Cabbage Rolls in Tomato and Sumac Sauce

For this Kurdish twist on a comfort food favorite, cabbage leaves are rolled around a chile-and-mint-seasoned meat and rice mixture and cooked in tomato sauce tart with sumac. The time you spend assembling the rolls is rewarded in leftovers that only get better with time in the refrigerator.

You will need a cheesecloth or a large paper coffee filter to strain the sumac from the water, and parchment paper to lay over the cabbage rolls as they cook. Figure on 4 or 5 rolls per main dish serving. Serve warm or hot, with pickles.

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Cabbage Rolls

  • 1 cup short- or medium-grain rice, such as Baldo, CalRose, or basmati
  • 8 ounces of ground beef or lamb
  • 1 small-medium onion, minced (about ½ cup)
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • ¾ packed cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 medium-large tomato (about 6 ounces), halved crosswise and grated
  • 2 tablespoons sweet or hot Turkish red pepper paste, or a combination (optional)
  • 3 mild or hot green chiles, such as cayenne, Holland, or jalapeño, cut in half lengthwise, seeded, and thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon dried mint
  • 1 tablespoon Turkish or other crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
  • 1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Tomato and Sumac Sauce

  • ¼ cup ground sumac
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt


  • 1 large or 2 small green cabbages (about 4 pounds)
  • 1 tablespoon kosher or another coarse salt


Put the rice in a medium bowl, add water, and swish with your fingers to remove the excess starch. Carefully drain off the water and repeat it two or three times, until the water runs clear. Set aside.

To make the sumac water for the sauce:

Place the ground sumac in a small bowl and pour over the hot water. Set aside to infuse.

To cook the cabbage:

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the salt. Remove any torn or damaged outer leaves from the cabbage. Cut a ½-inch-deep X in the stem end(s) and add to the water (if you are using 2 cabbages, you may have to cook them one at a time). Bring the water back to a boil, partially cover the pot, and cook the cabbage until a knife inserted to its core meets no resistance, 15 minutes or so, depending on the size of your cabbage. Do not let the cabbage cook so long that it becomes mushy.

Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath. When the cabbage is cooked, plunge it into the cold water. When it is cool enough to handle, remove it from the water, core it, and carefully separate the leaves, stacking them on a plate. Line the bottom of a wide 3-quart lidded pot with a layer of small and/or torn leaves; set aside.

To make the filling:

Place the drained rice in a large bowl and add the ground meat, onion, garlic, parsley, grated tomato, pepper paste (if using), and chiles and mix with your hands or a fork. Sprinkle over the mint, red pepper flakes, salt, and black pepper, and mix again.

Assemble the cabbage rolls:

Place a cabbage leaf on your work surface with the interior of the leaf facing up and the bottom of the leaf toward you. Use a sharp knife to cut out the thick rib, making an inverted V (discard the rib). Place a mounded tablespoon of filling at the tip of the V and shape it into a log, leaving at least an inch between it and the edges of the leaf. Fold the left and right edges of the leaf over the filling, then fold the bottom flaps of the leaf up and over and roll it away from you to make a parcel. Don’t roll the leaf too tightly—leave room for the rice to expand during cooking. Place the cabbage roll seam side down in the pot and repeat until the filling is used up, laying the rolls side by side when possible and close together but not snug. Make two layers if necessary, laying the rolls in the second layer in the opposite direction from those in the first layer.

To make the sauce:

Line a sieve with a cheese cloth or a damp large paper coffee filter set it over a quart measuring cup or a medium bowl, and pour in the sumac water. Gather the cheesecloth around the ground sumac and squeeze it to release as much liquid as possible. Discard the sumac. Pour 1¾ cups of the sumac water into a small bowl; add water if necessary to make 1¾ cups. (Set any extra sumac water aside to add during cooking if necessary or for reheating leftovers.) Mix in the tomato paste, olive oil, and salt, stirring to eliminate lumps. Pour the sauce over the cabbage rolls.

Place the pot over high heat and bring the sauce to a boil. Lay a piece of parchment paper over the rolls and a heatproof plate on top of the paper. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook for 30 minutes, checking after 15 minutes (use tongs to lift plate and paper) to make sure that there is still liquid in the pot; add ½ cup sumac water or plain water if the bottom is nearly dry. You want to end up with just enough reduced sauce to lightly coat the cabbage rolls.

Let the cabbage rolls rest, covered, for at least 10 minutes, and serve hot or warm.

Excerpted from ISTANBUL AND BEYOND © 2017 by Robyn Eckhardt. Photography © 2021 by David Hagerman. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.