Many people will say that they have been to Istanbul and never had stuffed grape leaves. This is because those who visit the city’s restaurants are too busy stuffing their faces with kebabs and döner and therefore miss out on one of the great culinary treasures of Turkey: stuffed grape leaves (yaprak sarma).
These tiny morsels of delight are called “yaprak sarma” (lit. ‘wrapped leaf’), or just “sarma,” in Turkish, “dolmades” in Greek, and “warak enab” in Lebanon.
Two different recipes in Turkey are”etli sarma” (filling has minced meat) and “zeytinyağlı yaprak sarma” (eaten cold and cooked with olive oil), which are equally popular. The cold, vegan option is as fragrant as wine, and the meaty version is just as enticing.
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Sarma is one of Turkey’s most popular dishes, whether meat or non-meat. It’s not like the large ones you can get outside Turkey, which are completely different than sarma. Unlike the Greek dolmades and Lebanese warak enab, the sarma in Turkey should be as thin as your little finger. That is the rule.
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1. Çiya Sofrası
Although this spot serves traditional Turkish food, tourists will likely delight with dishes they’ve never seen before. What we love most is that the veggie options aren’t limited. If you start with the meze bar, you’ll taste the sweet, vegan stuffed vine leaves, or go for the meat option from the main courses section for a more savory touch.
It’s no wonder why this place was featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table from combining lamb chops with quince to the vegetarian Roasted Fig. This is a real dish with savory pepper, onion, garlic, with a hint of sweetness from the figs, a hint of sour from the pomegranate sauce, a touch of freshness with the parsley and a million percent scrumptious. Another interesting food, the tangy yet sweet tomato dessert, has still to find a rival.
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This trendy Ottoman-styled restaurant is a colorful banquet fit for a king. Literally. All the dishes hail from a different epoch with descriptions such as Sultan Mehmet favoring the oysters with garlic sauce. Even more, the vegetarian dishes are plentiful, and most are as good, if not better than the meat dishes.
The cumin, cinnamon ginger, and onion add a wonderful perfume to the grape leaves, which are unique in that alongside the current and peanuts, they also contain cherries. They’re the perfect starter to the Lamb Neck with plum and a lovely glass of red wine or, if white wine is your thing, the Mahmudiye – a village chicken with noodles, almonds, apricots, grapes, honey, cinnamon, and dessert juice – may fit well.
You can enjoy your yaprak sarma dish with non-alcoholic options like handmade lemonades, sherbets, and freshly squeezed juices or with gin, whiskey, or cognac. Aside from the fruit salad, our favorite thing is that any recipe you don’t like is added to your bill. Isn’t that a fabulous invitation to start exploring?
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There are two types of stuffed grape leaves here: the ‘meat’ one offers a lovely mix of rice and minced meat, but the vegetarian one is a fan-favorite even for the staunchest carnivores. Even if you can’t get enough of these grape leaves, they do have a hot meat version with yogurt.
While we love most of the desserts at Fıccın, this warm, friendly restaurant has a magic treat that’ll blow you away: the poppyseed revani (light, fluffy semolina cake).
Even more, while the wines are wonderful, you may enjoy creating your own cocktail by mixing a third of the organic cranberry juice with two-thirds of the sweet blackberry sherbet.
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4. Tuşba Uzman Mezeci
This spot is take-away only, but there is a very distinctive pleasure in going back to our hotel room with a bunch of friends, turning up some Turkish folk music (thank you, YouTube), and delighting the night away with rakı and these inimitable finger foods. If rakı isn’t your thing, they have a collection of other drinks.
They don’t just have stuffed grape leaves but also have stuffed peppers, cabbage, and even calamari. If you want to create the same kind of merriment, the mussels stuffed with spicy, sweet, and savory rice is an absolute must!
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5. Naif Meyhane
If you’re starting on a new diet, this neoclassic-styled restaurant with its elegant whites and royal purples has a set menu that’ll please your tastebuds and your waistline.
We should warn you: apart from the traditional sarma made with grape leaves, the other sumptuous sarma here is made with a delectable, soft chard leaf.
There are many other delicious dishes here; the seasonal grilled veggies marinated in a special sauce combined with the spicy-citrusy chicken or the spicy, garlicky shrimp sauteed with almonds and spinach will cause you to drool.
If you don’t mind breaking your diet, the cheese plate with walnuts and fruits is like a blind date with cheeses you’ve never met before. It pairs perfectly with a sweet-sour Narcos cocktail for the ultimate culinary treat.
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