Manti: A Food Without Borders

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Photo by thebittenword.com/Flickr CC


The historic Turkish-Armenian talks last week probably had more to do with lucre than with justice, but I will take the opportunity nonetheless to pay tribute to an essential element of shared Turkish and Armenian cuisine: the manti. Manti is comfort food, home food, a steaming bowl on a cold night in kitchens throughout Central Asia, the Caucasus and Anatolia. Where was it born? The debate rages, loaded with political charge as such debates about origin often are.

Rather than search for the ur-manti, let's just say manti is a perfect regional expression of that apparently universal desire for a bit of ground meat wrapped and cooked in a layer of cereal. Ravioli, wontons, and pierogis probably form part of the manti's immediate Eurasian genealogy, but we could perhaps claim that the tamale, the empanada, and the pot-pie respond to the same primordial impulse.

Of course the best are fresh and homemade, and every mother's son will have his opinion about how it should be done.

What is manti? Basically, it's a tiny ball of spiced ground lamb (or beef) enfolded in a small square (or triangle) of fresh pasta. This is cooked in one way or another: the Armenians usually fry them lightly in butter first, then boil; Turkish recipes say boil them directly; I'm told in Central Asia they're usually steamed; some renegades bake them. Cook them how you will; the key thing is that the steaming hot, slippery manti then be spooned into a bowl and smothered in yogurt with crushed garlic, and topped with abundant dry mint. Additional toppings may include melted butter, dry sumac, or red pepper.

The result is heavenly.

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

Some manti are very tiny, with barely a speck of meat inside. Others are round and full with a whole ball of meat. Some use a very thin, fine pasta, others use a hearty thick one. They can be dried or frozen, or ordered in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on any corner of Istanbul or Yerevan. But of course the best are fresh and homemade, and every mother's son will have his opinion about how it should be done.

So for the moment let us put aside whether manti came thundering across the Asian steppes with Genghis and Timur, or landed on Ararat with Noah and family. They were once served in neighboring houses, Turkish, Armenian, and Kurdish, in all the cities and towns of Eastern Anatolia. The same sheets of pasta are rolled out now on both sides of that hostile border, as well as in homes in Aleppo, Beirut, Boston, Los Angeles... They are testimony to a long legacy of cultural entanglements, mirror of a diverse population, and work of a millennium of mothers' attentions to what is good and fine. Manti, then, for the peacemakers: in hopes that they might be as honest, as flexible and as persistent as this dish.

To try making manti for yourself, click here for a recipe.

If you'd rather eat them at a restaurant, "The most tiny and delicious manti [pictured above] are made at the kitchen of Zaytinya, in D.C." says Atlantic Food contributor Aglaia Kremezi.

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Maggie Schmitt is a freelance researcher and translator based in Madrid.  She is currently working on a book called The Gaza Kitchen with Laila El-Haddad. Learn more at gazakitchens.wordpress.com.

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