The Amazing Unforgettable Istrian Cabbage Roll Lasagna

A recipe like Istria itself, caught between Italian and Slavic heritage

Quick, what do race car champ Mario Andretti, boxing champ Nino Benvenuti, NYC mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and movie star bombshell Laura Antonelli all have in common? You probably said that they're Italian. And you would be wrong. Well, almost wrong.

They are all Istrians and whether that means they are Italian or not takes some historical unraveling to figure out. Let's start way back at the beginning.

As you can see by the maps above, Italy was once much larger than it is now. It not only had Corsica (which still remains an Italian island for all intents), but the frontier stretched clear across Switzerland to include Geneva and border onto Burgundy! On the Mediterranean side, all of what is now known as the "French Riviera" was anything but French!

On the eastern side, La Serenissima Republic of Venice encompassed a few chunks of modern Austria, and virtually the entire coast of what was Yugoslavia but now is made up of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro. The arrowhead shaped peninsula of Istria with its major cities of Fiume (Rijeka) and Pola (Pula) from a demographic standpoint was not too different than Southeastern Florida is today. Unquestionably an integral part of the country, but with a considerable percentage of the population being of a different heritage than the rest of the nation.

When you look at the map on the right, you will see essentially the situation that existed right through WWII. Istria was fully Italian, as well as several of the offshore islands, and the citystate of Zara. Indeed Zara, Fiume and the other areas were just as Italian as any city in what is considered Italy today. However, WWII brought the American bombing of Zara virtually down to rubble, and with the Allies siding with Yugoslav Marshal Tito (ah yes... how soon we forget that we were allied with Communists...) Zara, Fiume, the islands and Istria were soon overrun, the vast majority of the Italian population was forced to flee or was killed, and that entire area was absorbed up into Yugoslavia.

Flame War Prevention Note: The issue of who had territorial right to what has never truly been conclusively determined and I'm certainly not going to plunge into that historical tinder box. Let's just suffice it to say that I wouldn't want to walk down the main street of Zara or Rjieka today and yell "Irredentismo Italiano!" (Italian irridentism, or basically "Italy demands its old lands back"). What is is, what isn't isn't, and let me get back to the cabbage recipe before someone shoots me.

So... there I was, a good half century after Istria became Yugoslav, and I was absolutely feasting on one of the most delicious delectables that had ever crossed my lips. I was firmly in what is indisputably Italy, in a little restaurant in a tiny village just outside of Udine, and I was in gastronomic heaven over something that can really only be called Cabbage Roll Lasagna.

The family that ran this little restaurant was Istrian and they had fled to this area near the border over fifty years earlier. Grandma and Grandpa were still in the kitchen cooking away, and it was from their loving hands that this scrumptious concoction was brought to the table.

This Cabbage Roll Lasagna truly is not Italian at all. I even doubt whether it is natively Istrian. Most of its elements are essentially Slavic but put together with an Italian flair. It is a very unusual dish and completely memorable, if not unforgettable.

I was able to weasel the basic recipe from the Grandma and Grandpa Istrians. I've had to modify it due to the general unavailability on this side of the pond of Podravka's Vegeta, a dried vegetable powder central to Croatian cuisine. Be aware if you do locate it in some specialty store that it is jam packed of monosodium glutamate (MSG), so watch out if you are sensitive to that.

Regardless, there is no Vegeta, MSG or anything else but regularly and easily available supermarket products in this recipe. And I dare say that it tastes fully 99% as good as the Grandma and Grandpa Istrians' original.

Please note that this recipe easily serves a small army. If you want to scale it down, you can cut all the ingredients by half. Believe it or not it is a fairly low fat recipe!

- Boil two medium heads of cabbage (or one large) in water for at least 30 mins until it cooked all the way through.

- Prepare about 1/2 lb. (dry weight) of brown rice (or any kind of rice you want except parboiled) according to directions, until "al dente" not mushy.

- Slowly fry up 1 lb. bacon in a large pan until it's moderately crispy.

- Take the bacon out and let it dry on a paper towel. Leave the drippings in the pan.

- Put into the pan with the bacon drippings 1 lb. ground pork and 1 lb. ground beef.

- Add two finely diced onions and one minced entire bulb of garlic. Yes, you read correctly. Bulb, not clove.

- Once everything is cooked and the onions are translucent remove from the pan and place into a colander so all the grease drains away. Then dump back into the empty pan.

- Add one 28 oz. can of good quality crushed tomatoes.

- Add four tablespoons Heinz ketchup.

- Add two teaspoons of Dijon mustard (French's yellow is fine too).

- Add two tablespoons of brown sugar.

- Add two teaspoons of lemon juice (white vinegar is ok too).

- Cut up the crispy bacon into small bits and toss that in the pan.

- Add all the cooked rice.

- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

- Let the whole mixture bubble in the pan for at least 10 minutes.

- Grab a huge oven pan (like a big lasagna pan), start peeling the cabbage leaves and make a layer at the bottom. Then spread about a 1/2" thick layer of the meat/tomato/rice mixture, another layer of cabbage leaves, another layer of mixture, (just like a lasagna) and keep going until you're at the very top with a layer of cabbage.

- Pour the liquid from a 28 oz. can of quality diced tomatoes all over the top, and then dump the tomatoes themselves over the top so that they are evenly spread out.

- Bake in a 350 degree oven for an hour or until the edges of the cabbage at the top turn brown and start to curl up.

- Cut into squares and serve with a big dollop of sour cream atop it all.

Now if that isn't the most delicious Cabbage Anything you've ever spooned into your face, I'll give you double your money back! :)

This Cabbage Roll Lasagna may not be fully Italian, but like Istria is caught inbetween a Slavic and Italian heritage. However, Istria is the only part of Croatia that has Italian as a formal language, so the street signs, government services and other aspects of Istrian life are in Croatian and Italian. Therefore maybe some things don't completely die out...

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Comments 5 comments

Guru-C profile image

Guru-C 9 years ago

Hi Hal, This sounds wonderful! My grandmothers who were of Turkish, Greek, Bulgarian heritage made delicious stuffed cabbage, and your recipe takes the flavor profile to a unique place. Must try it!


Guru-C profile image

Guru-C 9 years ago

Plus, the historical information is fascinating.


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 9 years ago from Toronto Author

Just make sure that everyone in your party savors it, as there is a whole lot of garlic in there but YUM! :)

Yes, essentially the cabbage roll is a staple of the Balkans as well as much of Eastern Europe. The layering of the dish makes it visually different and the mixing of the sauce into the "stuffing" is also rather unique, so I guess we can consider this an offshoot. One thing the Istrians did which was not to my liking is that they way oversalted it, but that is not too unusual among Italian cooks. I control the salt and it's just perfect.

Dang, I'm salivating just thinking of it!!! :)


livelonger profile image

livelonger 9 years ago from San Francisco

This dish is called sarma in Croatian, I believe a Turkish word, which is where this menu item originally comes from, due to the Ottoman occupiers. Speaking of, much of Europe and substantial swathes of Africa could be considered "Italian" if you want to go back to the colonial record. But then you'd have all the colonists (Italian, French, Turkish, British, etc) squabbling over their overlapping pieces. Better to just enjoy the food and figure its heritage is fairly mixed. ;-)


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 9 years ago from Toronto Author

Completely agreed. There is no way that anyone is going to sort out which hill and which valley belonged to who at what point in history. The world should just settle their differences amicably and EAT! :)

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