Recipe Corner: Armenian Dolma (Sarma) from San Francisco’s Sloat Garden Center


Shake Antaramian, a former long-time employee at Sloat Garden Center in San Francisco, has made this traditional Armenian Dolma (Sarma) recipe for decades. It was adapted from Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s, the cookbook written in 1944 by legendary San Francisco restaurateur, chef, author, benefactor, and philanthropist George Mardikian.

Sloat Garden Center began in 1958 in San Francisco’s Sunset District, and has become the largest independent pottery importer in the U.S., with ties to many other independent garden chains that purchase pottery through Sloat.

Shake, born in Baghdad, Iraq, still loves to make a variety of Middle Eastern dishes and specialties from her family’s past. She came to the United States over 60 years ago, studied chemistry at the University of Nebraska and Kent State University, and worked at the University of California Medical School (UCSF). Shake eventually settled in Marin County north of San Francisco, married, and had two children. She worked at Sloat Garden Center well into her 80s.

Born in 1903, Mardikian immigrated to the United States in 1922, and was an indispensable influence in introducing shish kebab, dolma, pilaf, spinach salad, stuffed cabbage leaves, and dozens of other dishes for the time from Anatolia, Armenia and the Middle East to the American diet for the masses.

George Mardikian

His first job in America was washing dishes in a small San Francisco cafeteria. He eventually bought the cafeteria and built it into a renowned restaurant, Omar Khayyam’s, where he hosted many notable people and world leaders including President Dwight Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Named after the Persian epicurean poet, the restaurant operated under the motto “The Food of Good Quality,” and debuted in the middle of the Great Depression. Despite the country’s economic downturn, Omar Khayyam’s became so successful, it led Mardikian to open up another location in San Francisco in 1938, where it continued to operate until a fire destroyed it in the 1980s.

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While serving as a food consultant to the Quartermaster General of the United States Army in Germany, he became aware that some 2,000 Armenians who had been displaced by World War II were being held in the slave labor camp, Funkerkasserne. Mardikian went to the camp, where the displaced Armenians honored him with an unforgettable program in the hope that Mardikian would be the link to a future in America. Promising to do his best to assist them, he, along with Suren Saroyan, established the American National Committee to Aid Homeless Armenians (ANCHA). Along with Suren Saroyan and General Haig Shekerjian, Mardikian launched a humanitarian effort that enabled thousands of displaced Armenians to settle in the United States. In 1951, President Harry S. Truman awarded George Mardikian with the Medal of Freedom for his work in the Army.

“For over 50 years, George Mardikian stood at the helm of Omar Khayyam’s, his world famous restaurant in downtown San Francisco,” as journalist Liana Aghajanian writes in Dining in Diaspora. Customers from all echelons came to 200 Powell Street not just to indulge in once-exotic dishes like shish kebab and dolma, but to mingle with the energetic and passionate Mardikian himself, which LIFE magazine once referred to as “the most favorable man in America.”

Mardikian would customarily “break bread” (a special flat bread [lahvosh] served at the restaurant) with his diners at Omar Khayyam’s as a sign of hospitality and cordiality. The restaurant’s menu was unusual for the time, featuring a creative mixture of Armenian, Middle Eastern, and African cooking adapted for American tastes, including ajem pilaff, broiled lamb chops, Izmir kufte, vosp abour, shish kebab, roast Fresno turkey with pilaff, kuzu kzartma, chakhokhnili, rose-petal ice cream, paklava, madzoon, Armenian cheese, and other exotic dishes of the Near East.

In Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s, Mardikian revealed some of the culinary secrets that made his famed restaurants (in Fresno and San Francisco) so celebrated.

“Mardikian’s original recipes were prepared in the Armenian fashion, but flavored to the American taste and palate. His menu and dishes were considered exotic at the time, and different, but they were easy even for home chefs to prepare,” adds Shake. “He was America’s first celebrity chef.”

In 1956, Mardikian published his memoirs, Song of America. An excerpt from the book is quoted on a plaque in the entrance hall to the American Adventure Pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center, and was referenced by President Obama during a naturalization ceremony. “One moment you belong with your fathers to a million dead yesterdays, the next you belong to a million unborn tomorrows,” Mardikian said about his journey as an Armenian Genocide Survivor to lauded American. A highly respected philanthropist and benefactor, Mardikian passed away in 1977, and is buried at the historic Armenian Ararat Cemetery in Fresno, California. His wife Nazenig, his brother Archie and sister-in-law Minnie, and nephew Gregory are buried with him in the Mardikian family plot. Other prominent figures of Armenian American history including the Seropian Brothers, Soghomon Tehlirian, Victor Maghakian, Gazair Saghatelian, Varaz Samuelian, and William Saroyan are also buried there.

Here is Shake’s treasured dolma recipe:


1 cup olive oil

5 cups onions, chopped

1 cup uncooked rice

1 cup parsley chopped finely, more to taste (Shake adds chopped cilantro and mint leaves, too)

1/2 cup currants (optional)

1/2 – 3/4 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup tomato sauce (Shake uses fresh tomatoes, peeled and seeded)

1 cup water

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 16-oz jar grape leaves in brine (about 60 to 70 leaves, such as Orlando brand)

Lemon wedges or slices, fresh sprigs of parsley as garnish



Pour oil in cooking pot. Add the onions and sauté until golden. Add rice and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Then add all other ingredients and cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring. Remove from stove and allow to cool.

While the stuffing is cooling, prepare the grape leaves. Add 1 teaspoon of salt to two quarts water and bring it to a boil. Immerse the grape leaves (a few at a time) in the hot water for 30 seconds or until the leaves change color. Take grape leaves out of the boiling water and allow to cool. Now they are ready to be stuffed.

Place a teaspoonful of rice stuffing on each grape leaf and roll it up like a package. Arrange them side by side into a large pan lined by three or four layers of grape leaves (in order to prevent the dolma from burning). Place a large plate over them (as a weight to hold them down). Pour 1 cup of water in the pan and cook on the stove top or in a preheated 350 degree oven for 1 hour (check to ensure rice is fully cooked).

Allow them to cool completely, then cover and refrigerate overnight in the same pan. Serve as an appetizer or cold entrée, and garnish with lemon and fresh sprigs of parsley.

Note: Shake adds: When using fresh grape leaves, it is important to blanch the leaves briefly in heavily salted boiling water before stuffing.


*Dining in Diaspora, Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s: How George Mardikian Introduced Middle Eastern Food to America,
Family owned for 60 years, Sloat Garden Center celebrates other locally owned and grown companies throughout Northern California through sourcing their plants and products. Dedicated to serving Bay Area gardeners for the last five decades, Sloat Garden Center is an independently owned garden center with 13 locations. For more information, go to:


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