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Lozova Surma – Bulgaria National Dish – Day 44/Dish 24

February 20, 2010

I am almost afraid to leave Brunei.  The food was delicious. The people were friendly.  The climate is warm and inviting for a tired traveler, but my instincts tell me that Bulgaria will be a nice new temporary home.  To get there, our small ship must sail back across the Indian Ocean to the trustworthy Suez Canal and back into the Mediterranean.  We took down some of our sails in order to slow down and revel in the Aegean Sea and the lovely views of Greece and its breathtaking Isles.  A picture is worth 1000 words or so they say, but in this case, 1000 might not be high enough to describe it all.  In any case, we are heading north to Bulgaria which has plenty of beauty of its own. 

After landing in Thessaloniki we head overland to Bulgaria.  The capital city of Sofia is our next destination, and right away I am struck by the contrast of this place with the tropical beaches of Brunei.  Sofia is inland and although Bulgaria borders the Black Sea and is just north of Aegean Sea, there is no ocean in sight from city center.  What we do see is the remnants of Turkish armies and fortresses mixed with the architecture of the region and vestiges of the recent communist past.  Just to the north of Sofia and defining the border with Romania is the famous Blue Danube River which empties into the Black Sea.  Bulgaria sits firmly perched on a fence between cultures, with Turkey to the east, Romania to the north and Greece to the south as well as Serbia and Montenegro and Macedonia to the west.  

This region has heard the horns of wars for millennia. Countless battles have been fought and castles and fortresses dot the landscape.  With such varied influences, Bulgaria is a fascinating place to visit. 


Bulgaria as it stands today emerged as a culture in the 7th Century AD.   However, Bulgaria has seen three distinct periods with today’s reinvention as a free market democracy being the start of the fourth.  The first period is known as the First Bulgarian Empire and was marked by the emergence and growth of the Slavic culture.  The Second Empire helped forge the national identity of Bulgarians and ended with the Turkish Invasion and occupation of Bulgaria.  500 years passed before the Russo-Turkish War freed Bulgaria of Turkish rule in the late 1800’s.  After WW2, Bulgaria became a communist state in its 3rd incarnation and was ruled under the iron fist of Todor Zhikov for more than 30 years.  As the Communist Era began to crumble, Bulgaria experienced the revolution that would oust communism, and eventually it would reemerge as a Capitalist Democratic Republic.  Today Bulgaria is a thriving place with a high rating by UN agencies for human rights, political freedoms and quality of life. 

The national dish of Bulgaria is Lozova Surma or stuffed grape leaves.  Similar to the Dolmas that we made in Azerbaijan, Surmas are a stuffed leaf filled with local ingredients.  There are countless varieties of Surmas in this region and Lozova being a city in Eastern Ukraine would suggest the influence of the former Eastern Bloc Soviet time period.  The use of grape leaves is popular in Mediterranean cuisine and ties in the regional nature of this dish.  

What I had no way of knowing in advance how much of an adventure cooking in Bulgaria would turn out to be.  In fact if I had known, I might have skipped it altogether.  I will warn you now that the following photo montage of the preparation of our dish contains some graphic images that you may not wish to see.  Unfortunately I have no way of censoring them except leaving them out (which I don’t want to do) and if you are squeamish, would suggest simply skipping ahead to the recipe by scrolling down till the images do not show.  This scary result is a real risk of being a cook.  Be very careful when using sharp knives and always pay attention to your finger positions.  This link will show you the correct and safe way to cut.  I did not heed the advice and paid for it. 


To set the stage, in doing the prep work for tonight’s dish, I was chopping some extremely pungent onions.  At one point, I lost my focus as my eyes filled with tears.  Instead of stopping to clear my eyes, I continued to chop, hoping to get done more quickly.  That was a big mistake.  At that moment, the knife slipped and went thru my fingertip to the side of my nail and neatly sliced off a thumbnail sized piece of my finger.  


This of course, sucked.  I was obviously unable to continue cooking for at least long enough to stop the bleeding which was easily stemmed with pressure but flowed copiously if I let go.  So what should I do? 

Fortunately for us, my cousin Luke has been visiting the last three nights and asked if he could step in and try his hand at making the grape leaves.   As I sat in Spousal Triage(thank you darling) Luke got him self mentally prepared for the abuse I was about to lay on him.  I am a tough Drill Sergeant. 


On a side note, Luke and his family own and operate a tool manufacturing company in Deposit, NY called EZRed.  This dish is actually brought to you by loving sponsorship of EZRed, meaning Luke paid for the groceries.  So, thank you EZRed!  Luke is what I would describe as a food lover who does not cook.  He is an avid reader of and has been very excited to watch me prepare and then consume these dishes.  He did not however, plan to be cooking.  So it was time to put him through the Eric Ackerson School of Culinary Sadism.  I spent the next 3 hrs cursing, prodding and whipping Luke into shape as the Temporary Head Chef of Chateau Hungrytum, by way of Executive Emergency Powers. Did he rise to the challenge? 



I give this dish a 3 for difficulty.  Assembly of the items is not difficult, although it is clearly dangerous.  However, rolling grape leaves is a technical challenge and a delicate process.  Luke is a big guy and has the fingers of a football player.  Zero experience in a kitchen environment did not make it easier.  But with some patient practice, Luke successfully executed the recipe, producing very nice looking Grape Leaves.  This of course meant I did not have to execute him.  Apparently, “The Force” was with Luke this night. 

Our good friends came to join us for dinner.  Carrie Reiner and her husband Jason’s Head were present to try Luke’s masterpiece.  And she gave it two thumbs up while Jason blinked twice in agreement… 


We were all in agreement that this was a hearty and well prepared dish.  But, if you did not grow up eating Grape Leaves, you would probably need to acquire a taste for them.  The tannins in Grape Leaves make them slightly bitter and the heavy veins in the leaves can be off putting in the mouth.  Luke somehow managed to make non bitter grape leaves that were very tasty with limited veininess (I made that word up).  Nice job Luke!  You done good… 



Appearance:  4 out of 5 

Aroma: 3 out of 5 

Flavor: 3 out of 5 

Total: 10 out of 5   


2-3 dozen Grape Leaves (I bought mine at a Halal Middle Eastern Grocery) 

2 tbsp Butter 

2 large Onions, minced 

1 lb Ground Beef 

Salt and Black Pepper, to taste 

2 eggs 

1/2 cup Uncooked Rice 

1/2 cup Fresh Parsley, chopped 

1/2 cup Beef Broth 

1 (14 ounce) can Diced Tomatoes 

1/2 cup Fresh Dill, minced 

Zest from 1 Lemon 

1 tbsp Butter 

1 tbsp Flour 

1 cup Beef Broth 

3 tablespoons Lemon Juice 

1/2 cup Sour Cream or Plain Yogurt 

Preparation (I have edited this for ease of preparation) 

Prepare Grape Leaves – fresh leaves need boiling water poured over them to wilt them and a soak in cold water to cool them down while preserved leaves need to be rinsed in cold water. 

Melt Butter in a large frying pan, sauté the Onion until slightly brown. Add the Ground Beef and cook for 5 minutes till brown.  Add the Salt, Pepper, Eggs, Rice and half of the Parsley. Mix thoroughly. 

In a saucepan, heat 1 cup Beef Broth, Tomatoes, remaining Parsley, Dill and Lemon Zest. Bring to a simmer and simmer for two minutes. In a 2 qt casserole, spoon a small amount of the broth mixture into the bottom. 

Fill the Grape Leaves with the Beef mixture, folding leaf over filling to make a small tight “package” similar to an Egg Roll or Burrito. If you lay the leaves on a plate and turn them sideways to you, it is easier to assemble.  Arrange a layer of rolls over the sauce mixture in the casserole dish.  Then alternate between a small amount of the sauce and another layer of the rolls. 

Cover with tinfoil and bake in a preheated oven at 325F for 45 minutes. 

About 5 minutes before the grape leaves finish, make a roux by adding the 1 tbsp of butter to a saucepan and turn to medium high. Whisk the flour into the melted 1 tbsp of butter.  Allow to bubble but not burn.  Slowly whisk the 1 cup of Beef Broth into the roux to make the sauce.    

Remove grape leaves from the oven and cover with the gravy made from melted butter and flour mixture (roux) to which the beef broth was added. The gravy should be fairly hot when added to the casserole dish. 

Return to oven and continue baking, uncovered, for 15 minutes. To serve, sprinkle lemon juice over rolls and top with sour cream or yogurt. 

Serves 3-4 pcs to about 10 people.

Check out our Sponsor for this dish at


6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2010 10:26 pm

    Good thing I’m not squeamish at the sight of blood. Now you can say that you put blood and tears into this dish! I love stuffed grape leaves and these look delicious.

  2. February 21, 2010 7:44 am

    Now you have me nervous because my eyes ALWAYS fill up when I am cutting onions – I think I will leave that for my husband to do for now ! haha I have been dying to make grape leaves, over the summer my aunt and grandma get beautiful leaves from their grape vine and I took them and did nothing with them. Now I can’t wait because I will have to make these!

  3. Lisa permalink
    February 21, 2010 11:50 am

    Oooo looks good – one suggestion, Eric, try with Cabbage leaves next time, like Mamta does for her Malfouf..not bitter and easy to use!

  4. February 21, 2010 12:01 pm

    I almost used cabbage leaves. I had them on backup. But I managed to stumble upon a Halal Grocery with grape leaves preserved. These didn’t turn out bitter surprisingly. Here’s a link to Kalam Dolmasi From Azerbaijan made with cabbage leaves.

    I think the tomato dill sauce either masked or counteracted the tannins in the leaves. Also I served them right out of the oven and sometimes letting tannic ingredients rest for even 10 minutes can cause them to get bitter, like tea.

  5. February 21, 2010 3:01 pm

    Now my wife is making me cook all the meals. I knew something bad would happen with this!! Had a blast learning the art of cooking a meal like this. It is not as easy as it seems. I give chefs and cooks much props with their skills. It was great sponsoring this dish and learning a little bit as well.

    • February 21, 2010 6:48 pm

      Someday you will thank me. The love of cooking is actually a virus that slowly takes over your body and mind and then your spirit. Consider yourself exposed…

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