Dating back to the time Turks lived mostly in Central Asia, mantı has long been a staple food in Turkish cuisine. It’s the dish that makes the family gather around the dining table. It’s the dish that you order in when you get midnight food cravings.
To a non-Turkish person, mantı can be defined as simply as minced-meat-filled dumplings. Most countries have something like this mouth-watering dish in their cuisine—though of course it’s never exactly the same. Even in Turkish cuisine, mantı comes in many different varieties. The filling may vary, the recipe may change, but when you say “mantı” the first thing that comes to mind is a ball of thin dough filled with minced, spicy meat, boiled in water and served with garlicky yogurt and hot butter with red pepper powder or tomato paste. Classic Turkish mantı is closely linked to the central Anatolian city Kayseri, and it’s often called Kayseri mantısı. There is even a saying about mantı among Kayseri people: “40 pieces of mantı should fit in one spoon, only then we can say it’s actually mantı,” emphasizing the importance of its size.
Throughout Turkey, many varieties of mantı can be found in varying sizes. Circassians make bigger mantı pieces and fill them with potatoes—this dish is called psıhalıve. In the Trakya region, there are versions of mantı filled with goose meat called kuru mantı (dry mantı)—this variety is not served with yogurt, that’s why it’s considered dry. Another Trakya version, sulu mantı (watery mantı), is also filled with goose meat and is served with yogurt and additional goose meat on top. Thracians use local geese for meat and water buffalo milk for the butter and yogurt.
The Asian connection
Such a variety of styles suggests that mantı has been in the region for a long time––people have been experimenting with it for centuries. Uzbek, Mongol, and Kazakh cultures have similar dishes in their traditional cuisine. Uzbek and Kazakh mantı pieces are bigger, have pumpkin in the filling along with meat and are steamed. Mongolian mantı, “buuz,” is more like Turkish mantı, except Mongolians sometimes include herbs like fennel seeds. As these cultures have lived side by side for centuries, the cuisines are naturally influenced by each other.
Chinese wonton is quite similar to Turkish mantı as well. The chefs at Shangri-La Istanbul, who all hail from China, are very pleased with Turkish mantı. “Although Chinese wonton and Turkish mantı have some similar qualities, mantı has a much more special taste,” chef Bing Li told The Guide Istanbul. “However, mantı is served with yogurt and sauce only, and Chinese wonton has many more varieties.”
As this culinary richness continued throughout the Ottoman Empire era, other varieties of mantı emerged. Other than Asian cultures, Eastern European countries have some distinguished mantı-like dishes. It seems likely that what connects Russian pierogi to Ottoman piruhi is the multicultural structure of the Ottoman Empire.
We asked Tevfik Alparslan, chef at Topaz restaurant, what distinguishes piruhi from today’s mantı. “Piruhi has a thicker dough with a more intense egg taste,” he told The Guide Istanbul. The finishing touch of piruhi includes roasted walnuts. “Topaz adds its difference to this classic dish with baked partridge, fresh herbs, and root vegetables sautéed with red wine and olive oil.
Go further and you’ll find similar tastes in Western European countries. It is always said that Italian and Turkish cuisines are very much alike. Italian restaurants are very popular in Turkey, and the reason may be that when a Turkish person sits down to an Italian meal, they find some pretty familiar tastes. Mantı and ravioli or tortellini may be the prime example of this likeness.
We asked Gian Carlo Talerico, Antica Locanda’s Italian chef, what his thoughts on mantı were the first time he tried it. “I likened it to tortellini with prosciutto crudo, cooked in beef or lamb broth and served with parmesan. Like mantı, it has an intensive meat taste.” Talerico prefers Tazele’s dried-eggplant mantı. “Because the dough is thin, it’s bigger, like ravioli, and it has not only yogurt but also a flavoring, a seasoning, along with it.”
A centuries-old tradition, mantı is still one of the most popular dishes in Turkish cuisine, and it’s not hard to get hold of or even to prepare at home. From small corner shops to chain supermarkets like Migros and Macrocenter, you can find packaged ready-made mantı options as well as homemade mantı. Enjoy it with garlicky yogurt and butter with tomato sauce, with some thyme and mint sprinkled on top.
Where to eat the best mantı in Istanbul
- Bodrum Mantı Arnavutköy: With many branches around the city, Bodrum Mantı features fried mantı, called Çıtır Bihter. Opening 24/7, its Fenerbahçe branch is a go-to place for late night eats. Fener Kalamış Cad. No.67, Fenerbahçe; T: (0216) 330 05 68
- Tazele: Tazele at Kanyon has two versions of Antakya mantısı on their short menu: one with regular meat, the other filled with dried eggplant. Kanyon Shopping Mall, Büyükdere Caddesi No. 185, Levent; T: (0212) 353 50 51
- Emek Mantı: Open since 1988, Emek Mantı is one of Istanbul’s classics. Like Bodrum Mantı’s Çıtır Bihter, Saray Mantısı is a deep-fried version of mantı which we highly recommend after the traditional one. Köybaşı Caddesi No. 118, Yeniköy; T: (0212) 262 69 81
- Aşkana Mantı: Another Istanbul classic, Aşkana Mantı has been operating since 1987 and focuses almost solely on mantı. Along with their mantı varieties, their çiğ börek (a thin fried pastry with a raw meat filling) is worth trying. Metehan Sokak, Türkel Apt No. 1/1, Ulus; T: (0212) 268 74 42