Everyone and no one’s food: A journey along the Black Sea with dumplings
I believe that food tells us about the climate, migration, lifestyles (even modes of survival), economic conditions, innovations and traditions of communities and regions. Like every food, dumplings have diversified and adapted to the conditions of time and place in the Black Sea region.
I am a person who pursued her mother tongue through music, and at the end of this journey, found herself in a region where that language is still alive, if only just. To some, I am a Laz activist, to others a peace activist; still others see me as a musician, an ‘informance’ artist, a folklorist working in the eastern Black Sea region. Some say I am a civil society representative, a social entrepreneur, a gourmet, an alternative tourism operator, ecologist, nature lover, even ‘someone engaged in superfluous work’ or ‘I don’t know what she does, but somehow she makes ends meet and sends her son to school.’ In reality, I am a wildly curious, enthusiastic person seeking my place in the world and trying to rid myself of impudence.
What launched me on my dumplings journey wasn’t my interest in this labourious dish, but the network of knowledge, accumulated experiences and curiosity that developed during my work in the Black Sea region stretching from the towns of Ordu to Artvin. The search by those curious about the story of dumplings in the eastern Black Sea region and my field experience, which I will share with you, intersected, and my article was born out this intersection.
Years ago, when I was yet occupied with identity and politics from the side-lines, I tried to learn and record everything I could about the Laz language and its speakers who live in metropolitan cities. Of particular interest to me was their cuisine. When a close friend said, ‘Why don’t you write a Laz cookbook from your research?’ the idea made sense. While trying to find recipes from compilations, I came across extremely interesting information. Breakfasts of butter, honey and chopped bread soaked in linden tea; milk puddings made without added sugar or honey but with a pinch of salt (mjağomu in Laz); biscuits that never become stale that are locally called candy; childhood memories of drinking the first milk of a cow after she has given birth (m3xoni); vinegar made of honey (torpişi mcumoi); a peculiar dessert called thermoni (mun3’ai) made from honey that has a molasses-like consistency … The material I came across was so exciting, full of the survival knowledge of people who live intertwined with nature.
When I began writing this article about dumplings, I phoned friends whose knowledge and experience I trust to ask where I should start. ‘There’s just silor. It’s also called Georgian dumplings. It’s hollow, but it’s very tasty,’ they said. So I pursued silor first. Setting off for Artvin, where ethnic Georgians still live today with Laz, Hemshin and Turks. That’s how it is today, but there were once many Armenian villages too. Now there are no Armenians, but many villagers’ narratives involved Armenian neighbours ...
Silor || Photo: Öykü Özgü
Making silor, Aralık Village, Artvin || Photo: Özlem Şendeniz
Making silor, Aralık Village, Artvin || Photo: Özlem Şendeniz
Making silor, Aralık Village, Artvin || Photo: Özlem Şendeniz
‘If a home has potatoes, eggs and silor, it will not go hungry’
Anyway, back to our story. My first job was to head to the village of Klaskur near the town of Borcka along the border with Georgia, where ethnic Georgians live and where I love to eat and drink. I found myself at Meroli, a small guesthouse run by Meryem, who became frustrated with city life and returned to her family home, where she excels at making traditional dishes to serve her guests. I met Meryem when she first opened Meroli. I agree with this smart Georgian woman that it is necessary to persist with traditional flavours. Meryem applies this idea at her place and procures natural ingredients from her village to make all of the food, including silor.
As I undertook my research for silor, the question I wanted answered was clear: Was silor a kind of mantı, Turkey’s version of dumplings? I asked Meryem, who said, ‘I don’t know, I tell people it’s “fake mantı” or “hollow mantı”,’ and continued, ‘If you ask me, Georgia’s dumplings are khinkali. Its pieces are huge, with a juicy meat stuffing, a kind of thick soup. Ethnic Georgians in Turkey stopped making it for some reason. Perhaps they don’t make it anymore because it had pork. I ate it in Batumi, Georgia, it’s a fabulous dumpling.’
As we talked about silor, it became clear that it is quite difficult prepare, but so easy to eat. I guess that’s why it’s usually done in winter, collaboratively; all together, they twist and bake the dough. Even though many people roll out the dough, only one person cooks the silor. It can be dried and stored for a long time and is often eaten in the summer months, during Ramadan or whenever people have to work hard.
While we were making silor – served with butter, syrup or yoghurt – at Meryem’s place with a group of other women, Aunt Havva interrupted to say, ‘We used to cook on the ketsi before we had the cooker,’ and continued: ‘We would put the panel atop the pileki, an earthen tray, cover it with leaves and cook it on the sheet in the highland.’ Asked ‘Which leaf?’ her memory strained a bit, but when prompted with ‘Chestnut?’ she quickly answered. ‘Chestnut leaves work, as do the komar leaves (mşkeri in Laz) … It was customary in the past to make silor, along with stuffed grape leaves and rice pudding, during mawlid and at weddings.’ Kadriye Abla then interrupted. ‘If a home has potatoes, eggs and silor, it will not go hungry. In the past, every house had dried silor. I remember it from I was a child: silor with walnuts (with syrup) and yoghurt silor.’ Hatice Abla, the quietest among them, concluded the conversation by saying: ‘They call it siron in Gümüşhane, Diyarbakır and Tunceli.’
Silor is one of the few dishes that can be made without the food industry, requiring just flour – previously made with dark flour because rye was what was planted – water, salt, yoghurt, and sugar (though for years honey was used instead of sugar). Aunt Havva also explained that rye and millet were planted in Klaskur village but abandoned after the tea plant was brought to the region. While we were eating silor, which I had watched from the preparation to its cooking and eating, Meryem said, ‘But the real mantı is Kayseri mantı.’ Here I was in the Black Sea, searching for stories about dumplings; had the conversation really come back to Kayseri? Meryem reminded me that she had been married for years to a man from Kayseri. I said, ‘OK, where do you think mantı is from?’ Without thinking for long, she replied, ‘Kayseri’. And I said, ‘They say it got its name from China. Uzbekistan has mantı. In Italy, they call ravioli the father of mantı. Mantı from Sinop has a different taste.’
Why is it that whenever mantı comes up, the first thing that comes to mind is always Kayseri mantı? One time I heard the phrase ‘Armenian-style Kayseri mantı in a tray’. How was it different from Kayseri mantı?
Identity of the land
The food professionals Levon Bağış and Musa Dağdeviren often say, ‘Food has a land, not a nationality,’ an approach I too have adopted on this matter. Dağdeviren is a master chef who has been working against the meritless perception of ‘the native’ for many years. He finishes his sweet talks with ‘Food belongs to a land, not to people.’ Does a region alone determine the fate of food? As someone who has been working on vernacular languages for many years, I have drawn the conclusion that only geography has an identity. Whose homeland is the area at the foot of the Kaçkar Mountains of the South Caucasus, a region once called Lazistan that I now describe as the ‘eastern Black Sea’? Here, nature guides life and determines relationships. An untold number of peoples live together and practice similar traditional lifestyles. Is it a mystical coincidence that İsmail, a beekeeper on the slopes of Mount Ida in northwest Turkey, and İlyas, a beekeeper in the Kaçkar Mountains that rise in northeast Turkey, both write ‘Ya Nasip, Ya Kismet’ (Let There Be Fortune, Let There Be Fate) on the lids of their beehive boxes? These mystical coincidences are also hidden in languages. For example, there is no word for ‘nature’ in the Laz language. The word is absent in many languages of indigenous peoples who do not define nature as something separate from themselves, realising they are a part of it. Likewise, Laz does not have a distinct word for ‘animal’ because its speakers do not distinguish themselves from animals. Nor do they have a word for ‘garbage,’ because their way of life is a cycle; everything returns to nature. The same is true for the words ‘war’ and ‘peace,’ since these are not words a people need but the words of the state. Just as the philosophy of languages is determined by the geography and lifestyle of their speakers, so is their food. Language is merely an instrument for those who live in harmony with nature. But I digress, thanks to those beekeepers … ☺
While preparing for the article you are reading, I learned about a dish called t̆’umbu in Laz, spoken by a people native to the eastern Black Sea region for thousands of years and who today remain in just five districts of Rize and Artvin provinces. It is made by kneading only flour, salt and water, and the dough is traditionally rolled into the size of a walnut, then pressed with the thumb. After it is boiled in water and drained, butter is melted on top and a couple of spoons of sugar can be added. After mixing well, the dish is consumed while it’s still warm. It is also eaten plain in the town of Işıklı (Ğera in Laz) in Rize’s Ardeşen district. There’s another version of this dish, which I also came across in Ardeşen. Mantı ingredients are stuffed instead a large piece of dough and it is baked whole, then served with yoghurt and tomato paste sauce. They call this mantı. Whether it is a type of mantı, I leave to your interpretation.
At the beginning of my article, I mentioned that many peoples live both together and apart in the eastern Black Sea region. To not fall short, I engaged my friends in a search for dumplings among the traditions of the Hemshin, a people who live in eastern Rize province. I came across a dumpling called hengel/hinkal, in which dough is cut into squares and dried, then baked and eaten with yoghurt and butter sauce. The most interesting to me is the version called hatspur. Hats means bread in both Homshetsi and Armenian. In this version, stale bread found at home is cut into tiny pieces, placed on a greased tray, baked in the oven and eaten with yoghurt. What intrigued me is that no one says the yoghurt has garlic. When I asked about this, I got the answer, ‘It can be eaten both ways.’
Making peace with the soil and nettle in Giresun
What we call food around here should be green. Cabbage, beans, borage (burği in Laz) and an assortment of leaves … Speaking of herbs, let me move on to another interesting type of dumplings I’ve learned of: mantı with nettle. Hakan Adanır, who runs the restaurant Bohça Mantı with his dear wife Yasemin, became aware of the thousands of tonnes of chemicals used to kill weeds in hazelnut cultivation along the Black Sea when he began organic production of the nuts in Giresun in 2004 within the Toprakla Barış (Peace With Soil) project supported by the UNDP. I recall us commenting that ‘a country wouldn’t drop this many chemical bombs on its land during a war.’ This awareness led him to research the stinging nettle herb, one of the plants on which herbicides were used, and conclude that if he could commercialise stinging nettle, he could reduce the use of chemicals. So he rolled up his sleeves to make the herb popular in Turkey. That’s when he and Yasemin opened an establishment in Giresun to make nettle mantı. Adanır explains: ‘We make nettle mantı in two ways. The first one is green, there is nettle in the dough, and it is stuffed with minced meat. The dough of the second one is the classic mantı dough, and it contains Giresun cheese and nettle.’
Adanır’s initiative has had two major outcomes: One, most people in Giresun thought of siron (the local name for silor) when it came to dumplings, and it was not available at restaurants, made only by women who sold it from their homes. Secondly, and I think most importantly, a contribution was made to the local cuisine. Traditionally used and well-known in the area, nettle is now made in a new dish, taking its rightful place in Giresun cuisine.
I believe we should take care of our land so that the land takes care of us. People in Giresun have reduced their use of agricultural chemicals and want to use stinging nettle in different ways. For example, there is even a bakery in Giresun that makes nettle bread.
Food is flavourful in its own region. Not every place’s grape leaves should be stuffed, and not every place has a nettle soup or dumplings. Meat isn’t tasty everywhere. Butter doesn’t have the same consistency everywhere. People ought to get to know the soil, the air – in short – the nature of the place where they live.
Over the years, governments have brought kiwi, avocado and many other foreign crops to the Black Sea, but we have not considered why this land gives us nettle. Instead, we tried to destroy it. Because it was one of us. The result of our alienation from stinging nettle was to associate with chemicals and became alienated from ourselves. We became hostages to unknown chemicals.
It is not a coincidence that nettle became a part of dumplings in Giresun. It has as much to do with the culture and experiences of that region as it does with the plants that grow there. Our story is about ‘reconciling with the land’ and the result of nature conservation efforts.
I believe that food tells us about the climate, migration, lifestyle (even modes of survival), the economic conditions, innovations and traditions of communities and regions. Like every dish, dumplings also diversify and adapt to the conditions of a time and place. Food is like people: If they do not adapt, they cannot survive where they go.
Dumplings encompass stories from outside of Turkey. In Giresun, dumplings contain the fight to protect nature and are coloured with nettle. Sometimes it appears as khinkali; elsewhere, other stories fit inside. Dumplings are everyone’s and no one’s food.
While dumplings’ shells travel around the world, what winds up inside of them depends entirely on nature.
Translation by Ayla Jean Yackley
- My dear friend Güneşin Aydemir and I began using the word ‘informance’, a performance that is both educational and entertaining, to describe our stage performance. I think it was first time the term was used Turkey. Just between us, we wrote an entry on the subject for the collaborative hypertext dictionary Ekşi Sözlük (The Sourtimes Dictionary); cf. https://eksisozluk.com/informans--6265111
- I would like to thank Hakan Adanır, Aynur Cihan, İrfan Çağatay, Yılmaz Topaloğlu and Meryem Topdemir, who provided their knowledge and experience during my fieldwork for this article, and Fatma Genç, Didem Gençtürk, Celâl N. Osmanağaoğlu and Özlem Şendeniz for their editorial support during the writing process.
- Klaskur is an ethnic Georgian village in Artvin’s Borcka district. The Turkish name is Aralık.
- Ketsi is the Georgian word for a clay tray used to make cornbread or regular bread. Gresta is the Laz word for the same stone tray.
- Komar, or kumar, are commonly known as rhododendron, and, along with chestnut trees, is one of two important plants for cultivating the unique honey of the eastern Black Sea region.