After my family immigrated to Chicago, they would go to big Assyrian church picnics at the forest preserve at Milwaukee and Devon. Everyone would eat lulu-kebab or shish-kebab on samoon with riza sh'ariyeh topped with lots of parsley and tourshie for dinner, and kadeh and semowar chai for dessert. The Eddie Eddie Band would play traditional Assyrian music on the doumbek, oud, and zurna while everyone line danced.
When there was downtime, the women would get out their brown paper grocery bags, tie scarves around their heads, and walk along the forest paths to pick thousands of grape leaves. They'd bring their stuffed paper bags home later that night, empty them onto their kitchen tables, and start stacking to prepare for making prakhe (stuffed grape leaves, also known as dolma, yabruk, warak dawali, warak enab, and many other names).
Wild grape leaves grow all over the city and suburbs. You've probably seen them hundreds of times, but never realized what you were looking at. And once you learn how to identify grape leaves, you'll start seeing them everywhere. The bike path by my parents' home is covered in grape leaves this time of year, so last weekend, I went foraging with my mom and learned a lot about identifying and preparing the leaves. But, as they say, safety first!
While grape leaves are one of the easiest things to identify and forage, all foraging should be done with caution and care. If you want to go foraging for grape leaves, I highly recommend going with an experienced forager. Identifying edible plants can be tricky, and you should find an expert who can teach you in person. This post only compiles my personal experiences and cannot be relied upon as a recommendation to harvest or consume any particular plant.
I hope that this post will give you a sense of what to expect if you decide to go (you'll probably impress your guide with all your grape leaf knowledge!), but don't just head into the woods with your phone. If you do choose to go, here are some things to keep in mind to make sure you have a safe and fun experience:
- When you're looking for grape leaves out in the world, you should find a place that's not treated with pesticides and that isn't growing on questionable land (e.g., don't pick grape leaves that are growing right next to a gas station; don't pick grape leaves right after your town has sprayed for mosquitoes; don't trespass, don't pick leaves in a place where it's illegal to, etc.).
- Also make sure there isn't any poison ivy, poison oak, or other dangerous plants intertwining with the grape leaves.
- Avoid dirty leaves or leaves with holes in them. There are always plenty of leaves without bird poop on them, so just walk right past those icky ones.
- If you're under 18, ask for a parent's help.
- The bottom line is that you should use common sense when choosing a safe place to forage and you should avoid doing anything dangerous. When in doubt, just buy a jar of grape leaves from the market. And again, please do find an experienced forager to show you the ropes. This list of safety concerns might not be exhaustive, and a truly experienced forager can give you the safest possible experience.
how to tell whether it's a grape leaf
Now I'll tell you a little bit about how to identify grape leaves in Chicago, so that you can keep an eye out for them while you're out and about.
- Grape leaves that grow around Chicago look a tiny bit like maple leaves, but they have a characteristic flat or round indentation around the stem, like in the photos above. If the stem comes to a sharp concave or convex point, you're looking at a maple tree leaf or something else (or perhaps you are foraging for grape leaves in another region, in which case, this advice might not apply). The leaves should look like the photos above.
- Grape leaves grow on vines, so look for red and green vines.
- Grape leaves also have wavy or curly reddish tendrils that allow them to climb, although these tendrils can sometimes appear more green, depending on how old they are.
- There are often teeny-tiny grape clusters. See the photos above to spot these.
- Beyond appearance, you can also rely a little on smell. They should smell a little like sour grapes when you tear them.
when and where to find them
- The best places to find grape leaves are forest preserves and wooded bike paths.
- To spot them, when you're out walking, don't just look straight ahead, but look up and down and side to side, since the vines can grow low on the ground or up the sides and branches of trees. Just like in the photos above, at first, it all just looks like a big green mess, but if you look closer, you can find the tell-tale signs of grape leaves.
- Most agricultural grape vines, like those that produce beautiful concord grapes, are way too tough and fibrous, so stick to ones that grow wild, or ones that are grown specifically for their leaves.
- If you want to harvest them, it's best to search for them from late May to mid June. You can sometimes get away with finding the newer growth in early July, but by mid-July, they will be too tough. Find an expert to make sure they're safe to eat, and only harvest leaves that are large enough to wrap (about 4 to 6 inches across), but not large, fuzzy, and veiny (the later in the season, the tougher and more fibrous they become).
preparing fresh grape leaves
This is the method I use to prepare fresh grape leaves:
- Boil enough water to cover the grape leaves (usually about 1 to 2 quarts).
- Wash the leaves with cold water to knock off any pollen or dirt.
- Put the leaves in an even layer in a shallow dish and cover with boiling water by about 1/2 inch. Put a plate on top and use a wooden spoon to press the plate down, pushing the air out of it and completely submerging the leaves.
- After 25 minutes, gently wring the leaves out and either use them immediately or freeze them. To freeze them, stack them together and place in a ziplock bag. Push as much air out of the bag as possible (without crushing the leaves) and freeze for 6 to 8 months.