need to be able to store it for some days.
Cooked and cooled sarmas should last about a week in a refrigerator. I haven’t had a chance to try if it can survive for longer, because it would all get eaten by then.
If it is snowy outside, I keep the pot with cooked sarmas on my balcony because it is often too big for my fridge. Whenever I want to eat some, I simply reheat a couple of rolls in a smaller pot, with some of that shredded cabbage and some of the yummy soup from the big pot.
Why is sarma so cool?
Besides the obvious reason – its delicious taste, this is why you should try Croatian sarma:
- it is a part of Balkan tradition that you simply need to try if you’d like to know the food culture of this area a little better;
- it is a real winter staple dish for a reason – what else do you need but a warm, fulfilling cooked meal in a bowl to keep you cosy and satiated, right?
- there are no heavy ingredients in this dish and there is no oil, frying or baking included. Only healthy cooked nutritious goodness that will make you feel great.
- 350 g semi-firm tofu
- ⅓ cup roughly chopped celery root
- ⅓ cup roughly chopped carrot
- ⅓ cup roughly chopped parsley root
- 1 cup long grain white rice
- ⅓ cup spelt breadcrumbs
- ⅓ cup millet
- ⅓ cup pearl barley
- 7 tbsp naturally fermented soy sauce (tamari or shoyu)
- 3 tbsp shiro miso paste
- 3 tbsp dried nutritional yeast
- 1 tbsp smoked paprika
- 1/3 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 large head of naturally fermented sauerkraut (1 - 1.25 kg)
- 300 - 500 g shredded sauerkraut
- Crush the tofu with a fork, or crumble it with your hands.
- Put the crushed tofu into a large bowl, and add soy sauce, miso, smoked paprika, black pepper and nutritional yeast.
- Roughly chop the carrots, celery and parsley root, put them into a food processor and chop into tiny pieces (they need to be really finely chopped, but don’t let them turn into a paste).
- Add the chopped vegetables into the bowl with tofu and spices.
- Add the rice, millet, barley and breadcrumbs.
- Mix all the ingredients well; I like to do it with my hands, to know that I mixed everything properly.
- Prepare the cabbage leaves for rolling by flattening their base - the thick part of the leaf should be removed using a sharp knife, in order to make the leaf base equally thick as the rest of the leaf. This will make the leaves flexible and more suitable for wrapping around the sarma filling. Keep the leaf base leftovers - you will need them for the cooking.
- Use 2-3 heaping tablespoons of filling for each leaf, and wrap as described in the article above. Wrap the sarmas to be as compact as possible (so as not to fall apart in the cooking), but don’t wrap them super tight - the grains in the filling will absorb liquid from cooking, which will make the filling increase its volume a bit.
- Put a thin layer of shredded sauerkraut and sliced sauerkraut leftovers on the bottom of the pot.
- Stack the sarma rolls in the pot, on top of that cabbage layer.
- When you fill the first layer with sarmas, you can add some shredded cabbage in between them in places where there is more free space left. That way you will ensure they stay in one place while cooking.
- Continue stacking until you’ve put all the cabbage rolls into the pot.
- Cover the sarma with any leftover cabbage.
- Pour the sauerkraut liquid into the pot and add just enough water to cover the sarmas.
- Cover the pot with a lid and put on a stove. Turn on the heat; once it starts boiling, lower the heat and let it simmer for about an hour. If needed, you can add some more water as it cooks.
- Serve the cooked sarma with mashed potatoes.
I make my own breadcrumbs from various spelt, oat and corn breads that I normally bake.
For a gluten-free version, you can substitute the barley with more millet. Bredcrumbs can be left out if you cannot find gluten-free ones. The filling will be a little bit less compact without them, but it’s nothing to worry about. I have made sarmas without breadcrumbs several times and they turned out great too.
Before making the filling mixture, taste the sauerkraut. If the cabbage is very salty, you can put less soy sauce in the filling. If the cabbage is too sour for your taste, you can wash it a bit with water. I personally never do this because in my opinion sauerkraut simply cannot be too sour. However, some Croatian people do wash the cabbage leaves before making sarma, so do how you feel.
Before filling the pot with rolled sarmas, put a layer of shredded sauerkraut on its bottom to keep the sarmas from sticking to the bottom or changing flavour from too much direct heat. All of the cabbage leaves leftovers can be sliced and used for the same purpose. When arranging sarmas inside of the pot, you can also put some shredded and sliced sauerkraut between them, to fill the gaps and keep them compact. This way you will prevent them from falling apart during cooking.