by Elif Selvili • Photography by Luis Gutierrez
Every lucky family has a tradition that revolves around food. For my family, that tradition means three generations of Turkish women and children joyously working together to painstakingly assemble the miniature, ravioli-like treats called mantı.
The most likely origin of mantı in Turkish cuisine dates back to the Uyghur people—one of the oldest Turkic tribes—who brought it from Central Asia to Anatolia (the Asian peninsula that comprises the majority of modern Turkey) in the 1300s. Members of the same tribe also traveled east, taking mantı with them, resulting in Korean dumplings called mandu and Chinese dumplings called mantou. These nomadic people were thought to carry the dried mantı in sacks on horseback, ready to be cooked and eaten over a fire when they chose their next resting spot.
Delicious and labor-intensive in any language, these delicate bundles of light dough with meat filling have been a staple of Turkish cooking for centuries. For many Turks, mantı evokes childhood memories of mothers, aunts, grandmothers, siblings, cousins and neighbors getting together over endless tulip-shaped glasses of tea, and dexterous hands filling and folding the perfect square-shaped bundles over laughter, stories and gossip while the kids stole bites of the raw dough and tried to decipher the adult stories.
In wealthier homes, there were marble tables in the kitchens for the kitchen staff to knead and roll out the dough. The children would be invited to come and “help” by cutting narrow strips of the dough for the tiny meat bundles. In more modest homes, a big sheet would be laid over the living room floor with a special circular wooden dough board placed on top of the sheet. The extra-thin and long rolling pin, called oklava, was a prized possession—perfectly straight and just the right weight. The oklava was often passed down from generation to generation along with the recipe for the ideal dough. After the most skilled member of the household rolled out the dough, the women and children would gather around the board to fill the neatly cut squares of dough with tiny dollops of the meat filling and fold them deftly into perfect bundles. The children would be cautioned against making themselves sick from sneaking too much of the uncooked dough and praised for well-formed squares. By the time hundreds of mantı were shaped, cooked, topped with creamy garlic yogurt, sizzling melted butter and dried mint, the adults would be as impatient for the treat as the children.
Future mothers-in-law, checking out prospective brides, would ask to eat mantı prepared by the young women in order to judge their suitability as good housewives—the smaller and neater the bundles, the better qualified the bride-to-be. In fact, Turkish legend has it that the ideal bride could make a mantı so small that 40 of them could fit in one tablespoon.
There are two main ways to cook the mantı: baked or boiled. Boiled mantı is softer and chewier, whereas the baked version is crisp and toasty. Traditional mantı is filled with ground lamb or beef, but more and more, feta cheese-filled versions are being introduced to accommodate changing tastes without raising too many eyebrows. Gather your family and friends around, bribe them with the promise of a 600-year-old recipe, and let the mantı tradition take root in your home.