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NYFS Newsletter 1998-vol19-no1-2-1
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Winter/Spring 1999 Newsletter

Rolling Syrian Grape Leaves
Mary Jweid and Sharon Bates

Home for the Christmas holiday last December, Sharon Bates made a tape-recorded interview with her mother Mary Jweid Bates while helping her roll grape leaves. Sharon's 16-year-old daughter, Krista, and her brother, Dave, both assisted in the rolling process, and Krista documented the event with photographs. In the interview, Mary’s memories of preparing grape leaves with her mother while growing up in Utica, New York, mingle with Sharon’s recollections of her own childhood experiences, as they teach Krista, the third generation, the techniques of creating this savory dish. Mary’s grandparents originally came to Utica from Aleppo, Syria, and started a neighborhood grocery store that became a mainstay of that area of the city. She and her seven siblings worked in the store and were frequently recruited to help their mother in the time-consuming job of rolling. The family ate grape leaves once or twice a month, typically with a dinner of roasted chicken, yellow rice, sweet and sour carrots, homemade Syrian bread and a yogurt salad of cucumbers, lettuce, and garlic. Mary and her husband currently reside in Rochester, New York.

Picking the Leaves
MB: And the leaves of course, you would usually have to pick them in the summer. And we always canned them in salt and they would carry us through the whole winter. Because they are very difficult to find unless you have your own cans. I can remember as a child we kept them in a big crock in the cellar in salt water. And it was never a very pleasant thing to put your hand in that crock and come up with the grape leaves because they were kind of mushy sometimes.
[The grape leaves] grow wild. They do not bear fruit, because the ones that bear fruit, the leaves are too heavy. They would be tough. So these are wild. They grow along the roadside. Along bushes and trees. And you pick the tender ones. You can tell by the looks of them. You don't wait, you do it late in June or early July.
SB: I can remember a number of years, I’m one of five children, and my mother and my Aunt Jean and some of the other aunts, they’d say O.K., they’d say, it’s time to go out and get the leaves. And we [children] were like, not too thrilled about that idea, but we’d get in the car, and we’d be out on a leisurely drive in the country, and all of a sudden we’d pull over to the side of the road. She’d say, "It looks like there's some leaves growing here." And we’d get out with our paper bags, grocery bags, and we’d get out there, and we’d complain, and my mother’d say, You like to eat them, don't you? And we’d get out there, and we’d pick and pick until we had a bagful, and then we’d bring them home.
MB: Oh yes. . . Every summer, my mother, we had to go pick leaves like you don’t know. You kids think you had it bad. We used to go pick a lot of leaves.
SB: Where would you go?
MB: Well we had a great big, grape [vine], like the size of a, maybe 12 x 15 in our yard, which had been built up, and we had creepers growing all over that. So most of the time we would work right out of our yard. We’d go for our Sunday rides sometimes, we’d stop and pick them. Put them in the crock, and lots of salt, my mother put in, and something heavy to weigh it down, the top, so that they wouldn’t rise. And they used to do that with other things, like small eggplant that they’d stuff, no excuse me, it was the green Italian squash.
SB: Zucchini.
MB: Not zucchini. They’re light colored, that light green squash.

Canning the Leaves
SB: And what do you do once you pick the leaves and you bring them home?
MB: We’d roll maybe 25, 35 leaves together and tie them into a bundle, and then pack them in clean canning jars.
MB: You lay [each leaf] flat, at least 25 or 30 leaves. . .
SB: One on top of the other. Then you roll them lengthwise.
MB: Yep. And tie them with a string in a little bunch.
SB: Almost like a cigar.
MB: Yep. You tie them up and stuff them down in quart jars. You get boiling water prepared. And what you do is add a quarter cup of canning salt over the top, and then you pour the boiling water right over on them. And you do have to have it hot because you want them to seal. Put your lids, canning lids, that are hot, all prepared, and you seal them up. Usually for an average meal a couple quarts of leaves would be sufficient. But of course if you are having family and holiday times you’d maybe want two or three quarts of leaves. When you take them out you do have to rinse them very well, soak them overnight even, in cold water in a bowl.
SB: To get the salt off?
MB: Yeah.

Mixing the Ingredients
MB: And of course then when you’re ready you mix your meat and rice and spices which we’re doing now. We’ve got two pounds of rice, we’ve got about five pounds of meat. Now you can use all lamb if you like, which is traditional, but I actually like to . . . add a little ground beef with it. Because lamb is, sometimes kind of lamby, and a lot of people feel that it’s strong. But if it’s not lean meat it’s very, very, very good.
MB: O.K., so now I’m going to add a little bit of water to the mixture.
SB: When my mother has a recipe it’s very much something that’s by habit. She does it without measuring, and so it’s been difficult for us to re-create her recipes identically. Because also there’s something about the way your mother prepares it that’s unlike the way anyone else prepares it.
MB: Oh, well I don’t know about that.
SB: We all look forward to coming home and having a big pot of grape leaves.
MB: Um-hmm. Well they are tasty [To SB] Put two cloves of garlic out on the table, too, please.
SB: Oh, definitely garlic.
MB: Lots of garlic.
SB: Fresh garlic.
MB: Garlic and fresh lemon juice is the best. Although if you have to use canned lemon that’s fine too. Real fresh lemon gives it the best zesty flavor.
MB: Right now I’m mixing it up . . .
SB: . . .with her hands . . .
MB: I’m kneading it.
SB: Cloves? Ground cloves?
MB: Um-hmm
SB: I never put them in.
MB: Well I don’t always. But my mother would put even a little bit, a touch of cinnamon, which I don’t really care for, the cinnamon.
SB: So you’ve altered your recipe somewhat based on your own taste.
MB: Right. Just knead it so your rice is well mixed. Add a little more water if you feel it’s too heavy.
SB: How can you tell?
MB: The consistency is like real nice and kind of soft. Not smooshy but a little bit wet.
SB: A little wet . . .
MB: . . .not runny or anything, just soft, yeah. Because the rice does swell. All right, there we are.

Rolling the Leaves
SB: This is the social part now of making grape leaves. And I can remember from when I was pretty young, you sat us down around the table. You taught me how to actually roll. The rolling process is the most time consuming. Because they have to be tight.
MB: Because they will unravel if they’re not firm. And when they’re boiling they will become broken up, and nobody likes it when the rice is all over the broken leaves . . . maybe like a small cigar shape.
SB: Three quarters of an inch in diameter.
MB: No, too big, about half of an inch.
SB: O.K.
MB: Something like that. O.K. now. We’ve got leaves that are all washed and ready. Everybody gets a pile of leaves.
SB: Christa’s going to join us. This is my daughter, who is hopefully going to carry on the tradition for her family.
MB: We take our positions here around the table.
SB: We’re spreading out the leaves...
MB: You put the shiny side down, which is the top of the leaf—that goes downward. So when you put the meat and rice on, and you lower it, you’ll get the top part of the leaf that you’re going to see, and it’ll be shiny, instead of the root part. [To Christa] Very good! Excellent!
SB: She’s a good roller. I taught her well.
MB: Good! That’s good.
SB: You take probably a couple teaspoons, wouldn’t you say? of the meat and rice.
MB: Depending on the size of the leaf. You do have to have enough to go across the whole leaf, yet not overload it. And be able to roll it firm.
SB: But it’s perpendicular to the main veins of the leaf, towards the wider part of the leaf.
MB: You fold the top over, then you fold both ends over and then you kind of like grab onto it you kind of make it tight, firm it up.
SB: You press down and roll. Till you get all the way towards the end. Then when get toward the tip, you give it a little roll with your hand.
MB: Right. That’s the way you do it. And it takes some time so what you do is you visit a little, and the current news of the day goes on.

Cooking the Stuffed Grape Leaves
SB:Well, let’s see, when we finish rolling, then what do we do?
MB: Get your big kettle, and you put them all in circular rows [stack the rolled grape leaves in a circular formation, perpendicular to the side of the kettle] and sort of leave a space in the middle.
MB: You can add some pieces of meat if you like. I use a combination depending on what I can find in the grocers. Sometimes I use pork steak, sometimes I buy shoulder lamb chops four or five of them.
SB: Would you brown those first?
MB: Yes, brown them first, or you can even put them in the microwave. And lots of times they sort of like dissolve a little bit. Something that’s just a little bit fatty is very good.
SB: So it just enhances the flavor of the grape leaves.
MB: Um-hmm. And a lot of people like that meat. The lamb is cooked in that lemon and garlic sauce. It’s very tender, and it has really good flavor. When I use the meat, I put it around the bottom of the pan. Then I put my little crock on it, and then fill it, covering the leaves, almost to the top, with cold water. And just let it come to a slow boil and turn it down and let them cook slow.
SB: How long would you say?
MB: Oh, at least an hour. Maybe a little more. Depending on how large the portions you have. Then when you think they’re done, what you do is take the cover off. And the top of course will be more firm than maybe in the middle but you can take one or two and try it. If the rice is soft, fine, it's done, otherwise let it cook a little bit longer.
SB: Now this is the real important part.
MB: After they’re cooked, just turn them off, and then at the end you take eight cloves of garlic . . .
SB: I think I would use a little more.
MB: Yeah, well some people like them real garlicky and some don’t. And what I do is pound it with something heavy between wax paper.
SB: O.K. so in between the sheets of the wax paper you’ve got the garlic and you sprinkle the salt right into the garlic.
MB: Yeah. And you pound it real well, and you can get another bowl, and what you do is drain off most of the juice or the water from the drippings into a bowl. You don’t need to use it all because you’re going to add, again this is to your taste, fresh lemon. I’m making a great big kettle, I would use probably about eight, ten lemons. Some people like them really sour, some people don’t. What you do is add the lemon juice and the garlic, and then you take some of the juice, and then you add it over the top of the grape leaves.
SB: So you kind of mix it up a little.
MB: Right, and then you take it, and you pour it back and forth, three or four times. And just let it sit on the grape leaves for maybe 15, ten, 15 minutes before you serve. Then pour it off, and you can use tongs to put them on a big platter, put your meat around it and serve it. And good luck.
SB: Now. When we had grape leaves we usually had it with other food. Traditionally, I can always remember having it with chicken . . .
MB: Roasted chicken.
SB: So that’s a good combination to have with the grape leaves: chicken, carrots, and the yellow rice. And also, you said before, yogurt, to clear the palates.
SB: Well I can’t believe it but we’re down to the bottom of the bowl here.
MB: Um-hmm.
SB: We’ve rolled the whole pot of meat. This woman is amazing. The exact amount of meat to leaves. We’re just about out of leaves and we’re just about out of meat.


”Well we had a great big, grape [vine], like the size of a , maybe 12 x 15 in our yard, which had been built up, and we had creepers growing all over that. So most of the time we would work [pick grape leaves] right out of our yard. We’d go for our Sunday rides sometimes, we’d stop and pick them...”
—Mary Jweid Bates

Photo of Mary Jweid Bates with pot of grape leaves
Mary Jweid Bates displays pots of grape leaves. Photograph by Krista Fragos

Photo of person rolling grape leaves
Rolling grape leaves. Photograph by Krista Fragos


(Makes 150 rolled grape leaves)

2 lbs. ground lamb
1 lb. ground beef (not too lean)
3 c. white medium grained, uncooked rinsed rice
1/2 c. water
1 T. ground allspice
1/4 t. ground clove (optional)
1 t. black pepper (or to taste)
2 t. salt (or to taste)
8-10 cloves fresh garlic, peeled
6-8 fresh lemons (or bottled lemon juice) to taste

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