The Migratory Tales of the Kurdish Dolma


The Migratory Tales of the Kurdish Dolma


Heading towards the new developments in Wollert, I arrive at a house where the outline of Kurdistan marks the front gate.  I know that I have come to the right place.  The garage door automatically opens revealing a new space with clean white walls implying a culinary infancy.  Like a dove, this space resembles hope and a new beginning.  It is shared with a small kitchenette for catering large cook-ups.  The chairs, set up around the middle table, are an invitation for people to gather and share stories.

“Oh to be a bird, that can travel and doesn’t need a visa!” exclaims Shorsh, contemplating his journey as a Kurdish refugee from Iraq to Australia.  January 10, 2015 marks the 11th anniversary of their arrival and to celebrate, Shawnm, Shorsh’s wife, will be serving his favourite dish, traditional Kurdish Dolma (known in Kurdish as Yaprah).

The making of Kurdish dolmas consists of a plethora of exotic spices, some only found in local Arabic spice shops and others specifically brought back from Iraq.  Spices such as kurkum and biryani cannot be found here and Shawnm won’t compromise on taste.  She explains that she traditionally cooks two versions of the dolma: one consisting of vegetables and the other of vine leaves, both stuffed with seasoned rice, layered with meat and fava beans.

The combination of ingredients and flavours are complex and strong, just like the woman who makes them.

How the Kurdish dolma finds its way here in Wollert, is a story of courage.  As Shawnm prepares her ingredients, she tells of their journey to Australia as Kurdish refugees.

Shawnm and Shorsh lived in Sleymani, a town in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.  Both were teachers at the local primary school.  Shorsh was also politically active and a journalism student.  He was tightly affiliated with the Kurdistan Independent Labor Party, that represented opposition to the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), the two major ruling parties over their despotic tendencies.

Being politically active became a liability.  Shorsh was kidnapped by the Dazgay Zanyari, PUK’s secret intelligence agency, in 2000 for possessing published anti-PUK material.

Disappearances were common for those publically opposing the ruling authority.  Many have never returned.  Shorsh was incarcerated and tortured for five months.

During those five long months, Shawnm had no knowledge of her husband’s whereabouts. “I walked around like a ghost,” she recalls.

In her determination to find him, she began a search campaign.  She met with aid agencies and spoke with Shorsh’s political friends.  With the aid of his political affiliations a media campaign was mounted and a protest statement published, to lobby for his release.

Shanaw, the youngest of their three children became distressed by her father’s absence and could not stop crying.  Shawnm, in her maternal wisdom dressed the child at night with Shorsh’s shirts to calm her down. The neighbours, hearing the child’s cries of anguish collectively cursed those who brought her such pain.

“Everyone was crying, even God was crying at this time of uncertainty,” reflects Shorsh.

Five months after his release, he was attacked again and decided it was no longer safe to stay in Sleymani.

“Bismilae Raham Rahim,” Shawnm recites a prayer to dispel evil spirits as she begins to salt the hollowed out vegetables.  It is part of the ritual in protecting the cook and preventing the devil’s malevolence at the dinner table.

What follows is the story of Shorsh going into hiding and the challenges of secret border crossings from Iraq to Turkey.

“Did you still continue to cook the dolma whilst you were living in transit?” I ask.

“Yes. We never stopped cooking the dolma, only that it was a much more simplified version, using zucchinis, or silverbeet, because there was not enough money to buy all the vegetables,” replies Shawnm.

After some time, they were reunited as a family, settling in Turkey. However with the continual surveillance by the PUK, fear for their future became a reality.  Shorsh consequently applied for passage to Australia with the UNHCR as political refugees.  The process took two and a half years.


Watching her frying the hollowed out vegetables in this new kitchenette bordering the garage, marks a dramatic contrast to the stories being told of the past.

She tells me that although cooking the dolma predominates in the Middle East, there are variations.  Neighbouring regions don’t fry the vegetables first before stuffing them.  Frying them first actually enhances the taste. Cooking styles define cultural boundaries, for a race of people who are the largest in the world without a state of their own.

Shawnm advises that three flavours distinguish her Kurdish dolma from other regions.  The rice needs to have the right combination of chilli, salt and sourness.  It is important that the ingredients don’t overpower each other.  And the secret here is the citric salt.  Shawnm allows me to try the seasoned rice.  It’s an explosive mélange of contradictory flavors, activating all 5000 taste buds, hitting every part of my mouth.

Shanaw, says that her mum likes to push the taste in her cooking.  “It is like she wants you to feel everything, when she cooks you something.”

As family and friends begin to arrive, the women automatically take their place around the dolma-making station.  It is common for Kurdish women to cook the dolma together outside the house, given the many hands and space that are needed.

Kurdish custom dictates that it is an honour to receive guests in your home, as it signifies hospitality and abundance.  It is akin to the age-old saying, “show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Once the vegetables have been stuffed, Shawnm lines the base of the pot with pre-cooked fava beans and stalks of silverbeet.  She then layers it, starting outwards and spiraling inwards.  The pot is filled with the richness of colour: deep shades of purple, reds, greens and whites, resembling an inward spiraling prism, contrasted by meats that are placed in the middle.  Anarchic little grains of rice sometimes escape the vegetables, as she continues to line the 35.5-inch pot until it is full, compressing them with her hands and sealing the pot for the boil.

Shawnm shares some irony, “It is hard.  Men don’t have the energy to make the dolma.”  Yet Shorsh has the energy to eat them all.

Shorsh is sidelined by all this female activity of dolma making, but still has to earn his keep by guarding flies from entering the garage.  With fly swatter in hand, he is a good target and does not have to go far for the kill.

Making dolma in his garage evokes a strong sense of pride after having survived the journey to Australia.  Yet the heart for the homeland doesn’t stray, as he pins the Kurdish flag on the wall and proceeds to explain the significance of the colours.  It is here where the uncanny resemblance between the colours of the vegetable dolmas and the flag become apparent.

White signifies peace, represented by the potato.  Red is for the blood fought, represented by the tomato/capsicum.  Green is for the beauty of the landscape, represented by zucchini and silverbeet.  And finally, the Zoroastrian traditions of respecting the sun and light, is symbolised by the flame that cooks the dolma.

Laughter abounds at the metaphor, putting the mood in good stead for the second batch.  This time Shawnm, stuffing only the boiled vine leaves with Arborio rice, folds the edges of the vines first, and then folds them four times in a clockwise direction.

A symphony of chatter continues, complemented by the echoes of traditional Kurdish folklore music emanating from the television, as the second pot is put to the boil.

Once the dolmas are ready, the spectacle begins.  Shawnm striding with tea towel over her left shoulder, carries the pots just taken from the flame and suddenly tips the dolmas over two large trays, one by one, positioned at either end of the table.  They are served piping hot, from which emanates a mist of aromas and warm spices.  They resemble an avalanche of sloppy, hearty goodness.  People serve themselves from the large communal platters, spooning up the mass with ripped up pieces of flatbreads.

This signals victory for Shawnm, as we all hail the cook for providing us with a hearty meal.  The dolmas are washed down with mastaw, a salty yoghurt drink combined with dill to aid digestion.

And Shorsh, ever so happy for having had the courage to take his fate into his hands and survive the journey to Australia, savours the dolma, enjoying the powerful taste of homecoming, made in his new kitchenette in the garage.


Dolma recipe



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