Sometimes when my mother talks about her childhood in Turkey, she can go to some pretty dark and traumatic places, such as the local hamam (bathhouse) where female community get-togethers predominantly occurred.
“I can still hear the sound of this particular woman’s pendulous breasts as she threw each one over her shoulder to scrub underneath,” my mother says, shuddering at the memory. “Other times, there was much shrieking and yelling from the elders because some young woman would announce her pregnancy and insist she must have somehow gotten pregnant from sitting naked on the wet, heated stone.”
They’re two less joyous memories of course; for the most part, my mother remembers those lazy afternoons to be filled with much chatter and laughter as the neighbourhood ladies downloaded on one another weekly – free from the prying ears of their men.
Having heard the hamam stories over the past four decades, I’m very pleased to report my childhood community gatherings with the Turkish womenfolk happened sans nudity, but in a conga-line of people’s homes where pieces of furniture had been moved out to make way for the gaggle of rough-rolling women. The premise: the ladies would be there to make mantı, a labour-intensive and incredibly tiny Turkish ravioli, but over time I came to understand it was more about making time for social connection and gossip – plenty of gossip.
Mantı, as the Turks know it, is essentially paper-thin pasta dough, which is rolled out into large sheets, cut into tiny diamonds and filled with a spiced beef or lamb mixture. It is then usually boiled (although lately, fried and baked versions are becoming more popular), before being served with garlic yoghurt, topped with melted butter and red pepper and dusted with dried mint and chilli flakes. Many countries have a version of the dish, but in Turkey, it’s generally accepted that the dish first arrived in Anatolia via the Mongols in the 13th century. The Kayseri region, in the centre of the country, is the heartland of mantı, but the dish can be found everywhere, from high-end restaurants to suspicious-looking cafes.
The premise: the ladies would be there to make mantı, a labour-intensive and incredibly tiny Turkish ravioli, but over time I came to understand it was more about making time for social connection and gossip – plenty of gossip.
As a young child, I didn’t know any of that, of course. All I knew was that Sundays were a time to go to whatever Aunty’s house, lie flat under their dining table for hours at a time (sometimes I would fall asleep) and study their slippers as they pounded, rolled and filled dough until trays and boxes of mantı filled every table and benchtop. I found the sounds soothing, but what I really enjoyed was feeling like I was a part of something special. From my spot, I could catch up on the weekly gossip, get to know who was having marital difficulties and who among my peers was causing their mother grief. Even though I was a child, the mantı-making experience somehow left me feeling connected to Sydney’s Turkish community. Best of all, at the end of the shift, I would get to eat mantı (one of my favourite foods) until I was green around the gills and ready to vomit.
Once I grew up, I moved away from the community and today, I buy my mantı frozen from a Turkish supermarket. It’s not the same as devoting hours, elbow-to-elbow with family friends and relatives of course, but whenever I do my shopping and pick up a couple of 1kg bags from the freezer section, I run into someone who knew me back when I was a little child with a penchant for sleeping under tabletops. We talk, we laugh and happily, we keep our bras on. Sure, it may be far from the mantı-making community we had in the 1980s but decades on, I can’t help but smile when I think about how the simple act of buying the stuff is helping me keep my connections. The world really is a wild, upside-down place.
They say a sign of a good manti is how small they are and while these manti are bigger than the traditional dumplings, it’s my version and they’re delicious!
Manti is a traditional Turkish dish of tiny pasta shapes stuffed with a lamb mince and onion mixture that are dressed in a yoghurt sauce. Here we’re cheating a bit by buying already prepared raviolini (tiny ravioi). The process of toasting the pasta before cooking in stock completely changes its taste and texture. This could be the best comfort food ever.
I’d always wanted to learn how to make these Turkish dumplings, so I was rapt when I got to learn it from a group of women in Cappadocia who had been making them for generations. It’s not something I would make every day but I’m thrilled I got the chance to learn. What makes this version a little different from the others is that they’re served in a soupy base. They’re pretty time consuming to prepare, so rope in the friends or the kids and let them work for their supper!
Crafting these delicate little parcels of lamb is a labour of love, but it’s also half the fun, as making them is usually a large family affair. Made throughout Turkey and Central Asia, the method varies between regions, but the smaller the manti, the more skilled the cook is considered. The Anatolian town of Kayseri is renowned for making the smallest versions – so small, you can fit a number of them on a spoon.