Sarma - cooked leaves rolled around a filling made from rice and/or minced meat, possibly vegetables and seasoning plants - represents one of the most widespread feasting dishes of the Middle Eastern and South-Eastern European cuisines. Although cabbage and grape vine sarma is well-known worldwide, the use of alternative plant leaves remains largely unexplored. The aim of this research was to document all of the botanical taxa whose leaves are used for preparing sarma in the folk cuisines of Turkey and the Balkans.
Field studies were conducted during broader ethnobotanical surveys, as well as during ad hoc investigations between the years 2011 and 2014 that included diverse rural communities in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. Primary ethnobotanical and folkloric literatures in each country were also considered.
Eighty-seven botanical taxa, mainly wild, belonging to 50 genera and 27 families, were found to represent the bio-cultural heritage of sarma in Turkey and the Balkans. The greatest plant biodiversity in sarma was found in 2 Turkey and, to less extent, in Bulgaria and Romania. The most commonly used leaves for preparing sarma were those of cabbage (both fresh and lacto-fermented), grape vine, beet, dock, sorrel, horseradish, lime tree, bean, and spinach. In a few cases, the leaves of endemic species (Centaurea haradjianii, Rumex gracilescens, and R. olympicus in Turkey) were recorded. Other uncommon sarma preparations were based on lightly toxic taxa, such as potato leaves in NE Albania, leaves of Arum, Convolvulus, and Smilax species in Turkey, of Phytolacca americana in Macedonia, and of Tussilago farfara in diverse countries. Moreover, the use of leaves of the introduced species Reynoutria japonica in Romania, Colocasia esculenta in Turkey, and Phytolacca americana in Macedonia shows the dynamic nature of folk cuisines.
The rich ethnobotanical diversity of sarma confirms the urgent need to record folk culinary plant knowledge. The results presented here can be implemented into initiatives aimed at re-evaluating folk cuisines and niche food markets based on local neglected ingredients, and possibly also to foster trajectories of the avant-garde cuisines inspired by ethnobotanical knowledge.