I recently noticed a Facebook post from fellow ARS Ungerouhi Seda Aghamianz calling for “Derev Pickers” to help themselves to grape leaves at Kaligian Farms. That’s what they call their yard, and she hated to see the grape leaves go to waste, as she does not make yalanchi. This was a sign. This was my time to enter the ring in the yalanchi/sarma arena—an arena I long felt I did not belong in nor could I fathom picking leaves and making the ever so famous Armenian grape leaves. Off I went with my youngest daughter Knar, thinking this could be a family affair. With our masks on and her wrist in a cast, we started picking derev.
What’s the right size? What shape is best? How many should I collect? How do you pull it off without damaging the stem and leaf? I should have brought scissors! I turned to another fellow ARS Ungerouhi Betty Basmajian Dimitian of the famous Watertown Arax Market. She shared suggestions on leaf size, as well as blanching, cooling and storing the leaves.
I jumped in with two feet, grabbed as many leaves as I thought necessary, having no clue really. On my way home, I was so proud of the act of collecting derev. I was a real dandeegeen now. I just needed an apron while doing it to feel the part.
I took Ungh. Betty’s advice and blanched the leaves, putting them in a boiling pot, but not too long, maybe four to five minutes. After removing them from the pot, I put them in a big Tupperware container of cold water with ice cubes. Mission accomplished. But removing them and getting the water out was not an easy assignment. The cookbooks basically tell you the steps, but not many hints on best practice. So I pulled out a large bath towel and placed it on the counter to lay the leaves out flat and dry them one by one. I knew full well this was not the way, but I was playing it safe. It was taking too long and too much room. I am sure this is not how the ladies at St. Stephen’s Church do it. I proceeded to just ring the leaves out in bunches. It wasn’t pretty. It took forever to unfold them out of the bunches, but it worked. I very neatly placed all the leaves out to dry. It was a pretty sight in the end.
After an entire afternoon of picking leaves in the heat, blanching and drying, I was in no mood to make the “meechoog” (filling) and roll grape leaves. It was too late in the day to finish. Poor planning on my part, but I learned how much time it takes to just prepare the leaves. I proceeded to collect the dry leaves to store in the refrigerator. Ungh. Betty had sent very clear directions, so I proceeded to store the leaves between small pieces of paper towel and placed them in the refrigerator until the next day. You can freeze the leaves up to six months, but I was on a mission to get this done as soon as possible.
The next day I pulled out another Armenian cookbook for more direction: It Took A Village by the St. Sarkis Armenian Church Ladies Guild—my hometown. And boy this yalanchi production was taking a village, really. I turned to the yalanchi page and found Violet Gavoor’s recipe. It just so happened that same day, while I was on Facebook, I saw Violet, her daughters Nancy and Ani and her granddaughter Kara, making yalanchi. (I am not kidding.) So this was another sign for sure. Knowing Auntie Violet, I trusted her and used her recipe and their Facebook photo as inspiration.
I proceeded to chop the ingredients (parsley, dill, onions), prepared the rice (rinsed) and cooked the filling. It smelled great and tasted even better. I tried not to overcook the rice filling and undercooked a bit to let the final cooking take place in the pot. Once cooled, I began rolling the leaves. I was surprisingly pretty good at filling and rolling the grape leaves; this was my best skill yet. The leaves were just the right size and shape (Thanks, Betty). I had ample leaf on both sides to fold in and roll the yalanchi. I learned that from watching the ladies at church. Once the leaves were all filled and rolled, I neatly and tightly placed all the yalanchi in the bottom of the pot lined with leaves that didn’t make the cut to be rolled. They all looked great and smelled even better. I proceeded to pour water over the yalanchi and let cook for 75 minutes. Of course, I added a plate on top to keep the yalanchi packed. This much I knew. Next to the apron, these little tricks of the dandeegeen were a must to learn and know. After cooking, I let it cool and was excited to taste.
I was anxious that it might not taste like my mother-in-law’s; she was the gold standard. After one bite, I could immediately list all the things that weren’t right. I was cheap on the salt and pepper as my family doesn’t like too much of either, so I skimped. DON’T SKIMP on seasoning. They will just have to deal with it. My idea to undercook was a bad one. Just cook it through. There is nothing worse than crunchy yalanchi. I was so worried about overcooking that I basically undercooked it. A tasty soft “meechoog” is way better than a crunchy one. It looked great. The leaves were not tough but soft and easy to chew. I have to give it an A for appearance and effort for the first attempt. I give it a C+ for filling texture and a B- for flavor. You live and learn, right? I would do it all over again, cooking and seasoning the rice differently and longer. I would also have leaves on hand and blanched well before making the yalanchi.
I learned a lot and would have no clue if I never tried. The best part of this has been the community you build while having these cooking adventures. I consulted many and enjoyed some funny conversations. After seeing my comments with Seda, Josh Tevekelian also ventured over to her home for leaves to make yalanchi. Josh and I later exchanged notes and laughed about our experiences. Gail Guzelian also made yalanchi that same week.
Novice cooking has resonated with many during these odd times. I learned that many people have never made yalanchi; I wasn’t the only one. I suppose many felt challenged by it, just like me. So go out, try a new recipe and test the waters. Failure is just feedback. Take it for what it’s worth and learn from it and let that failure guide you to be better next time, in the kitchen or in life.
Dear Dandeegeen Heather, Great experience picking and making yalangi for the first time. I actually make sarmas all the time as it’s my older daughters favorite. And its an old recipe that she and my Armenian baby sitter used to make when she was very young. The rolling of the sarmas she had mastered by the time she was 6 years old.
Thanks for these articles Heather! Vartus
Thanks Vartus!! The process with loved ones is the special experience and bond one shares in making this dish. Memory making is key!!!
Given that I have a “Jerry Seinfeld” type of mind that scrutinizes the minutia of life, the first question that comes to my mind is “Why does a young Armenian girl NEED a CAST on her wrist to pick Grape leaves”?
Heather is a wonderful representative of everything that is good about people.
Her husband, Ara Krafian, defeated me so many times in the 50 yard butterfly at the AYF Olympics, I am still coughing up water 45 plus years later from the wake he made in the pool.
The talent in that Krafian/Apigian gene pool must have come directly from Noah’s Ark.
My daughter had surgery on her wrist but she still tried to collect the leaves anyways. Mother daughter time.
Thank you for your kind words. Just trying to mentor our daughters to be strong intelligent women in our community.
Thank you, Heather! It was great to read your first yalanchi experiment. I had only made yalanchi a few times over many years, until COVID. I’ve now made it 4 times over the last couple of months, twice with store-bought, bottled leaves, and twice with fresh leaves from a local market. Each batch came out slightly different, so, like you, I’m still working towards the perfect combination of ingredients and cooking methods.
Practice really makes perfect. I only hope mine improves with time.
Heather also is from Detroit, but maybe not my part of town. In my youth, it was always sarma. When I moved to Chicago, I kept hearing about this dish called Yalanchi Sarma. I had no idea what they were talking about. I finally saw it at a church bazaar, and it sure looked like “regular” sarma. The taste was so-so. I’ve learned that many people are used to and like what I think are terrible recipes. I still like my mother’s. Doesn’t everyone like their mother’s? No one has yet explained the Yalanchi part, but I haven’t dived into dictionaries to find out. I think in the east, it’s sarma. Just sarma. (My father had the right vines growing behind our garage.)
Hi Greg, Thank you for your comments. I believe depending on where your ancestors emigrated from, correlates with what your family calls a particular dish. I honestly don’t even remember what we called it in Detroit. I used both terms Yalanchi & Sarma to cover my bases depending on who was reading this article. But based on my knowledge, Sarma has a meat & rice base and Yalanchi is just rice based. So that may be why you have a memory of it tasting different. I will defer to the authentic Armenian cooks to define this more accurately. Thanks for commenting.
what are the spices you use
Hi Nancy, My family doesn’t love spices so I just used salt, pepper, onions cooked down, dill and parsley. Some recipes call for All Spice. I used 3 recipes actually and combined them with what I had in the house and what y fault liked. I didn’t include a recipe as there are so many. I write more about he experience and process rather than the ingredients.
Thank you Heather! I missed the derev picking season at my late Aunt Maryann’s house in Watertown since I started my new job, but likely, my sister was able to make her way over and pick the derev just in time. You don’t want to wait too long as my mother would say, otherwise the leaves become too big and tough. Looking forwarding to making yalanchi with her and our daughters.
Thanks for your comments Nancy. I hope your sister was able to get the derev so you can enjoy some wonderful grape leaves. And your mom was right, the longer you wait, the tougher they get.
As I read the story about this above mentioned dish (I’m truly embarrassed to use the Turkish word) I am also embarrassed on your behalf for using the word so liberally over and over, as if it’s sacred and glorified word. Both of those words are Turkish words, (Sarma and Yalanchi). And, as for you, Nancy, who has an Armenian upbringing, and as a well educated person, is unable to see or differentiate those words from Armenian words. The worst part of it is that, all of your followers who posted their adoration and praises towards you and your story, are also equally ignorant Armenians for not having noticed or at least try to correct these horrible Turkish name! “Sarma and yalanchi”. It seems like we are our own worst enemies when we still use horrible sounding Turkish derived Surnames and our Armenian dishes with Turkish names!
Do you have a better suggestion?
I was told by my Armenian Grandma that “yalanji” means “liar” in Turkish. It looks like it has meat in it, but in reality, it doesn’t have meat in it. So it is essentially lying to you by appearing like a sarma, but it’s not. Go figure the Turkish sense of humor.
Liar yes, but it also means fake, imitation, the sense here. It’s not meant to be humorous, rather providing the information that it’s not the preferred one with meat.
Let us not forget that Heather was also a world class figure skater when she was in her teens.