After moving from Niš to Düsseldorf, where he had already made the decision to change his life completely and go to Germany for a better job opportunity, Marko felt an incredible sense of loneliness just a few weeks later. Since he didn’t know German very well, communication in his IT company was mostly in English. Marko managed to establish contact with his colleagues sitting next to him at the office, Dimitros from Thessaloniki and Emre from Izmir. Little by little, the three of them got to know each other better, often socializing outside of work, regardless of the “scheduled” team-building activities. They watched football together, went for drinks on Saturdays, or had joint dinners at famous restaurants in Düsseldorf. They immediately realized that something connected them: the main thread of their friendship was that all three of them had come from somewhere else, leaving their home countries and families behind to secure a better life abroad, away from their homelands.
The cold days had already arrived in the streets of Düsseldorf, and everyone was wearing scarves, hats, and coats. The streets were immersed in white, with regular snowfall covering the bustling passersby. The holiday season had already knocked on the door, and the euphoria of the upcoming events could be felt in the air. Marko was aware that this was his first year abroad, but his Serbian tradition dictated that he should never break the celebration of his patron saint’s day, St. Nicholas Day, also known as “Nikoljdan”. To better showcase his culture and tradition to his new friends, Marko and his wife decided to invite Dimitros and Emre to their warm home, so they could celebrate together the day of his patron saint, St. Nicholas. “Every family in Serbia has its own patron saint’s day. It’s a day when we all gather to celebrate our family’s patron saint, with food and drinks. It would be an honor for me if you two could grace my celebration with your presence. Come to my place for lunch on December 19th, at Volkardeyer Street, number 17, apartment 6. My wife, Milica, and I would love to host you and your families.” Marko excitedly invited them, hoping they would come and make his holiday more remarkable, as he had been accustomed to in Serbia for the past 27 years. Dimitrios and Emre immediately replied that they would come, promising to bring traditional wine and coffee from their countries.
Milica and Marko went to the nearby market early in the morning, the day before St. Nicholas’ Day, to do the shopping. They bought fermented cabbage leaves, onions, ground pork and veal, rice, as well as various spices, excited to serve their new friends a traditional dish from their national cuisine, the famous sarma, and thus introduce them to at least a fraction of their rich culture. When they arrived home, they immediately started preparing the sarma so that everything would be ready for the arrival of their new friends. Milica put finely chopped onions into hot oil in a pan, and when the onions turned into their distinctive golden color, she slowly added ground meat and rice, sprinkling salt, pepper, and basil on top. Marko carefully inspected the cabbage leaves, washed them, and then diligently placed the cabbage leaves on a plate. Once the meat was browned, Milica transferred the mixture from the pan into the cabbage leaves, wrapping the meat with cabbage and placing them in a large pot. After lighting a gentle fire on the stove, and adding water beforehand, she left the sarma to simmer, releasing its distinctive juice and becoming flavorful. Of course, they made sure to separate the sarma with beef from the ones with pork.
The next day, everything was ready. The whole house smelled of sarma, which had been cooking slowly on a low fire. The hosts eagerly awaited the arrival of their guests. Emre and his family were the first to arrive, and the doorbell rang around one o’clock in the afternoon. Traditionally, they hugged each other, and Emre wished Marko a happy celebration, saying in Serbian, “Srećna slava, domaćine” (Happy Slava, host), to which Marko and Milica replied, “Teşekkürler” in Turkish, meaning “Thank you.” Shortly after, the doorbell rang again, and today’s host’s warm home became even more crowded with Dimitris and his family. They immediately sat down at the abundant table. Milica brought out two dishes of sarma, while Marko poured drinks for the guests.
Emre and Dimitris looked at each other and smiled, which initially struck Marko as a little strange. He immediately thought that something was wrong and asked his guests what was going on. “Well, this is familiar to us,” Emre and Dimitris said in unison. When they told him the story of sarma, which is an integral part of their own cuisine when it comes to celebrations, Marko was mildly shocked. “I thought sarma was a typical Serbian dish, and others were excited about it because they had never tried it before,” Marko said excitedly as his guests filled their plates with sarma without hesitation. In between servings of sarma, Emre and Dimitris explained to their hosts on what occasions they eat sarma in their homelands and how they prepare it. Dimitris mentioned that they usually have sarma for Christmas, and instead of cabbage, they wrap the meat in grapevine leaves, preparing the meat in a very similar way. Emre added that in Turkey, they often add cinnamon and other sweet spices to enhance the flavors of the meat. Milica and Marko were visibly surprised but felt an even stronger connection with their guests because they realized that something they considered their own was deeply rooted in the culture and traditions of other nations. The atmosphere at the lunch was fantastic because the Serbian couple managed to maintain the tradition of celebrating their patron saint outside their homeland, and the Turkish and Greek guests experienced the tastes of their homelands, realizing that even abroad, something tied them to home, as well as to other nations and their cultures. The gathering extended into the late evening hours, and as Dimitros was leaving, he said, “Who would have imagined that a dish like sarma could connect hundreds and thousands of kilometers and bring them together at one table.”
On their way out, they agreed that this should become a tradition, and Emre, after expressing his gratitude for the care taken to make the sarma with beef, invited his Serbian and Greek friends to celebrate Bajram. Dimitros added, “You know where you’ll be having lunch on December 25th, see you in six days at our place.”
EXTRA INFORMATION ON THE TOPIC:
The history of sarma can be traced back to the Sumerians, who inhabited the fertile lands of Mesopotamia around 2500 BCE. These ingenious people were early pioneers of agriculture, cultivating a wide array of crops, including cabbage. Seeking innovative ways to preserve their harvest, they discovered that fermenting cabbage would not only prolong its shelf life but also enhance its flavor.
As the Sumerian civilization thrived and spread its influence, the neighboring regions began to adopt their culinary traditions. One such region was the Byzantine Empire, which encompassed a vast territory, including parts of present-day Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans. The Byzantines embraced the Sumerian technique of fermenting cabbage and combined it with their own culinary expertise, giving birth to a new dish known as “sarma.”
The Byzantine version of sarma consisted of cabbage leaves stuffed with a mixture of rice, meat, herbs, and spices. This savory combination was meticulously rolled into small parcels, ensuring that the flavors melded together harmoniously. The dish quickly gained popularity throughout the empire, becoming a staple of Byzantine feasts and banquets.
Under Ottoman rule, sarma underwent further transformations. The rice filling was enriched with aromatic spices like cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg, while minced meat, such as beef, lamb, or veal, replaced the original meat used by the Byzantines. The dish also expanded beyond cabbage to include other leaves like grape leaves, which added a unique tang to the flavor profile.
As the Ottoman Empire expanded into the Balkans, sarma became deeply ingrained in the culinary traditions of countries such as Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Romania. Each region added its own twist to the recipe, resulting in a diverse array of sarma variations. Some regions preferred a more sour taste, adding fermented ingredients like sauerkraut, while others incorporated local spices or substituted the meat filling with vegetarian alternatives.
Over the centuries, sarma continued to transcend borders, carried by migrations, trade routes, and cultural exchanges. It found its way to the shores of the Mediterranean, where it became a beloved delicacy in countries like Greece and Cyprus. Its journey even reached the distant lands of the New World, where immigrant communities brought their cherished sarma recipes, leaving a mark on the culinary landscape of countries like the United States and Canada.
Today, sarma remains a cherished dish across many cultures, a testament to its enduring appeal and rich history. Whether enjoyed as a traditional holiday meal or served in a modern restaurant, sarma continues to unite people through its tantalizing flavors and the shared story of its origins. It stands as a testament to the power of culinary heritage, reminding us that the joy of food transcends time and connects us to our shared human history