Reaction mantı

Dumplings are one of the best expressions of the fact that food has no nationality. There is a phrase I use whenever the topic of nationality and food comes up: ‘Food does not have a nationality, it has a geography.’

Kayseri Dumpling Festival 2019 || Photograph: Berge Arabian

I have an early memory about food, or perhaps I think it’s my memory, because it’s an episode shared and enjoyed at every family dinner. It is an anecdote about mantı, the variety of dumplings eaten in Turkey.

When I was five or six years old, we went to eat mantı at a restaurant, and when the dish placed before me was not in the style to which I was accustomed, I threw a fit. My mama[1] and the rest of the family had to leave the restaurant before they could have any mantı. I apparently had not yet developed a palate that allowed me to try new things. Yet some tastes don’t change; my red line remains that mantı must have plenty of tomato sauce and yoghurt.

Even though my father’s family is from the central Turkish city of Kayseri – famed for its mantı – for me, real mantı is the variety my grandmother would make with plenty of broth and tomato sauce with a soup-like consistency.

The blend of yoghurt and tomato sauce is among the most delicious combinations just about anyone can experience. Tomatoes together with yoghurt is a complete ‘umami’ explosion. Umami, or savouriness, is defined as one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter, and its abundance in breast milk makes it nearly everyone’s favourite flavour. Besides tomatoes, it is found in cheeses, especially aged cheese, soy sauce and sesame oil. In fact, packaged foods and fast-food restaurants often use flavour enhancers, like monosodium glutamate, or ‘Chinese salt’, to add the umami flavour.

The combination of tomato sauce and yoghurt is of course not the only thing that makes mantı delicious. Perhaps you cannot imagine mantı without tomato paste, but let’s not forget that we have been consuming this dish without tomatoes for centuries. The fruit only entered our lives in Turkey after Europeans discovered it in the Americas and brought it back with other indigenous products, and it still took a long time for tomatoes to be used in food preparation. Refik Halid Karay, born in 1888 and the author of the most delicious articles about food in Turkish, wrote: ‘I remember well when medicine – which now praises the tomato’s syrup and would have even nursing children drink it – once treated tomato like it was an enemy.[2] 

The geography of dumplings

Dumplings are one of the best expressions of the fact that food has no nationality. There is a phrase I use whenever the topic of nationality and food comes up: ‘Food does not have a nationality, it has a geography.’

Considering the places through which dumplings have passed and where they were embraced, they may be the world’s most geographically extensive dish.

The scholar Bert Fragner describes dumplings’ origins and journey thus:

The Mongol invasion of China, Central Asia, Russia, Eastern Europe and Iran in the 13th century was followed by a series of waves of East Asian, mostly Chinese, cultural influence towards areas along the western part of the Silk Road; it seems plausible that these included culinary influences. One, dating back to the 14th and 15th century in Central Asia, was then brought from there to Anatolia, probably by migrating Turks: a special kind of large stuffed ravioli of definite Chinese origin, still called in Central Asian languages and Turkish by this Chinese name mantu.[3] 

The writer Irina Petrosian, on the other hand, attributes the introduction of dumplings to Anatolia to the cultural interactions of Armenians and Mongols in the 13th century. She concludes that dumplings were first eaten in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia as a result of this interaction.[4]

Regardless of its path of entry, dumplings are one of the oldest known Ottoman dishes. Although it has different names in different places and is made in different ways, we are talking about pretty much the same dish. Circassians, Georgians, Uzbeks, Tatars – whoever is in or near this region has made and named dumplings in their own way: haluj, hinkal, pelmeni, pasha or tepsi mantı (tray mantı)...

The more it has diversified, the better it has become.

Kayseri Dumpling Festival, 2019 || Photos: Berge Arabian

Dumpling Workshop for Kids, Kayseri Dumpling Festival, 2019

Dumpling Talk (Speakers from left to right: Salpi Ghazarian, Levon Bağış, Takuhi Tovmasyan, Yıldız Horata, and Leyla Kılıç), Kayseri Dumpling Festival, 2019

Kayseri Dumpling Festival, 2019

Since we can't talk about Kayseri...

I started with a memory from far back, let me end with a recent memory.

My favourite dumpling is ‘reaction mantı’. You read right, ‘reaction mantı’[5]

The conference ‘The Social, Cultural and Economic History of Kayseri and the Region’ had been planned by Hrant Dink Foundation in the city of Kayseri in 2019 before the provincial governorate prohibited it; it was then moved to Istanbul, when the district governorate of Şişli also banned it. Since we couldn’t discuss Kayseri, we decided we would eat the food of Kayseri and its environs, and we met at the scheduled date and time to make and talk about mantı.

Thinking we weren’t really gathering to make mantı, the police showed up helter-skelter at the Foundation to block a conference occurring under the ‘guise of mantı’. For the rest of my days, I will never forget the look of surprise on their faces when they came inside only to see women busily making mantı on the tables. Our conversation with the police commander, which started at a very high pitch, ended with a plate of mantı in his hand which he said was the better than the mantı his wife from Kayseri made.

The ‘reaction' mantı that we made that day was truly better than all other mantıs I have ever eaten.

Well, the chief knows his mantı.

Translation by Ayla Jean Yackley

  1. Mama (Arm.): Mother.
  2. Refik Halid Karay, ‘Domatesin İkbâli’ [Prosperity of Tomato], Yemek ve Kültür [Food and Culture], no. 31 (2013).
  3. Bert Fragner, ‘From the Caucasus to the Roof of the World: A Culinary Adventure’ in A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, eds. Richard Tapper and Sami Zubaida (London; New York: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2000), 60.
  4. Irina Petrosian and David Underwood, Armenian Food: Fact, Fiction (Indiana: Yerkir Publishing, 2006).
  5. Translator’s note: Here, the author makes a wordplay between ‘tepsi’ (tray) mantı, a type of mantı common in Kayseri and the region, and ‘tepki’ mantı, reaction dumplings.