I first tasted mantu—also known as manti, manto, mandu, mantwo, terms I will use variously, within Central Asia—at an Afghan restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts called The Helmand, after a river in Afghanistan. I later discovered, while sitting in a class listening to a talk on dumplings, that the restaurant was the flagship of a string of restaurants of the same name through the U.S.A. owned by the Karzai family and operated by Mahmud Karzai, the elder brother of Hamid Karzai, former president of Afghanistan. Sitting where perhaps the controversial figure had sat during his presidency, I was blissfully unaware of what powers my dining choices might be funding in this rather expensive restaurant. Unlike say Ariana Afghan in Midtown Manhattan, New York, Helmand was significantly less concerned with providing a narrative of exoticism and food tourism than it was with being a bounded cuisine at the top of local and national reviews. Fortunately, the higher prices that came with this drive forced me to order only one of the cheapest appetisers: “mantwo”.
Mantu at The Helmand
I was not to regret this decision. While my love for various noodles and dumplings extends globally, I had not yet discovered a dumpling that was so oriented to my existing taste profile developed through a childhood of Iranian ingredients and flavours. Something of the combination of chickpeas, cumin, coriander seeds and tumeric mixed with yoghurt and dried mint immediately captured my heart.
Manti communicate regional specficity through their range of fillings and toppings. They communicate the cosmopolitanism of the silk road, Persianate culture and the Soviet Union, while speaking to the individuality of regions, nations, cities and individual families. Afghan mantu deliver a complex blend of texture, temperature and taste derived from the important toppings used. The flavours and ingredients of Northern Iranic cuisine speak volumes on the over-thousand-year-old trade between China and the Middle East. Like Afghanistan, mantu are very much the product of years of attempted and failed invasion from every world empire. Yet Afghanistan has never presented itself as open for the imposition of culture. Even the technologies of the US and modern state power have spectacularly failed to rend Afghanistan legible and penetrable. Likewise, mantu retain something Afghan about them, and this is a story I wish to follow. How are mantu, as a part of everyday practice and consumption, not just the product of exchange, but a site of resistance and assertion as identities become less meaningful and more commercialised?
Various regional variations of manti.
Mantu have a long and under-researched history. Given my scope here, it is not feasible to question and uncover some truth of the lineage of the mantu, and such an exercise would be unproductive. Certain influences and associations are obvious: chickpeas originate in the middle east, forms of manti with similar names are consumed from Eastern Europe through to Korea along Silk Roads and the cultural sphere of the Mongol Empire. There is a clear degree of standardisation, not so much evident in the Afghani case for obvious reasons, as a part of the project of Soviet imperialists to uncover unique modern national sentiments among Central Asian ‘races’. Ultimately, however, when Ariana Afghan and Helmand serve their mantu in the U.S.A., they are offering their version of the dish based on an imagination of both what Afghanistan, however many kilometers away, and their U.S.A. clientele appear to be. In fact, there is no scholarly consensus on the origins of the word or practice of manti, except that its origins lie somewhere between Western China and Uzbekistan, which is not to say very much at all.
Perhaps a good idea of the confusion surrounding manti is the example of Café at your Mother-in-Law in Brighton Beach, New York. A Koryo-Saram, referring to the Korean community within Central Asia and on Sakhalin Island, restaurant serving Korean-Uzbek “manti”. One bewildered blogger writes “The sour cream is very not Korean. But the Central Asian word manti may have morphed into the Korean word for dumplings, mandu.” The reviewer’s language is extremely unclear, just as the history and direction of dumplings is also obscured by the reality of food being a object studied through the lens of ‘lower’ forms of knowledge, namely the embodied knowledge of everyday practice. A more academic essay in a food studies reader, without using any sources, describes a narrative in which Uighurs in the Sixteenth-Century spread the practice of steamed dumplings to Korea, where they are known as mandu. According to the author, Zohra Saed, forced Soviet migrations of Koreans to Uzbekistan “returned the mantu to its origin in the form of mandu”. Along with shared dishes, Koryo-Saram influences on Uzbek food introduced a host of new dishes and flavours such as salads and pickles near unimaginable to the U.S.A. or European consumer for whom a colonial ordering of cuisines makes such hybrid complexity impossible.
References to Afghan restaurants in New York are scant in newspapers, and the first confirmed mention of an Afghan restaurant is in a The New York Times article from 1985 rather obnoxiously titled “Ethnic Bounty”. While a restaurant critic should never be assumed to represent the thoughts and desires of the general public, The Times represents a redacted lens of U.S.A. liberal hegemony, nowhere more so than in the city’s own periphery. The article begins with the question, “Where else can you eat Afghan, Czechoslovak, Ukrainian, Brazilian and French food on successive nights?” implying that here, much like in a World Exhibition, the restaurant connoisseur is in the centre of world, laid out before him or her in a series of categories. That such cosmopolitanism is not just present in other parts of the world but constitutive of the very cuisines now presented as “temptations” and “adventures” eludes the author for whom the food of others cultures appears as a consumable representation of something ‘authentic’ and essential, rather than a product of particular circumstances both in New York and abroad. The answer for the journalist is that, “The term ‘ethnic food’ is a misnomer of sorts in this town, for our culinary experience has made ethnic eaters of us all.” This statement is admittedly ambiguous, but it is at least clear that, for The Times’s food reviewers, New Yorkers do not simply consume the food of the other, but take on some part, internalise some part of that ethnicity. Miller, the journalist, writes so as to enforce the assumption that the material power of New York to draw in and present the cultures and nations of the world has allowed residents of the city to become experts and representatives, fair appropriators so to speak, of those cultures. This viewpoint is obviously problematic in that it essentialises a notion of race and legitimises the control and ordering of a world based on this outward radiation of representation.
Aside from the hegemonic representation of the ‘ethnic bounty’ of New York, migrants of the last 100 years have contributed to a diverse community in the core that reflects the diverse violence the U.S. American state wages in the periphery. New York City, as the capital of contemporary imperialism, provides the perfect location for stultified notions of culture and their active reification and deconstruction. Through searching newspaper archives and exploring the city, it is both simple to find examples of exoticism and the exhibition of ethnic foods as before a colonial ordering as it is simple to note the absences; it is has been near imposisble to find evidence of the history of Afghan food, beyond the history of Afghani U.S.A.-style fried-chicken restaurant spats, the formation of immigrant communities, and of course the carefully held-silence over atrocities committed by U.S. parties in Afghanistan while Afghani food is prepared for U.S. Americans by immigrants fleeing the effects of Soviet and U.S.A intervention.
An interesting aspect of this soft censorship is the relationship of Afghan and Uzbek food—many Central Asians in New York hail from communities which don’t necessarily recognise an identity linked to a single nation state created by Soviet modernists—to the primarily Russian community its restaurants are embedded in in Sheepshead Bay, Southern Brooklyn. The location of Afghan restaurants—beyond the tokenized and, now, expensive Manhattan joints—is dependent on several factors. Access to religious facilities such as mosques and Halal butcheries has been extremely important in creating pockets of Muslim immigrants, and their community centres facilitate networks of business contacts, marriage candidates and support in a foreign city. The Russian language was a primary draw for new immigrants to New York from Central Asia, even if based on older relationships of colonial hierarchy, and Southern Brooklyn restaurants are often somewhere between serving their own community and appealing to an orientalist aesthetic less for W.A.S.P. consumers than for a Russian diaspora for whom stale versions of their Orient were lacking in the culinary world of Anglo-Saxon Indian and Chinese dispositions. During and following the Soviet-Afghan war during the 1980s, however, tensions arose between Russians and Afghans and Uzbeks living in contiguous neighbourhoods:
There is an irony in the realization that the neighborhood is more welcoming of restaurants that feature faux mosque-linke architectural design than actual mosques that serve the area’s Muslim community. In fact, any talk of building a mosque is met with vehement protests, a reminder that the ethnic and racial divide of Brooklyn is not merely a thing of the past but a feature of the present.
During the ‘80s, Afghan food was also becoming more popular and well-known in the city leading to a number of openings through Queens, Manhattan and through to New Jersey. While many Manhattan restaurants have since closed down for economic reasons, the resulting geography of mantu offerings in the city is something of a reflection of the Afghan immigrant experience among the contested space of New York identities.
The experience of preparing mantu at home is not a particularly widespread one. The dumplings must be prepared using some steaming device that households might not posses, and the labour of individually filling dumplings is certainly time-consuming—unless the cook is a wizened Afghan grandmother, apparently. Through conversations with a friend from Kazakhstan and a friend from Tatarstan, two regions which have some variant of mantu, it became clear that their associations with mantu were overwhelmingly with family events, whether visiting grandparents or outings to restaurants. This material view of the dish is complemented by a symbolic appreciation of the presentation of the dish. The layering of minted yoghurt, dumplings, more yoghurt and finally the korma, a word cognate with the French gourmet, top of split peas or chickpeas, a variant of a popular dish found in Northern Iranic cuisine creates an extremely colourful dish. Colour in the persianate world represented nobility. Through an undertaking of their laborious preparation and consumption of mantu, I gained an appreciation for how the process and performance, as well as the rich profile of flavours on offer, could make this dish as significant as it is as a cultural marker.
Mantu hold a special place as a node of connection across the silk road, yet a site of variation and regional expression. In the studied context of New York, mantu then retain their importance as a dish of significance for those in the Central Asian community, and an entrepreneurial object to be contructed and sold to those U.S.A. individuals seeking a represetation of the region their government is so actively involved in ordering and extracting from. Just as mantu are a product of relations under Mongol invasion and integration in a wider commercial sphere, today’s Afghan restaurants in the U.S. actively innovate and produce ultimately new dishes, even if we label them under a single term. The role of the Afghan steamed dumpling in our imagination, homes and cities remains one of a rich and plastic text. What goes into a dumpling, what it is called, who it is allowed to represent, and what knowledge is gained of that person through consuming a certain range of tastes, these vectors align and push back against each other in the ongoing process of human interaction.
 One Fork One Spoon. “Korean Ezbek Food at Your Mother-in-Law”. 2010. https://oneforkonespoon.wordpress.com/2010/08/04/korean-uzbek-food-at-cafe-at-your-mother-in-law/
 Saed, Zohra. Pg 248. “12 Samsa on Sheepshead Bay: Tracing Uzbek Footprints in Southern Brooklyn”. Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader. 2013.
 Miller, Bryan. “Ethnic Bounty”. The New York Times. Nov. 3, 1985.
 Bilefsky, Dan. “A Chicken War in New York, Where Afghans Rule the Roost”. The New York Times. Feb. 13, 2011.
 Saed. Pg. 253.