Side by side, shoulder to shoulder, like ears of wheat
One meal, two cities, two languages, two women and two different stories: The word mantı, and everything about it reminds me of two different flavours: One is the joy of reward, and the other, even today, carries the residue and bitterness of sadness and regret.
The subject of cuisine and food is not just about nourishment. It encompasses time and space, people and life, bitter and sweet memories and endless emotions. Sometimes, when you least expect it, the smell or name of a dish takes you to a completely different time. It’s wonderful if you have good memories of that meal. Large flowers bloom on your face, butterflies alight on your cheeks. But if it stirs a moment of sadness and regret and you are all by yourself, every aroma from that meal overflows from your heart and seeps into your grief, drop by drop.
Sisterhood under ‘hope, love and faith’
I had joined the group of children sent to boarding school in Istanbul from various Anatolian cities to learn their mother tongue, religion and culture from Diyarbakır. In Istanbul’s Gedikpaşa district, below the Armenian Protestant Church, the site we call joghovaran (gathering place) in Armenian accommodated approximately 100 boarding girls and boys, while we attended İncirdibi Armenian Protestant Primary School for our education. My dear Rakel Dink, older than me, and I were among the 16 girls between the ages of 6 and 12 who were under the charge of Isguhi Hetumyan from Ankara, whom we addressed as morakuyr, or aunt in Armenian, on the ground floor of the building right next to our school. Our living space consisted of two rooms with iron bunk beds lined up in rows. In the living room, there was a sofa by the window, morakuyr’s bed in the corner, a tiled stove, a long wooden table and chairs lined up at the table. A small painting hung on the wall, and under the outstretched arms of Jesus Christ, were written the words ‘hope, love, and faith’. We also had a small kitchen, although food was rarely cooked here, because our meals would come from the centre in Gedikpaşa in enormous food tins.
We children from various cities around Anatolia experienced the possibility of sisterhood without blood ties, living under the tableau of ‘hope, love and faith’. A boarding school is a place that forces people to grow up and mature quickly. Starching and ironing the white collars with razor-sharp creases that we wore with our black aprons, washing the dishes, getting the little ones ready for school by combing their hair and crowning them with a white ribbon and helping them with their homework were among the duties of the children who always grew up quickly. Each autumn, we children used to carry the winter firewood, dumped on the street in front of the door, to the woodshed and stack them like pencils.
Sometimes our tiny, frail bodies would become weary from the work, or the longing for our families would show on our faces. At such times, we must have hung our heads because morakuyr would say in Armenian, ‘Aysor tsezi mantı bidi yepem (Today I will cook mantı for you)’, and it would invigorate and cheer us all. We would happily line up around that big table right away. Morakuyr would roll out the dough, some of the older girls would cut it, while some would place the minced meat on the tiny pieces of dough. We small ones would wrap the dumplings with our tiny fingers. Together we cooked the dumplings in a large cauldron, then turned the table into a banquet, eating several plates one after the other, as if it were a great prize, filling our tummies with pleasure.
While we spent our winters between an apartment and school, in summer we went to Camp Armen, also known as the Tuzla Armenian Orphanage, in the Istanbul suburb of Tuzla. Our campsite was spacious; the skyline was visible, flowers and insects as well as all kinds of fruits and vegetables grew. We got eggs from our chickens, milked our cows and even lived with a monkey named Mannig. Tuzla, where the lake meets the sea, was empty at that time – as if the deep blue, clean sea was our own. As summer is wont to do, the time we spent in the embrace of green nature and the clear sea, under the sparkle of the stars – in short, enjoying freedom – passed quickly.
This is how I spent five years: in Gedikpaşa in the winter and Tuzla in the summer. One day, after school finished, our boarding school principal, Baron Hrant Güzelyan, called me to his office and said, ‘We are sending you to Diyarbakır to see your family this summer holiday.’ I couldn’t sleep for days with joy.
Camp Armen, 1970s || Photo: Hrant Dink Archive
Camp Armen, 1970s || Photo: Hrant Dink Archive
İncirdibi Armenian Protestant Primary School, 1970s || Photo: Hrant Dink Archive
‘Well, tell me then, what is mantı?’
I went to Diyarbakır. I realised just how much I missed my family when I saw them. However, a whole five years had passed, my family had changed houses, my siblings had grown up, and my sister was married. Those siblings with whom I had not grown up shied away from including me, playing together and even had trouble accepting my existence. Even though my mother, who was very upset by this situation, repeatedly warned them saying, ‘Stop it, she’s your sister!’, not much changed.
One day, when everyone else had gone to the churchyard to play with their friends, I gave my mom a rough time. I hurled myself to the ground, lurching from one wall to the other, crying and shouting out, ‘I want the sea! I want mantı!’ My poor mother said helplessly, ‘My poor dear, there is no sea here; There is a river, but it is dangerous! Get up, I’ll take you to the churchyard, swim in the pool there.’ I continued to roll on the floor, crying and yelling. Then a neighbour who had heard our voices came. My mother lamented to her that I was demanding the sea and mantı, but she didn’t even know what mantı was. ‘Well, tell me then, what is mantı?’ the neighbour said to me. Through my sobs, I tried to explain that it was a dish made with dough, meat and yoghurt. Our neighbour’s face lit up upon hearing this, ‘Why, she is talking about egençig! Knead the dough, make it quickly, and shut this one up!’ I deeply regret that I left my mother so desperate. Perhaps I wanted to take out my anger over boarding school and what I had gone through upon my return on her.
The hiss of the sizzling butter with hot pepper drizzled over the dumplings that day still rings in my ears.
My family had sent me to Istanbul to learn my mother tongue and culture, but I had learned and wanted a dish by its Turkish name mantı, a word my mother had never heard. Yet my mother’s dumplings were made with the same ingredients, taking its name in Armenian from the shape of the dough: egençig, or little ear. Just like khingal, khingali, hingel, haluj, psihaluj and its other names in the languages of this land.
Those who govern us can pigeonhole us as ‘One language, one religion’ in the squares all they want. We all know the homeland of wheat is Mesopotamia. Without wheat, there is no flour, and without flour, there are no dumplings. Despite everything, we will be filled with hope, love and faith, leaning on and touching one another, side by side, shoulder to shoulder like the yellow ears of wheat that turn their faces to the sun’s warmth and light with a gentle breeze in the Mesopotamian plain. We will multiply with the abundance of wheat and sing songs of flavour in the ancient languages of these lands.
For the dough:
400 grams of flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
For the filling:
250 grams low-fat minced meat
1 medium onion
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon allspice
1 tablespoon of butter
For the yoghurt sauce:
½ kg of yoghurt
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon flour
1 teaspoon mint
For the tomato sauce
2 tablespoons butter (1 tablespoon is for the tomato paste, 1 tablespoon for the hot peppermint oil)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon flour
1 teaspoon mint
1 teaspoon paprika
5-6 cloves of garlic
Mix the flour, egg, salt, olive oil, baking soda, vinegar and about one cup of water and knead into a slightly firm dough. Cover the dough with a damp cloth and let it rest.
Finely chop the onion. To cook the minced meat, heat the oil in pan. After frying the onion in the hot oil, add the meat and continue frying till it is browned, then add the spices, mix and leave the filling to cool.
Divide the kneaded dough into balls. Roll out each with a rolling pin. Cut the rolled-out dough in circles with the rim of a small coffee cup. Stuff the minced meat in the middle of the circles and fold the dough into a semicircle and pinch the ends so that they overlap in the form of ears.
Bake the flaps you have prepared in an oven preheated to 170 degrees (in the past, it was cooked over a coal fire, turning the flaps over in a greased tray) for about 15 minutes, until the little ears change colour. You can also boil these ears directly without being roasted in the oven.
Mix the yoghurt with flour and eggs well. Prepare a buttermilk by adding broth, if you have it, or cold water. Put the pot on the stove and stir constantly until it boils. Then add the ears. Boil a few more times, checking the salt. Pour the mint you burned on the yoghurt egençig dish and serve hot.
Melt the butter; when it starts to sizzle, add the flour and fry. Then add the tomato paste and chili pepper and stir. Add broth, if available, or hot water, and stir. Take care that the flour does not become lumpy. Then add the ears, add salt to taste and boil for a few moments. Mince the garlic with a pinch of salt and add as much as you desire.
Heat the butter and add the mint and remove from the stove. Pour the mint you heated over the egençig with tomato sauce and serve hot.
Take the excess pieces of dough left from the circles you cut, fry them crisp in a bit of oil and sprinkle them over the food.
Translation by Ayla Jean Yackley
- After the 1950s, it was common for Armenian families to send their children to Istanbul for education as a consequence of the shutdown of Armenian schools in Anatolia.