December 10th, 2012
12:15 PM ET
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CNN photojournalist John Bodnar is a second-generation Slavic-American whose grandparents emigrated from Eastern Slovakia, and his mother’s Carpatho-Rusyn ethnicity is the prominent influence for his cultural and family traditions. Previously, he wrote about haluski and paska.

When we were kids, stuck inside during a long, cold winter or seeking respite from the summer heat under a shade tree, my friends and I often played board games. These games could go on for quite a while, and we'd get to talking about sports and whatever else young boys think about. Eventually we'd get around to the topic of our favorite foods.

We all agreed that stuffed cabbage, known as holupki, was the best of all. Second to pizza, of course.

One of my friends claimed that his mother made the best holupki. Naturally, a frank discussion ensued, and since we were young boys, it was obvious to us that we had to defend our mothers’ honor. There was some physical posturing, but no actual punches were thrown. The outcome was a uneasy stalemate.

Holupki is a meat and rice filled cabbage leaf. There are different names and spellings (halupki, holubky and holubki are common) as well as many methods of preparation and varieties of stuffing. Ground beef was my mother’s choice, but ground pork, chicken and lamb can be used too.

Vegetarians aren't left out in the cold; mushrooms (or anything else you find appealing) can be used as a meat substitute. There is always room for modifications on the traditional recipe.

Holupki is usually served at our family gatherings. Depending on the size of the holupki you make, they can be the main course or a side dish. At traditional Slavic weddings, the holupki are smaller and served as sides.

My eighty-six year old mother still makes holupki for our family. Though her hands are getting quite arthritic, she always methodically mixes and rolls the holupki with love. She is sure to send frozen, uncooked holupki as part of a care package back home with me after my visits, and happily serves them to those who visit her.

My Mother's Holupki

1 head of cabbage
2 pounds of ground beef
1 1/2 cups of rice
1 Tablespoon of salt
1 Tablespoon of pepper
2 minced onions
1 6 oz can of tomato paste
1 teaspoon of parsley flakes
1 egg
1/2 cup of water
1 15 oz can of tomato sauce

1. Steam the cabbage so the leaves can be separated from the head. After the leaves are removed, steam them again to make them more pliable for filling and rolling.

2. Place rice into boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Remove rice and strain water. The rice won’t be cooked, but will be cooked later while it is mixed and rolled in the cabbage.

3. Add meat, rice, salt, pepper , tomato paste, parsley, onion, egg and water into a mixing bowl and hand-mix thoroughly. You can always add different seasonings to your taste. (I’ve even tried Cajun seasoning once and added curry to another batch.)

4. After mixing the ingredients, make a 1/4 pound ball, or handful of the mix, shape it into an oblong lump, then wrap it into the cabbage leaves. After the mixture is wrapped, gently poke your finger into each side of the wrap to ensure the leaf securely holds the mixture. My grandmother maintained that a properly rolled holupki can be tossed to another person across the room without losing a morsel to the floor.

5. Before you put holupki into the pot, place a few extra cabbage leaves on the bottom of the pot to protect the holupki from burning. Place the holupki into a pot , with a mixture of tomato sauce and water. The liquid mixture should come to the top of the holupki in the pot. You can add more water if the level isn’t high enough.

6. Bring holupki to a slow boil, cover the pot, lower the heat and slowly simmer for 90 minutes.

Got a favorite family recipe you'd care to share, or some warm holupki memories of your own (or, gasp, a better recipe)? We'd love to hear about it in the comments below.

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Filed under: Cooking • Cultural Identity • Culture • Family Recipe Index • Make • Recipes • Step-by-Step

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Susan

    I recently went to Lithuania and I couldn't stop eating the food especially the potato pancakes and stuffed cabbage. My grandparrents hailed from Lithuania and settled in Kingston, PA and it was very local out there. Delicious at every family gathering, wedding, funeral, you name it the food was there! Hearty and great!

    April 24, 2013 at 11:14 am |
  2. Ivan Klasovsky

    Hi John, I´d found Your recepi of my favorite food. I´m living in Bratislava but was born in Trebisov in Eastern Slovakia. I love my mom´s hulky as we call them ( sometimes we use holubky ). Also I loved my grandmother´s hulky before she was died and her hands was very very similar to those what are on the pictures. She lived in Zemplinsky Klecenov and I miss her and her hulky and paska as well. Good luck and Happy New Year ( Stastný Nový rok ).

    January 4, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  3. Eka

    – hey beckoh, i shulod not have read your blog today! i was just doing some catch up clicked over to natalie norton's site and balled like a baby! her words, strength, faith, and wisdom are absoultely breathtaking. and your words, wisdom, funnies, and realism hit home to me! love ya. kimmie (horne)February 10, 2010 2:15 PM

    December 23, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  4. Polish and Proud

    My father is the golabki maker in my family, in recent years he's started substituting barley for the rice to great success. It absorbs more of the liquid in the meat and makes for firmer rolls that hold together better through the cooking, not to mention the difference in flavor. Either way they need to be served with lots of the tomato sauce and mashed potatoes on the side! So good! And definitely worth the time to make them

    December 13, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  5. Sarah

    My family gets together 2xs a year and we make about 200 to eat , freeze & share with our kraut loving friends. We also have a christmas eve dinner with Oplatek, mushroom soup, kielbasi & kraut, bubulki- poppyseed & kraut,and pirohy – prune,cheese( I make a fresh farmers cheese), potato & onion, potato & cheddar, potato & cheddar with smoked hot hungarian kielbasi and a ham. We save the nut kolachi for christmas morning toasted & butter is the only way !

    December 12, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  6. Ann

    BTW, just like with meatballs, it always tastes better if you use a combination of meats. I use half pork, half beef.

    December 12, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  7. junickey

    My husband always liked his cooked with sauerkraut and quartered potatoes. My mother didn't put any tomato products in hers and she said that was the German recipe.

    December 11, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  8. Ann

    Huh, I've made these for years and never thought of parboiling the rice first! I think I'll try it that way. YUM.

    December 11, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  9. Slovakbymarraiage

    Ahoj!! Thanks, John! My first post didn't show up so forgive me if this repeats. This blog is just what I'm looking for! My husband is from Bardejov, an only child whose mom died a few years ago. His dad is still in Slovakia so all he has is me. I will try this recipe in hopes of bringing a bit of his home to him. I'd love to share his reaction - do you use Twitter?

    December 11, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  10. sghcpa

    My paternal grandparents came from what is now Eastern Slovokia. Haven't had good Holupki in a while. May have to make it myself now that I have a recipe.

    December 10, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  11. Amir Ali

    Peoples income of christian community is under same like india casts they dont have good jobs they will come up w/ good education n get jobs n help by Pentagon

    December 10, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  12. Amir Ali

    Its very good dish and kimchi also same color but on christmas we making normal dishes in pak ppls r celebrating well birthday of jesus christ we hope ppls will

    December 10, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  13. ohioan

    I grew up on the Polish version myself. Delicious! I did not appreciate them as much when I was a picky child, when my great-grandma made them. But I go to my church's golabki dinner every year and think of her!

    December 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  14. Nikki

    I lived in a small town in coal-cracker country Pennsylvania – and one of the things I miss about the area is the food. The local firehouses always had some kind of food sale going – halupki, subs, pierogies, lots of Lithuanian/Slavic stuff. Every single time I'd go to one of them, there would be one heck of a line going... but that food was always worth the wait. Especially if it wasn't block-party season. :D

    December 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Philo99

      Same here. I grew up just outside of Wilkes-Barre. The old ladies always made the best pierogies for the church bazaars. Sometimes my Mom will surprise me and send a dozen frozen ones to me in the mail.

      My grandmother always made holupki with pork, so as kids we called them pigs in the blanket.

      December 11, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  15. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    Is that a lung cancer specimen?

    December 10, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  16. rachelcnn

    Yum! My family calls them "golabki" (Polish). I make a vegetarian version with mushrooms at Christmas, but I'm terrible at rolling the leaves – mine always fall apart. ;)

    December 10, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Mmmmmmmm! Would LOVE to know how you season your mushrooms.

      December 10, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Mildred

      Ditto on what Kat said! I have a weekly potluck with a vegetarian... I'm thinking a batch of vegetarian and a batch of meat holupki/golabki/galupkis would go over well for the winter months.

      December 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
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