Growing up in a Middle Eastern household, stuffed grape leaves were a staple on a dinner table, especially for special occasions. These vegetarian stuffed grape leaves, known as yalanji are my absolute favorite. They are tangy, melt in your mouth, and are just flavorful. These are truly a labor of love, but worth every effort it takes to make them. I want to think this is my signature dish, so I am excited to share this recipe with you all.
Essentially, these vegetarian stuffed grape leaves (yalanji), are filled with white rice, typically short grain, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, parsley, garlic, and more. This is my mother’s recipe, who is known to make some of the best yalanji. I have tweaked it to make it more adjusted to my preferences, and it is a winner. Anyone who tries these; instantly loves them and asks for the recipe!
How to prepare Grape Leaves:
You can either use fresh or jarred grape leaves. I happen to have grape vines in my backyard, so in the summer months, I will pick the leaves and make a pot of these but jarred is most commonly used because it is found conveniently in most ethnic stores. How you would prepare the two would be different, however.
If using fresh leaves, you want to lightly rinse and place them in boiling water for 15 minutes to soften them and get a vibrant green color. You would also have to remove the stem. If using jarred grape leaves, you will need to release the liquid (brine) from the jar and wash the leaves thoroughly before. My preferred brand of grape leaves is Al Afia; they also take off the stem, which is a time saver.
How to make vegetarian stuffed grape leaves:
Although grape leaves seem intimidating, they are simple and tedious. Just follow the steps below to ensure a delicious pot of grape leaves. You will be a pro in no time!
Filling: To start, you want to make the filling. You will need 2 cups of white rice for these grape leaves, preferably short grain such as Calrose or Egyptian rice, but you can also use long grain or jasmine rice. Silly me, I used to finely hand chop all of the vegetables for this meal, which took a long time! As of the last 2 years, I have used my handy food processor to chop the veggies for this filling, and it works perfectly and saves me lots of time.
Once the vegetables are chopped, and the rice is rinsed and soaked, you will combine the two. You will add umami flavors with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, tomato paste, and shatta (Arabic chili sauce if you like). I also like to toss in dried mint, allspice seasoning, and salt. All of these ingredients make these dynamite and irresistible.
Stuff & Roll: This is the most time-consuming part of making grape leaves, and there is no way to make it easier or quicker. With time, you will gain confidence in stuffing and rolling and therefore gain speed to make these faster. Typically, I will have the filling prepped a day or hours in advance, and I will stuff and roll these when I have time. I find it therapeutic and enjoy making them. A jar makes about 70 so roll up those sleeves and get rolling. You start by laying the leaf flat on your surface with the smooth side facing down and the rough side up. You will be stuffing the rougher side. Add a spoonful of the mixture along the center. Roll the end of the leaf over and tuck in the sides and keep rolling until you have a cigar-like shape. Please watch the video below for a demonstration of how to roll grape leaves. Before you know it, you will have a plate of stuffed grape leaves ready to be cooked!
Assembling the pot: First, use a non-stick pot and spray it with nonstick spray. To the bottom of the pot, add a layer of sliced tomatoes followed by sliced potatoes. If you want to add meat to the bottom of the pot, you can do so now. I know this is a vegetarian recipe and you can strictly keep it so but if you want the option of protein, you most definitely can add lab chops to the bottom of the pot as well. They will taste spectacular alongside the tangy grape leaves and give some flavor to them as well but of course, totally optional. This is fantastic without any meat, but I highly recommend adding potatoes. The tomatoes are essential as they will protect the stuffed grape leaves from getting scorched at the bottom.
Then, you will start layering the stuffed grape leaves into even layers in the pot until you aren’t left with any. I then like to cover the stuffed grape leaves with any leftover torn grape leaves and a heat-proof plate that fits the pot. This will help keep the grape leaves intact as they simmer.
Cooking the grape leaves:
You want to submerge the grape leaves in a flavorful cooking liquid of crushed bouillon, tomato paste, olive oil, and lemon juice with boiling water. This stock will yield an even more flavorful pot of grape leaves! The cooking liquid should cover the grape leaves entirely by an extra inch. Let this come to a boil then simmer on medium heat for 2.5 hours. Most of the liquid will be cooked off at that point and the grape leaves will be tender!
Tips when making Grape Leaves:
- Roll the leaves tightly enough to where the filling won’t come out or the leaves won’t open but not too tight as you want to leave room for the rice to expand in the leaves.
- I would not recommend making this with brown rice. Brown rice takes much longer to cook than white rice. Your risk the grape leaves overcooking if you wait for the brown rice to cook through.
- Ensure the bottom of the pot is lined with tomatoes and potatoes to protect the grape leaves while cooking.
I typically enjoy these grape leaves with plain yogurt and lemon wedges. But you can also make these as an appetizer for a special occasion and serve them with dishes like beef kofta kebab, chicken tawook, and Arabic salad.
If you prefer stuffed grape leaves with meat filling, check out my cookbook, Dine in Palestine. I have a delicious recipe for those in the main entree section of the book!
Let me know if you try this recipe by leaving a comment below! I would love to see your remakes over on my Instagram page too!
Vegetarian Stuffed Grape Leaves (Yalanji)
- One jar of Grape Leaves Al-Afia is my preferred brand, rinse the leaves
- 2 cups White rice preferably short grain such as calrose or Egyptian rice but long grain works too, soaked & rinsed
- 1 Bunch of parsley
- 2 Roma tomatoes
- 1 Red bell pepper
- 1 Yellow onion
- 4 Garlic cloves
- 1/2 cup Olive oil
- 1.5 Lemon's juice
- 1 1/2 tbsp Allspice powder
- 1 tbsp Pomegranate molasses
- 1 tbsp Dried mint
- 1 tbsp Shatta (Arab chili paste) sambal works too or omit (it is optional)
- 1 tbsp Tomato paste
- Salt to taste Salt a decent amount-it will bring out the flavors. at least 1 tsp.
Cooking Liquid for the Grape Leaves
- 3 cups Water boiling
- 1 Bouillon cube
- 1 lemon’s juice
- 1 1/2 tbsp Tomato paste
- Drizzle of pomegranate molasses
- 2 tbsp Olive oil
- Salt & Pepper to taste
- 4 Cardamom pods
- In a food processor, add the vegetables other than the tomatoes and pulse a few times until fine. Then, add the tomatoes and pulse 2-3 times.
- Add the pulsed vegetables with the drained rice. To this, season with salt, pepper, allspice, dried mint, pomegranate molasses, tomato paste, lemon juice, olive oil, and shatta. Mix well.
- At this point, the filling is ready. You can have this prepared up to 2 days before if you would like.
- For the grape leaves, if using jarred, make sure to rinse the grape leaves well and that the stem is removed. If using fresh grape leaves, you should boil the leaves in hot water for 15-20 min to tenderize them.
- To stuff, place the grape leave on a clean flat working surface with the shiny side facing down and the rigid up. You will add the rice stuffing to the rigid side. Add about 2 tsp depending on size of grape leave across of the leaf above the stem.
- Fold the bottom of the leaf up over the stuffing, and then fold over the sides of the leaf onto the stuffing.
- Roll up the leaves making sure that the sides are tucked in as you go. Roll somewhat tightly; you don't want the rice falling out when the grape leaves cook. You also do not want it too tight so the rice can expand well.
- Line the bottom of a big pot with extra grape leaves or torn ones, slices of tomato and/or slices of potato. You can also add lamb chops at this point seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and lemon pepper.
- Start stacking the grape leaves on top of whatever you choose to line the bottom of the pot. I would recommend all 3 but for sure the tomatoes and potatoes! Make sure they are tightly packed next to one another, leaving no room for them busting open while cooking.
- Stir together all the ingredients for the cooking liquid with the boiling water.
- Place a fitting plate on top of the grape leaves. Pour the liquid mix over the grape leaves after they are stacked. Make sure the liquid is covering the grape leaves entirely with an inch extra. If not, add more water to do so.
- Bring to boil over high heat, then cover the pot and let it simmer on low to medium heat for 2 1/2 hours till grape leaves are tender.
- Once slightly cooled, flip over the pot onto a large serving plate.
- Serve with plain yogurt for dipping and wedges of lemon. You can also make a refreshing arabic salad alongside this.
Cover photo credit: Doaa ElKady