Mantı: Kneaded from the same dough
To develop more nuanced answers about why mantı is nowadays seen as a dish from Kayseri, rather than from Konya, requires first putting aside the mono-cultural values and attitudes that the nation-state and nationalist ideology seek to instil in its citizens.
View of Erciyes Mountain from Kayseri, 1912 Photo: Alden R. Hoover American Board Pamphlet Collection
I was born in Konya, Turkey, and spent my childhood there, and so I've always enjoyed food made from dough. As long as I can remember, sac böreği, or sheet pastry, and su böreği, a pastry that is first boiled, then baked, have been among my favourite dishes. I remember like it was yesterday how my grandmother would press out dough in her kitchen with her rolling pin, dip it in a huge pot of boiling water, then place the layers atop each other, interspersed with sautéed minced meat, parsley or cheese, and onto a large tray. Before the pastry was baked, my cousins and I would gather around my grandmother like chicks to eat the pieces of half-raw dough that broke off as it was taken out of the pan.
I encountered mantı, Turkish-style dumplings that are one of the most popular dishes of our time, much later during my university years in Ankara. Although Kayseri is close to Konya in historical and geographical terms, mantı was not a common dish in Konya. Even today you won't find mantı on the menus of the city’s restaurants that serve traditional Konya cuisine.
Towards the end of the 1980s, in line with the growth and diversification of the food-service sector, ‘regional cuisines’ began to appear in big cities. Food that was once made only at home – such as su böreği and çiğ börek (deep-fried thin pastries stuffed with minced meat) – could now be found on restaurant menus. Likewise, in these years, filo-dough makers, mostly from Kastamonu, began selling dough-based food, such as mantı, to be made at home. Like other regional dishes or foods, such as local cheeses or charcuterie, the appearance of mantı in big cities, beginning with Istanbul and Ankara, and its transformation into a national dish occurred over the last 20 or 30 years. This process coincided with the development of a national food industry in Turkey. At supermarkets and other modern retail channels, the general population had access to similar, even standardised food and beverages, and effectively gathered around a common table. The rise of ready-made packaged foods, such as meat and dairy products, and frozen food also occurred at this time. During this process, mantı also became popular as a Kayseri speciality.
How did mantou reach Kayseri?
So how did mantı reach Kayseri? How did it become associated with Kayseri? The journey of cooked (mostly boiled) stuffed dough began centuries ago as mantou (mantu) at farthest end of the ancient world, in China. The Mongols contributed immensely to its spread across the world:
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 centuries 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, and still prepared, at least in Central Asia and northern Afghanistan, according to the Chinese method of steaming instead of boiling. There cannot be any doubt that the migration of mantu from Imperial China to the ancestors of the Uzbeks and Tajiks must have taken place during the Ghingidiz-Timurid periods.
In short, mantou has been ‘mantıfied' in Anatolia and neighbouring regions through 600 years of migration. After becoming ravioli and tortellini in the Mediterranean, namely Italy, it spread across the world, including the Americas. From the Americas came potato which was added to become gnocchi, and it continued its journey by diversifying with new ingredients and interpretations.
It seems that mantı settled in Turkey, especially in Kayseri and its surroundings. Or those who lived there adopted mantı. After all, the people who discuss dishes and share information and stories about them are as important as the soil, air and water conditions in the formation of a local cuisine. (Let's remember the concept that the French call terroir, which in Turkish might be translated as the ‘taste of the place’.) Isn't that right? People will talk about the dishes they cook with their mouths watering, they will share recipes with one another, they will teach their children how to cook the food so that the dishes become permanent, widespread and handed down from generation to generation. If it were merely about agricultural conditions and climate, we would not be able to see differences in local food and culinary habits in places that share common environmental elements such as Konya and Kayseri.
‘The taste of the place’ in Konya and Kayseri
During the Ottoman Empire, Konya and Kayseri were part of ‘Karaman province [which] lay in the semiarid steppe, which occupies the land between the Mediterranean coastal ranges of Anatolia and Syria to the south and west and the mountains and desert to the east.’ Karaman province was set in ‘a relatively flat and fertile valley … in the bowl of the Taurus Mountains along the curving south-central Anatolian coast, stretching east to the almost lunar landscape of Cappadocia, west to the Pisidian lakes, and north to the desert region of the Salt Lake and the steppe around Kırşehir.’ These geographical features certainly had important influences in shaping the culinary cultures of the people living in the region. Namely, this region could provide both meat- and grain-based diets, because it straddled both settled and nomadic societies. ‘Over the course of millennia, nomads had forced out farmers and in turn farmers nomads many times, according to the prevailing political or demographic balance, and thus sometimes sheep and lambs and sometimes wheat fields dominated the plains. For example, droughts that emerged during the Little Ice Age in the 17th and 18th centuries that shrunk the agricultural economy and the social unrest caused by the Celali Rebellions largely emptied the villages of the plains, while sheep breeding came to the fore. With the 19th century, grain cultivation gained momentum once again. Therefore, meat dishes and pastry-based meals always existed side by side in Konya, Sivas, Kayseri and Karaman, just as they do today. Meat loaves, oven kebabs, and various kinds of börek have always been at the forefront of specialties associated with this region.
So what about mantı? This is where we need to remember the role of cultural relations and human factors in shaping ‘the taste of the place’.
We tend to think of the history of religion, language, cultural diversity and cultural pluralism in conjunction with the port cities of Turkey. İzmir, Istanbul, Antakya, Trabzon are among the primary examples that come to mind. Yet for centuries people of different faiths and different languages listened to each other’s music, shopped in the same places and smelled the scent of food cooked in each others’ homes in Anatolia. In other words, in places not connected to the sea, the practices of daily life paved the way for cultural interaction and partnerships between different religious and ethnic groups. From Merzifon to Hemşin, Harput to Kars, local idioms, music and architecture are full of traces of this shared past. Historically, Kayseri is one of these places where cultural diversity prevailed. Muslims, Greeks and Armenians lived together for centuries in Kayseri, Ürgüp and Göreme.
Kayseri: an example of cultural plurality
Compared with other places in the region that share the same climatic and historical conditions, Kayseri was long a centre where the influence of the non-Muslim population has been distinct. Let's take a closer look at the numbers: ‘In the 16th century, Kayseri is the sanjak with the highest non-Muslim population among the sanjaks of Karaman province.’ Most of the non-Muslims were Armenians. Due to economic and political crises in the 17th century, the population of the city drastically decreased. But a demographic revival took place in the 18th century in Kayseri, and by the 19th century, non-Muslims constituted 36 percent of the population By mid-century, of the city’s 75 neighbourhoods, 36 were Muslim, two were Greek, 17 were Armenian and 20 were cohabitated by Muslims and non-Muslims. While Armenians were concentrated mostly in the fields of traveling haberdashery, jewellery, tailoring, antiques and shoemaking, they also played a greater role than Greeks in food-related work such as cookery, butchery and bakery in the city. In fact, Armenians had almost a monopoly in the pastırma (cured spiced beef) business. According to several sources, Greeks mostly lived in villages outside the city. At the end of the 19th century, there were about 15,000 Armenians in Kayseri. Immigration of Circassians and Afshars in the second half of this century further increased the ethnic diversity of the city.
In the 19th century, Kayseri was one of Anatolia’s important production centres. A wide variety of goods was sent to cities such as Adana, Yozgat, Ağrı, Tokat, Sivas and Istanbul. Products such as pastırma, sausage, cotton, wool, leather, carpet, bronze goods, wheat, barley, dried fruit, seeds and yellow berries were among the primary goods Kayseri traded to other cities in Anatolia, as well as to other countries, especially Britain. Armenian merchants were in a predominant position in the growing trade network. Earl Percy, an Englishman who visited Kayseri in 1899, wrote: ‘The Greeks and Armenians together constitute nearly one-half of the total population of the town, and practically the whole of the export trade is in their hands, for the small Muslimfrebell shopkeepers and retail dealers confine themselves to the supply of local wants.’
This short historical assessment shows Kayseri successfully overcame the negative effects of the economic, political and environmental crises of the 17th and 18th centuries by the 19th century. The Ottoman economy’s partial integration with European markets during this period likely helped the city enter a period of economic revival. At the same time, the social and cultural life of Kayseri was dominated by multiculturalism more distinctly than many other cities in the region. In my opinion, amid this economic and cultural diversity, mantı became a Kayseri dish that was most probably cooked in the homes of Armenians, Muslims and Greeks, eaten with pleasure, and passed on from generation to generation. Diversity brings about the coexistence of differences; sustaining cultural diversity is only possible with the relationships, changes, interactions, curiosity and innovations created by pluralism. These all contribute to the enrichment and continuation of many practices, from music to food, which make our lives more delicious, passionate and joyful.
Permeable borders, mutable food
I can cite another example from the town of Çanakkale – which we do not typically think of when we think of mantı – that I believe strengthens my argument about the relationship between mantı and Kayseri's multicultural past. Mantı appears as mantikos in Çanakkale in a Sephardic cookbook. According to the recipe, dough with yeast taken from the bread oven is used. Even though the suffix ‘-kos’ means ‘tiny’, these mantı are rather large. Mantı must love multiculturalism because it has existed in Çanakkale for a long time in various forms. As veteran food writer Hülya Ekşigil said: ‘Turks, Turkmen, Bosnians, Greeks, Jews, Romanis, Pomaks ... Each of them contributed their own flavours to the city’s cuisine, and the dishes cooked in each of their homes eventually became a Çanakkale dish.’ Jews, who lived in this city until the early 1970s, were not the only ones to cook mantı: ‘Göçeli mantı is made with bulgur and cooked in the oven. Gelibolu mantı is made with chicken and eaten without yoghurt. Kürze made by immigrants from Dagestan who settled in Biga resembles Chinese dumplings. Yenice mantı is actually chicken and chickpea noodles.’
This shows that, like other dishes and other cultural assets, mantı has been transformed and appropriated wherever it went; every city, every culture has made it their own. In other words, this type of ownership shows us both how permeable intercultural borders are and how differences and identity are preserved through change. The way to research and understand the journey of mantı in all its dimensions, which I can only touch upon here, is to leave aside the mono-cultural values and judgments that the nation-state and nationalist ideology try to instil in its citizens. This way, we can grasp the pluralism and contingencies of history and collective memory, without worrying about us versus them. We can develop more nuanced answers about why mantı is a Kayseri dish, and not a Konya dish. Only through this can we overcome an understanding of and search for an essence and origin that determines our cultural identity and see that the practices that make our lives beautiful, enjoyable and delicious are the common products of humanity.
Translation by Ayla Jean Yackley
- 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. For a comprehensive study on the history of mantı, see also Aylin Öney Tan, ‘Mantı and Mantou: Dumplings across the Silk Road from Central Asia to Turkey’ in Wrapped
- Sam White, The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 104-106.
- Ibid., 105.
- Doğan Yörük, ‘H.1259/ M.1843 Tarı̇hlı̇ Cı̇zye Defterlerı̇ne Göre Kayserı̇’de Rum ve Ermenı̇ler’ [Greeks and Armenians in Kayseri According to the Jizya Records in H.1259/ CE.1843], Turkish Studies 8, no. 11 (2013): 439-466.
- Bedross Der Matossian, ‘Ottoman Armenian Kesaria/Kayseri in the 19th Century’ in Kayseri With Its Armenian and Greek Cultural Heritage, ed. Altuğ Yılmaz (Istanbul: Hrant Dink Foundation Publications, 2016), 24-25.
- Ibid., 30.
- Ibid., 32.
- Viki Koronyo and Sima Ovadya, Sefarad Yemekleri [Sephardic Dishes], (Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik, 1990), 29.
- Hülya Ekşigil, ‘Coğrafya ve Tarı̇hı̇ Buluşturan Lezzetlerı̇yle Çanakkale’ [Çanakkale With Its Dishes That Connect Geography and History], 1915 Çanakkale Geri Sayım Güncesi [1915 Çanakkale Countdown Diary], no. 6 (2020), 86-96.