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Interview #12: Andrew Janjigian + Lara Talatinian's Armenian Manti
Kicking off 2022 with double the manti (and double the fun!!!)
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Today's interview is an extra-special one, because it's a double-header of sorts. We've got one dumpling pro (Andrew Janjigian, the baking genius behind the newsletter Wordloaf) interviewing another dumpling pro (Lara Talatinian, who runs the pop-up Call for a Good Thyme in L.A.). It’s like the Above the Fold version of Interview magazine's celeb-on-celeb action!
Manti1 are common to many Central and West Asian cuisines, small parcels of spiced ground lamb or beef surrounded by thin wheat dough wrappers that are typically steamed or boiled. However, Armenian manti, sometimes called "sini manti," are a little different. The diminutive, canoe-shaped, and open-faced dumpling are baked until crisp instead, and are served in a tomato-infused meat broth, finished with a dollop of yogurt, minced garlic, and a sprinkling of Aleppo pepper and sumac powder.
Andrew—a freelance journalist, recipe developer, and alum of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated based in Cambridge, Massachusetts—grew up eating manti with his family every Christmas Eve. But he didn’t get elbows deep in the recipe itself until he developed it for Serious Eats, where he’s been contributing interpretations of his family’s Armenian recipes (among many other things) since 2020. His manti recipe is fantastic; I highly recommend it!
The second largest population of Armenians in the world reside in Los Angeles, which brings us to today’s interviewee, who grew up there. Lara is an experiential marketer and event producer who operates Call For a Good Thyme, a quarterly Silverlake-based pop-up that specializes in her personal take on the Armenian and Lebanese foods she grew up eating with her family.
For about a year, Call For a Good Thyme specialized in readily available Mantuh2Go2 kits: beautifully designed dumpling kits filled with everything that you need to make a heaping bowl of sini manti at home. Eventually, Lara’s goal is to make her kits available in local stores and via national shipping—for now, if you’re in the L.A. area, shoot her a special-order DM.
A few months back, Andrew reached out with the idea to chat about manti for Above the Fold, during a time when I’d just so happened to come across Lara’s beautiful work for Call for a Good Thyme. So we decided to try a little something special and have a sini manti-themed conversation between them both.
Below, Andrew and Lara share family origins, talk wonton wrapper shortcuts, and even coin a potential new product line in the process. Let’s get to it!
ANDREW: Let's talk about manti! Tell me about your family history, where you first remember it and how it's fit into your life.
LARA: Manti was always a huge part of my life. When I was a kid, my mom would pull up a stool by the kitchen and have me help make it—my brother, myself and her would stand at the table, and my dad as well. Back then, she made it seem like I had special hands for it, but I know it's because she had to feed four or five people and she's cooking dinner before work at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday, you know what I mean?
In college, I would always invite people over, and I'd make manti with them because manti is such a strenuous activity. My nickname was always “manti hands.” As I got older and started making the manti with family—because that's who I made my kits with throughout the pandemic and everything—I realized that's why this meal is so special to everyone, because you make it as a community. My mom starts talking about how if my grandma was there, she would go crazy if she saw the way I did it. When you're making it, there is no way that family traditions or family stories don't come up.
ANDREW: In my family, it was pretty much a once a year thing—Christmas Eve dinner was when the women in the family, just because that was the division of labor, would gather for the weekends before Christmas and make all the dumplings and put them in the freezer ahead of time.
And so that kind of communal trip down memory lane, conversations about the history and family, happened then, and then the culmination of it would be the Christmas Eve dinner.
Did you eat manti year round? Sounds like you did eat it more often than us.
LARA: I would say, growing up, four times a year at most.
ANDREW: I read in another interview with you that you started the manti kits in response to the Artsakh war a year ago. In that interview, you talked about how the sharing of food and heritage related to your feelings about generational trauma and the difficulties of living with a difficult conflict going on far away.
LARA: I started the kits actually 10 days before the war started, just because I was working from home. I wanted to have something put out there. And then when the war started, it just immediately...I remember my first friend came to pick it up, after I had said I was going to donate the money. I lived at my mother's house at the time, and she came to the porch.
Every single person began giving as much money as they could to this cause. The porch became a place where people were able to unload on all of this and people who didn't know anything about it were able to learn about the situation.
In L.A., you feel like you've met all the Armenians if you've lived here long enough. But there's so many pockets and shadows that I think that people in cultures can hide in—maybe they don't feel as accepted or seen, maybe they don't speak Armenian and that makes them uncomfortable. We all needed to come together for something like this. And with the manti kits, it gave me the opportunity.
ANDREW: Did you adapt the version you sold from how your family prepares it?
LARA: It's the same as we used to make it. When I started making the kits, I was like, "Don't be insecure about the fact that this is different than others,” because it is exactly how I grew up. And that is what I wanted to share.
We use wonton wrappers. They're usually big squares, we cut them in fours. We got our ground beef from Garo's Basturma in Pasadena. It's a very old market that will probably not be around in eight years from now, which makes me sad. But I still purchase all of my stuff from there. That's how my grandmother did it. And the meat is marinated the same way, it has onions, salt, pepper, period.
I've always had people tell me, "Why don't you change the box? It's so expensive." Each box cost me $3, which is insane. But it's the presentation of it, it's very beautiful. Truly, it's like a sight to behold. It's like an army of little meat dumplings.
The pan of manti is frozen and hasn't been cooked, so you put it in the oven, and while that's baking, you make the broth. It's usually more of a marinara kind of a thing that's a little thicker. Ours was basically like water, a bouillon cube, some tomato paste, a little pepper paste, a lot of pepper, and mint—more of a very comforting, clear broth.
And then the manti get out of the oven, jump in the broth for a second, and then you take it out and smother it with garlic yogurt and the spices. It's just like how my mom and my family made it.
ANDREW: So in my family, the broth is lamb-based. You get bones with meat on them from the same market you're where you’re buying the lamb for the filling...and then you make a kind of a thin tomato paste and a little bit of spiced broth with the bones. You serve the manti in with the broth. And then when you're done, when there's no more manti left, you go back to the pot and you see if there's any of those bones left, and you get to enjoy the bits of meat still on them.
LARA: Oh my god. This is why you did it at Christmas. They didn't know how to do it any less.
ANDREW: Yeah, it was elaborate. And so the recipe I did for Serious Eats, I kept that. I had people buy lamb shanks and make a broth. And then you get both the soup and the manti together. But it sounds pretty similar otherwise. In my family, we didn't do garlic yogurt. We did yogurt and then granulated garlic that you would sprinkle over. And along with red pepper and pepper.
It was such a personal recipe in terms of my history that I started with that recipe. My wife works during the day and so she would help me wrap dumplings when she could. But for the most part, it was just me. And so I sort of had to really suffer the difficulty of it.
My family would roll it up by hand, and I put mine through a pasta maker because it is a pasta, essentially. And I look for ways to keep the dough as easy to work with as possible. Beyond that, I don't think I changed a whole lot.
I never went the wonton wrapper route, and I don't fault you for it. I think they're probably great. Now, I want to actually make a side-by-side and see how they compare, because if they're just as good, I mean...I have an H Mart three blocks from me!
LARA: Do you ever do mint? I do mint a lot.
ANDREW: In my family, we don't, but I like that. I like that mint and red pepper and butter combination.
LARA: And sumac.
ANDREW: And sumac, in the recipe I have sumac.
LARA: So that’s interesting. Did most people not eat it with mint? I don't know.
ANDREW: Maybe not. So do you know where your family is from originally?
LARA: Yes. So my mom, she’s Sisetsi, it's an old town in Turkey, prior to the genocide and my father was Marashtsi.
ANDREW: I'm Marashtsi. My mother’s side.
LARA: I'm sure our parents know something about one another. Yeah and their grandparents, my great-grandparents, moved to Lebanon. Up until my brother, everyone was born there, and I really don't think manti was a thing they ate a lot of over there. So I wonder if that has anything to do with it.
ANDREW: Yeah. I'd be curious if you can find out. I'd be curious to know which side of the family this particular version of manti-
LARA: My mom's.
ANDREW: It's your mom's side. Okay. Maybe it's a Sis way of putting it together…It sounds like your family sort of streamlined it over the years themselves before you even got to thinking about it as a product to sell or a recipe to develop on your own.
LARA: I think that they wanted to feed as many people as possible. And so for me, it became a thing of well, we do this for the family. How difficult could it be? With your recipe, do you feel like it's completely true to the way your family made it or did you feel you needed to modify it?
ANDREW: I don't feel like I needed to modify it. And I think if I deviated at all from that, it was just like, "Oh, maybe I would do things a little differently myself if I were serving it."
There's probably places where it is not true, but I feel like maybe from a distance, it feels like some of Armenian cooking is a little stuck in time. And that's partly because we have a heritage that we're trying to hold onto and maintain.
LARA: That is what it is. Yeah.
ANDREW: And I understand that, but there also should be a place for creativity that is beyond that. And I can't not do that.
LARA: You hit the nail. I feel sometimes we're very stuck in that way, but because we feel if we are not, we're going to lose it all. We've been on so many different lands. I was telling someone recently, no one in my family has lived somewhere longer than 60 years. That is a very strange thing to say out loud. My family's from Lebanon, I'm Armenian, but I grew up in Los Angeles. And to me, that's really important to be reflected in the work because it's how I grew up. The way we make manti is fast, because my mom was a working mom. My dad and my mom worked many, many hours, so we needed to improvise.
ANDREW: What's the ideal texture of manti for you?
LARA: So it's usually very crunchy. We put olive oil in the bottom of the pan, you could do butter, and the manti sit on top of that. The fat from the meat, whatever kind of meat you're using, is sort of coating the bottom as well when it's baking.
In my instruction cards, I've written to make the soup and then sort of pour the soup in the bowl after you put the manti in there and then put the garlic yogurt in. But really, I think the best way to showcase manti is to bake them, take them out, put some of the broth on top for the last five minutes in the oven, take it out and then put all of your garlic yogurt and spices on and serve from there.
The perfect consistency in my opinion is crunch but also, they've gotten a little fat from the broth. The bottom is a little soft, but the “bow ties” at the top remain crunchy. So you get a little bit of both.
ANDREW: I always, in my mind, compare it to a bowl of cereal. It's just like after you poured the milk on it, it's starting to soak it up, but it hasn't gotten soggy yet. So it's got a mixture of soft and crunchy textures.
LARA: And everyone has a different consistency that they like with cereals. So it's exactly like that in my opinion.
Leah, lurking in the background: I have dumpling cereal written down with 1,000 exclamation points.
LARA: It is though, isn't it, Andrew? It's funny when you think about it. We created something right now. That's funny.
ANDREW: Yeah. Manti-O’s, we can call it.
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.
For evidence of this dumpling genre’s breadth, look no further than this paper written by food scholar Aylin Öney Tan for the 2012 Oxford Food Symposium (which, gloriously, was entirely themed around wrapped and stuffed foods): In the index, Öney Tan chronicles a whopping 60 types of manti-esque dumplings that exist along the Silk Road trade routes and likely descended from Monoglian rule of the region in the 14th century.
The large variation in manti also means variations in spelling; for consistency purposes I’m sticking with sini manti for this piece but wanted to clarify the difference here since Lara uses “mantuh.”