Hello, my name is Anya and I’m a dumplingholic.
When I’m not dosing on Tibetan momos in my New York City neighborhood, you’ll find me queuing for har gow at my favorite dim sum restaurant in Chinatown. Or you’ll catch me daydreaming about dumplings past: the lacy-edged yaki gyoza I devoured in the drizzly Japanese countryside and the rich tortellini I spooned up at Osteria Francescana, chef Massimo Bottura’s legendary restaurant in Modena, Italy. I’m Russian, so my blood loyalty is to pelmeni, our quarter-size, meat-filled Siberian beauties. But that Slavic allegiance wavers each time I arrive in Istanbul, primed for another rendezvous with pelmeni’s tiny Turkish cousins: manti.
I first encountered manti—meat-filled dumplings in a yogurt and butter sauce, the country’s favorite comfort food—on my initial trip to Istanbul in the mid-1980s. The setting was Liman, a classic lokanta (homey restaurant) overlooking Istanbul’s port, where a kerchiefed matron splashed my hands with rosewater before I sat down. My order arrived, a deep bowl of lamb-filled parcels the size of thimbles, blanketed in warmed yogurt, bracing and tart.
The elderly waiter slowly drizzled the manti with butter infused with tomato paste, then sprinkled them with dried mint and thyme, and hot, fragrant Turkish red peppers. The dish was more than just dumplings. It was a spoonable masterpiece, each bite delivering the perfect proportion of toothsome dough, savory meat, and herbed yogurt. Outside Liman’s windows, a Russian tanker glided slowly up the Bosporus, bound for the Black Sea. In my own private mythology of how I wound up buying an apartment in Istanbul two decades later, manti—served up with a dreamy Bosporus view—play a huge role.
Modern Istanbul cuisine is a postimperial Ottoman hodgepodge with Balkan, Greek, Armenian, and many other influences. But manti’s archetypal mix of dough, meat, yogurt, and butter is truly Turkic, a souvenir of Turkey’s distant nomadic pastoral past. According to historians, in the 13th century fierce Turkic and Mongol horsemen left Asia for Anatolia—the peninsula that connects Turkey to Asia—to cultivate trade and diplomacy along the Silk Road, leaving meat-filled wheat-flour dumplings in their wake. (Among Turkish manti’s other cousins are Korean mandu, Chinese mantou, and Uzbek manti.) From the records of Topkapi Palace, the abode of Ottoman sultans for over four centuries, we know that Sultan Mehmed II, conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople in 1453, was so manti-mad he allegedly gobbled them for breakfast for 28 days! (Selam, fellow dumplingholic.)
Centuries later, Turks regard manti as nostalgia in a bowl, conjuring visions of aunts, cousins, and grandmas, their swift fingers a blur, shaping manti while gossiping. “To every Turk, their mom’s manti are best,” explained the gifted chef Civan Er on my prepandemic manti-intensive visit to Istanbul. “But manti are also ideal hangover food,” he added. “All those rich carbs, meat, and yogurt!”
Currently, as Istanbul chefs turn to their Anatolian roots, manti are experiencing a glamorous revival, one I was determined to savor on a dumpling tour of the city. At Yeni Lokanta, Er’s chic new-wave meze spot in the central Beyoğlu district, he fills his ravioli-shaped manti with dried eggplant, creating an umami meatiness without any meat. His “secret” ingredient? Tuzlu yogurt, a goat-milk yogurt from the Hatay region near the Syrian border. “It makes everything taste better,” Er promised. Blended with ginger, onion, and a little pomegranate molasses and dotted with chili and parsley oils, the yogurt sauce was so good, I almost forgot about the dumplings themselves.
My next stop was the dazzlingly panoramic Mikla, one of the handful of Turkish restaurants on the prestigious San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, with views of the entire city. Mikla employs a full-time anthropologist to source its ingredients. “It took us months to develop our manti recipe,” declared chef Mehmet Gürs, Mikla’s Swedish Turkish owner, “and tons of thought and technique.”
I was ushered to a window table to taste the result: a concentrated bomb of Anatolian flavors in a package the size of a baby’s fist, with a whole wheat dough and a rich filling of shredded, slow-cooked lamb shank. The manti came topped with roasted tomatoes, a sauce of house-made raw buffalo-milk yogurt aerated into an ethereal foam, and a final touch of spiced sheep-milk butter.
As I lingered over the last bites, gazing out at the evening panorama of Ottoman-era mosques twinkling below, I relished my good fortune. Because, for a dumplingholic like me, Istanbul just might be the ultimate city.
Where to eat manti in Istanbul
At his modern Turkish restaurant just off a pedestrian corridor in the central Beyoğlu district, chef Civan Er sometimes presents his manti on antique copper dishes made by Armenian artisans. The dumplings are filled with meaty dried eggplant, bathed in a salted yogurt from the southeastern Hatay region, and accented with ginger and pomegranate molasses.
Manti are always on the menu at Mikla, chef Mehmet Gürs’s panoramic spot on the top floor of the Marmara Pera hotel in the Beyoğlu district. Whole wheat dough is stuffed with lamb braised for 12 hours—or with vegetables—and surrounded by a foam made from smoked buffalo yogurt and flavorful roasted tomatoes.
For a traditional version of manti, head to this Old World esnaf lokanta (tradesmen’s tavern) in the bohemian Cihangir quarter. Open only for lunch, Özkonak makes manti topped with house-made yogurt and a flourish of infused butter. The restaurant is also famous for its Ottoman milk puddings, so don’t skip dessert.
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