It hasn’t been long since, if you wanted ethnic food, your choices were Italian or Chinese. But as the world has grown smaller via technology, various cuisines have merged into the mainstream. Now comes the Mantu, bringing the flavors and creations of Afghanistan.
Foodways being what they are, you’d think we would have had some inkling of what to expect. After all, Afghanistan bumps borders with many of the ’stans: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Such crossroads often bring together a variety of influences in ingredients and spices that distinguish one region’s culinary traditions from another. Afghanistan, it seems, blends these flavors and influences for a singular, inclusive identity.
“Afghan cuisine has a style of its own,’’ says Hamid Noori, chef and owner of the Mantu, an Afghan restaurant on the fringes of Carytown. True enough. For instance, he doesn’t shy away from the use of oil and lamb fat. In his homeland of rugged landscapes and numbingly cold winters, “fatty dishes are an important fuel,” says Noori, who fled Afghanistan in 2015 to escape the Taliban and other terrorist groups.
While rice is likely the greatest common denominator across cultures, it holds an exalted place in Afghan cuisine, often playing the leading role in a meal. Important events such as weddings feature several rice-based creations.
“Rice is a specialty and considered the best part of any meal,” Noori says.
The Mantu’s menu offers multiple dishes built on rice, from simple fluffy white rice to the elaborate Kabuli pilao of slow-cooked meat with lentils, raisins, carrots and cardamom. Also no surprise, rice is the basis for many desserts as well.
Usually reserved for special occasions, dumplings of various types are hugely popular. On our first visit, we were compelled to order the dumplings that the restaurant is named for. An order for Mantu brought three baseball-sized pastry shells filled with onion and spiced ground beef simmered with ginger, garlic and coriander. A dusting of dried mint added another dimension. Soybeans replace the meat in the vegan version, and shredded butternut squash fills in for the vegetarian kind.
Vegans will surely love this place, if only for the sheer number of acceptable choices — not tons but multiple entries. And if you’re not vegan, you might consider becoming one. Seemyan pairs crispy lentil noodles with chopped bell pepper, onion, cucumber and cilantro. The flavors mix to create a tart, fresh mound of slender noodles with a light crunch. Yet another vegan choice is the Afghan salad, a blend of tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers enlivened with chopped cilantro and a citrus dressing that tasted like it was squeezed minutes before being served.
Our carnivorous taste buds were watering, so we ordered lamb chopan kebabs ($32), which came as three meaty chops that had been marinated in a mix of citrus and onion and spices. No lamb lollies here. These were twice the size we expected and were accustomed to getting.
This place is already getting a lot of buzz. Its white-tablecloth decor is smart and comfortable. And while the food is traditional, its presentation is modern — colorful and pretty. We’ve heard a lot of “love it” and not one “no thanks.”
10 S. Thompson St.
Tuesdays - Thursdays 5 - 10 p.m.
Fridays – Saturdays 5 - 11 p.m.
Sundays 5 – 10 p.m.