Food & Drink Origins: Yummy Dolma, Mahshi

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Updated on April 9, 2024

Reviewed by Eman Sameh

No one can deny that food is one of life’s joys, but have you ever wondered about any items of food’s origin? Or where its name comes from? This article is the first one in our upcoming series of articles that will present you with an overview of the origin, country, and name of some foods and drinks.

Our article today is about stuffed leaves and vegetable dishes. These dishes occupy the forefront on the Arab tables undisputedly, especially the Egyptian, Levantine and Iraqi ones, including Dolma (the Turkish counterpart of the Arab Mahshi or stuffed vegetable). In this tour, we review the origin and history of Mahshi.

What is Mahshi or Dolma?


Mahshi is a famous traditional dish in many Arab countries, as well as Turkey. In Turkey, they call it ‘Dolma’. The dish is mainly based on vegetables stuffed with either minced meat or rice.

The Name

The word Mahshi means stuffed in Arabic. This dish is called this name, especially in Egypt. It comes from the verb ‘stuffing’ or ‘filling’ but has other names in different countries. For example, in Turkey, it is called ‘Dolma’, the Turkish equivalent for ‘stuffed’. It comes from the Turkish verb ‘Dolmak’, meaning ‘to fill’. In Iraq, the dish is also known as ‘Dolma’. There is another name for the dish in Turkey, which is ‘Sarma‘. It comes from the Turkish verb ‘Sarmak’, which means ‘to wrap’.

The Origin

When it comes to the origin of this dish, many stories are there. Everyone wants to attribute this food’s history to his country or city. There are so many narrations about that. Most of the modern ones relate this food to Turkish cuisine. But, of course, the Egyptians and Levantines strongly reject that opinion. The well-known narration said the dish’s history goes back to Ottoman Cuisine. The Turks were the ones who brought this food with them to the Arab countries during the Ottoman rule of those Arab countries. The adherents of this theory say that the first “stuffed” dish was presented to the Egyptians in the palace of the Ottoman governor.

The Ottoman governor used to hold a meeting every now and then with the rich and princes of Egypt inside his palace. On one occasion, the feast included ‘dolma’. But the princes and notables were afraid of trying that food. They thought he would kill them with its poisoned leaves, and they did not eat it. The Ottoman governor noticed this, so he initiated eating from the dish and presented it to them. They liked its taste and quickly transferred it to the general public, where it was widely accepted.

Another narration stated that Mahshi reached the Arab region first during the Seljuk rule of the Islamic state, between the eleventh and twelfth centuries AD. What supports these two opinions is the Turkish origin of the names used in some of these regions today. The UNESCO inclusion of the Azerbaijani -one of 6 independent Turkish states- stuffed dish on the list of world cultural heritage confirms the claim of that opinion supporters.

But if we dig deeper, we will find more stories and opinions that adopt the origin of the food. For example, we find its presence in the tables of Mediterranean countries for centuries, and it was mentioned in medieval Arabic cookbooks. Another theory about the origin of the food goes back to the Greeks, where Greeks also presented their version of stuffed leaves and vegetables in ancient Greek cuisine. It consists of fig leaves stuffed with sweetened cheese and is called Thrion.

Mahshi or Dolma as a Favourite Dish


In Arab countries, for example, in Egypt, Mahshi is a favourite special dish with a special place on the Egyptian dining table. If someone invites you to his house for lunch, you must find a plate of stuffed vegetables or leaves on the table, as it shows appreciation to the guests.

The dish is considered a meal close to the hearts and stomachs. Despite the effort and hours it takes to be prepared, it is well worth this effort due to the flavourful and delicious taste of the final result. The same applies to the Turkish version, as they excelled in the types of stuffed vegetables and leaves and their fillings. They filled everything they could find, starting with grape leaves, cabbage and eggplant, passing through potatoes and onions.

Mahshi or Dolma Stuffings

Depending on the type of stuffed vegetables or the filling itself, there are many types of stuffing. However, regardless of the origin of each type of stuffing and the country of its spread, they all share their delicious taste. 

Returning to the Turkish stuffed ‘Dolma’, we can quickly note the multiple classifications and the diversity of its ingredients. But it is not a fundamental difference, so the food remains the same as stuffed vegetables. The main ingredient for both dishes is either minced meat, rice or bulgur. Here we will present a yummy, tasty list of some forms of stuffed leaves or Dolma.

Stuffed Grape Leaves


Grape leaves are one of the most famous and delicious types of stuffed dishes in Arab countries and Turkey as well. In addition to their delightful taste, Grape Leaves, as a type of vegetable, are rich in nutritional value. In Egypt, it is called Stuffed Grape Leaves or Mahshi Wara’ Inab; in Syria, it is called Yaprak, a Turkish word meaning paper. In Turkey, it is called Sarma.

As for the preparation method, the grape leaves are first boiled in water for several minutes while the filling is prepared. The filling ingredients differ regarding the country, as we mentioned before. It can be minced meat or grains such as rice or bulgur. Then, it is stuffed, added an amount of soup or hot water, and left on the stove until cooked and served hot.

Cabbage Rolls


Another type of stuffed leaf usually eaten in winter is Stuffed Cabbage in Egypt and Lahana Sarması in Turkey. Stuffed cabbage is very beneficial for the heart muscle. 

When we come to the Turkish version of cabbage rolls, we find something different from the Egyptian version. Turks fill it with minced meat, not rice; the preparation is similar. They boil the cabbage leaves in water, then fill it with the stuffing, which includes minced meat, bulgur, rice, parsley, mint, onion, and tomatoes. The cabbage is rolled up and stacked in the cooking pot. Then some water and tomato juice are added to help the rolls cook.

Stuffed Peppers


Stuffed peppers are also popular in many countries. In addition to its amazing taste, it is a wealthy element with natural nutrients and vitamins.

Regarding the preparation way, you start by preparing the filling either from minced meat or rice, or both together in addition to parsley, onions, and tomatoes and stuffing the peppers. Finally, some tomato juice and water are added to the pot until cooked.

Other Stuffed Types

The discussion can be extended to include other types of stuffed vegetables and their different fillings. Several other vegetables are stuffed, including eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes and even onions. As we find in Turkey, some fruits were also not spared from being stuffed; they serve figs, quinces, and melons stuffed.

Finally, we would like to say that we cannot limit food or dish to a specific country. Food is a blessing and a human pleasure, and a cultural heritage. It is not strange that we have mentioned that every country seeks to be the first to invent that delicious dish, but the difference in opinion does not spoil the taste appetite.

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