The Full Mantı

An Istanbul couple spends the waking hours, and sometimes the sleeping ones, serving up traditional Turkish pasta

By / December 2011

In the shadow of the Sapphire Tower, the tallest structure in Turkey, you might easily overlook Neşem Mantı Sofrası. Nestled away from Istanbul’s touristic districts, in the Emniyet Evler neighborhood, this humble eatery may have only three tables, but its dishes of mantı, a traditional Turkish pasta dish, are packed with taste.

Stuffed with spiced beef and served beneath yogurt and swirls of garlic-tomato sauce, mantı is a labor-intensive delicacy that is out of keeping with the rapid pace of life in Istanbul. At least at this house-turned-restaurant.

In today’s world of processed food, mantı is on the shelf of most any grocery store in Turkey. Diners can even find pre-packaged mantı on the menu of many restaurants. But Cevdet and Nurdan Keçeci still make it the old fashioned-way, one piece of pasta at a time.

In the eastern province of Erzincan, meat was scarce in Cevdet’s family. Back then, he ate mantı stuffed with egg and spices. But it wasn’t a childhood love of the dish that propelled this husband-wife duo into the food-service industry, but rather, the closing of another family business. For 22 years, the couple sold decorative ceramics before being forced out of the market by knock-off imports in 2000. They had to find something else to put food on the table.

“Selling mantı was the best option,” Cevdet says. It was a dish the couple could prepare from home, a set up that helped them avoid the draining overhead costs of creating a new business. Their first customers were their neighbors. Soon the local preschool started making orders.

In 2002 they began selling to restaurants content to serve homemade mantı without the sweat. In the wake of a growing clientele, and in partnership with Nurdan’s sister Nuriye, they moved the business to its current location in November of 2009. The space feels more like the family’s dining room than a workplace.

These days, Nuri says, she can make manti in her sleep.

During lunch hours in the summer businessmen, escaping the Mediterranean heat, eat mantı beneath a gently whirring ceiling fan. At evening time, while a small stereo spits out Turkish radio from a bookshelf, local residents and students ebb in and out for the authentic cuisine.

In the back room, where the indirect sunlight and morning air sneak in the slightly opened window, Cevdet and Nurdan do their most creative work.

First, Cevdet combines the ingredients into the Herculean cousin of a Kitchen-Aid mixer hidden beneath a counter, and mixes the dough. He mixes, he waits. Mixes, waits. Next, Cevdet rolls the dough. With a hand-crank and what looks like a Schwinn bicycle chain, he sends the dough back-and-forth until its thickness matches that of a cooked lasagna noodle. The dough is then folded to resemble bolts of cloth found behind the counter of a fabric store.

Nurdan, a native of Izmir, unfolds the dough on a small dining table, and reaches for what looks like an oversized bolt equipped with 15 pizza-cutter wheels. She rolls the tool across the dough, scoring it into a checkerboard of one-inch squares. Perched on a little round stool, dressed in her usual conservative overcoat and headscarf, she skillfully places a pinch of beef the size of an English pea onto the middle of each square. She swaddles the meat in its blanket of dough.

These days, Nurdan says, she can make mantı in her sleep. Not too long ago, working well into the night, her daughter Esra saw it happen. While robotically placing the minced beef on square after square of dough, sleep overtook her. Yet while her eyes stopped to rest, her stubborn hands kept working, methodically pinching and placing the beef with perfect spacing well beyond the last square.

After thirty minutes in the freezer, the mantı is poured into a pot of water on the stove. Nurdan waits to bring the pot to a boil until the customer in the dining room is seated. After Nurdan tops the strained mantı with yogurt, tomato sauce and mint leaf for garnish, Cevdet delivers it to the table. Paired with a basket of bread, the $4.50 dish is ready to be served.

In Istanbul, it is as easy to shell out too much money for food as it is to forget to slow down. At Keçeci Mantı Sofrasi, patrons can avoid both. The eatery is a place where a tasty meal can easily turn into hours of conversation with one of the most pleasant couples in town.

 

Andy Owens is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.

 

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