What are the spices in balandėliai (Lithuanian cabbage rolls)?
August 4, 2020 7:27 PM   Subscribe

The beloved Lithuanian place near here closed so the guy who ran it can run for parliament back home. I'm going to try making balandėliai (cabbage rolls) though I understand they're kind of a pain in the ass. Internet recipes sound sorta....underspiced to me? I'd swear I bit into a little bit of clove last time. Anyone have a more or less native/borne-of-deep-familiarity knowledge of what goes in these, spice-wise?
posted by less of course to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Can't help with the spices, but my sister's Ukrainian in laws gave her a great tip for cabbage rolls which I'll pass along in case it's not in your recipe. Core your cabbage and immerse it in a large pot of boiling water. After a couple of minutes, you can remove individual leaves very easily with a pair of tongs. Shave the central rib with a paring knife before rolling up your filling.
posted by kate4914 at 7:46 PM on August 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'll check with our Lithuanian friends, but I suspect balandėliai are largely equivalent to the stuffed cabbage dish that Romanians call sarmale and Hungarians call töltött káposzta. You might try looking for those recipes. I've had nice stuffed cabbage from Polish places, too.

The key seasoning in the töltött káposzta Comrade Doll makes is savory. Not the adjective savory, mind you, the seasoning savory. The fresh is better but not easy to find. Dried works, but flakes (like the size basil leaves often come in) are better than ground.

You really want to cook them in a pressure cooker, she says. A nice piece of smoked meat in there like a ham hock or the like is a good idea, too.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:43 PM on August 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For the Polish version it's savory, marjoram, oregano, coriander seeds. There's a lot of variety - in my experience Lithuanians love their caraway in everything.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 2:48 AM on August 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm of Lithuanian descent. In my experience, Lithuanians don't use a lot of spices. I always tell people that the three spices of my childhood were salt, pepper, and bacon.
In the cookbook Popular Lithuanian Recipes, which my grandmother used, the cabbage roll ingredients are as follows:
2 lb. ground beef or lamb
1 chopped onion
1 egg
pinch of marjoram
Salt, dash of pepper
1 head of cabbage
For the accompanying sauce, you stir flour into the leftover liquid, then add 2 tbsp. of sour cream.

You could also try writing to the folks at the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture.
posted by FencingGal at 3:15 AM on August 5, 2020 [7 favorites]

Along with FencingGal, my boyfriend's parents were Jews from the Vilnius area. I make stuffed cabbage with salt and pepper only and he says that they're identical to what Mom used to make.
posted by 8603 at 7:28 AM on August 5, 2020 [5 favorites]

My husband is Lithuanian and confirms that this dish generally doesn't contain a lot of spices beyond salt and pepper, similar to what FencingGal posted, although there can be some variation. I've eaten this dish in Lithuania many times and I think the most exotic thing I've found in it might be parsley. My personal recipe includes a bit of brown sugar and red wine vinegar.

My experience with that particular restaurant is that some Lithuanians who dined there did not consider the food to be authentic ,which might explain why you're tasting flavors that don't seem to show up in most recipes.
posted by sm1tten at 10:38 AM on August 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

This isn't from a Lithuanian perspective, but in case your restaurant was going off road with their recipe, nutmeg might be a possibility. It is amazing in cabbage dishes.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 12:11 PM on August 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Most recipes I have seen for balandeliai don't have much spice in them beyond onion and perhaps marjoram, but I did notice this one included pennycress seed, which I've never heard of but apparently imparts sort of a mustardy/garlicky flavor.
posted by medeine at 1:14 PM on August 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

It could be a family recipe, too. I'd try to contact him for the recipe! Latvians (Baltic cousins of Lithuanians) don't have super spicy food, but regularly use cloves and cardamom in desserts and there's also a lot of caraway and some coriander seed use in savory foods. The taste of clove is not too far-fetched and could be a family recipe twist that differentiates it from the more plain versions.
posted by quince at 3:21 PM on August 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Follow-up... our Lithuanian friend says what FencingGal and others have said: salt, pepper, and bacon.

Comrade Doll clarified that Hungarian/Romanian stuffed cabbage may be more different than I thought, because it contains lots of dill (even throwing the stalks into the cooker) and using kolozsvári bacon (szalonna/slanina) as the smoked meat when they can.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:27 PM on August 5, 2020

I'm Polish, and our regional equivalent is gołąbki (little pigeons; although when I make them they come out as gołębie, because we have monster cabbages where I live, or something). I can confirm that these are normally not very heavily spiced. I don't have a specific "authentic" recipe; I would probably put in some "warm" Euro spices (nutmeg, cloves, allspice, plus obviously black pepper; maybe some herbs). This is one of those recipes that everyone makes in a slightly different way, so turn up the spices to eleven if that's what floats your boat!

The general process I use is: 50% (by volume) cooked rice, 50% raw beef mince (can also use a blend of beef and pork, or whatever else you like), wrapped in cabbage leaves removed from a head of cabbage steamed in a pot, with the stems crushed (you use the inside of the partially steamed cabbage head for something else, like bigos). The parcels can be cooked in some stock in a pot on the stove, or baked in an oven, or both -- I prefer the oven, because it browns the cabbage in a pleasant way.

The traditional sauce in my home has always been a white sauce with tomato puree (like cream of tomato soup, in sauce form), but I've also heard of mushroom sauce being used. I pour the sauce over the parcels at some point during the baking process. Because of the rice inside, I usually don't eat these with any additional starchy side, but my parents serve them with potatoes.

(And I've just realised that this is what I should make out of my impulsively bought napa cabbage, so thank you! :D)
posted by confluency at 12:56 PM on August 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Comrade Doll clarified that Hungarian/Romanian stuffed cabbage may be more different than I thought, because it contains lots of dill

Not among the Hungarian cooks I know. Mind you, my father favoured cabbage rolls made with sauerkraut, and that would probably drown out any other taste. Apparently some people add caraway seeds: you could split the difference by using dill seeds.

Here's a technique that I think I came up with by myself, but maybe I heard it somewhere. If you freeze cabbage - which takes days - and then defrost it - which takes at least another day - the leaves are pliable enough to separate without boiling, and they don't tear as easily. You may still wish to blanch the individual leaves to make them more flexible and to make the taste of the cabbage a bit less pronounced, but that's way less trouble than separating individual leaves from a head of cabbage in a pot of boiling water.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:54 PM on August 12, 2020

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