The Mantu

No matter where you travel in this life, you can rest easy knowing that there will be dumplings. Each culture has some from of dough, stuffed with a sweet or savory filling, assured to satisfy even the pickiest eaters. When I first asked people what they knew about Afghan food, I got back answers like falafel, humus, and babaganoush. In reality, Afghan food is composed of many layers of fresh ingredients like herbs, vegetables, and varying proteins equipt to feed both carnivores and omnivores alike. Cue the dumplings - Mantu are the rose-shaped pastries native to Afghanistan, and are also the namesake of the new Richmond restaurant opened by refugee Chef Hamidullah Noori.

The Journey

Chef Noori came to America in 2015, settling first in Newport News, Virginia. There, he connected with NGOs who assigned him to labor intensive occupations like construction work. However, Noori had a secret - he was a talented chef with dreams of greatness, and he wasn’t planning on settling for anything less than he was worth. “I always had hope,” he said, “my mother told me, God is with you, even if you don’t have the chances that other people have, that’s fine because you’re not an ordinary person”.

With those words echoing in his mind, Hamid bought a bike and pedaled from restaurant to restaurant until he stopped at a little place off Warwick Boulevard - Saffron, a traditional Middle Eastern and Mediterranean eatery. He worked at Saffron for about 7 months before he moved to Richmond, Virginia, in search of better opportunities to support his family back home.

When he arrived in Richmond, Noorani Kabab House became his new home, where he made Pakistani, Indian and Chinese cuisine for two years. Noorani had a set menu, and Hamid was yearning to stretch his creative chops - to create and share his history and talents through the medium of taste. Noori is all about progress. “I didn’t want to have the same label my whole life,” he mused, “there were chefs who had been there for 6 or 7 years, and I didn’t want to be like that… I’m not made for that”.

Hamid decided to take a step back from restaurant life, to find an outlet outside of a kitchen, and took a night shift packaging boxes at a local Vitamin Shop. His days were reserved for working with the International Refugee Committee, an organization and resource for refugees, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking and other vulnerable immigrants in the United States. Noori found the IRC when he arrived in Richmond, and employees Kieth Mulvin and Lillie Hinkle helped connect him with the head chef from Ellwood Thompsons, a locally sourced organic grocery store and cafe, where he was immediately hired after a short interview. Two days after starting at Ellwood’s, he received a call that his family was in danger.

After Hamid left Afghanistan in 2015, his mother and siblings began receiving threats from members of the Taliban regime, a common reaction to family members immigrating to America. It is often assumed that the person is changing sides or becoming a spy for a foreign government. Noori tried everything he could think of to help his family - he helped relocate them to India, but the climate was too harsh, so they moved on to Turkey. Upon arrival at the Turkish border, his mother and brothers were were displaced and separated, as far as ten hours from each other. None of them spoke the language, making the logistics of starting a new life next to impossible. Hamid appealed to Ellwood’s head chef and the IRC, explaining that he had to leave for two weeks to help his kin - not exactly the ideal start to a new job. Members of the IRC begged him to stay, unsure that his job would still be available when he returned, but Hamid had faith - if he had gotten this far, he knew he could do it again.

He was in Turkey for 18 days before returning to the United States. As expected, when he contacted the chef at Ellwood, the cooking position had been filled, but there was a need for a dishwasher. Noori happily accepted the position, and after some time, started helping out with preparing the salad bar entrees, when it quickly became apparent that he had the skills and classic training to operate independently. Hamid climbed through the ranks of the kitchen over the course of several months, and began producing his own dishes, such as the Mantu dumplings, to be featured on the hot bar. From there, the owner of Ellwood Thompsons, Rick Hood, started introducing Hamid to people who would change the course of his life. His most generous gift, however, was the space the restaurant now occupies. So began the inception of The Mantu.

The Space and Menu Features

The Mantu’s interior features cozy tables in an elegant, simply adorned dining room. Their patio is an intimate space, perfect for long autumn evenings with friends under warm bistro lights that illuminate the crisp, clean white tablecloths and seasonal herb garden that line the space.

As expected, the star of the show was the Mantu dumplings. My favorite was the vegetarian option - the tender pastry had a luxurious mouthfeel, and the shredded butternut squash inside cannot be described as anything other than al dente, perfectly balanced with the other herbaceous elements of the dish. The petals of the pastry and fresh interior were exquisitely complemented by the savory red kidney beans and accompanying sauces. While the beef dumpling was also a favorite, I felt the vegetarian mantu really highlighted the fundamental components Noori described as classic Afghan cuisine; “...the herbs, spices and fresh vegetables that we use are the same as what other people use, but the way of cooking is a little different. When people are thinking of Afghanee food, it’s citrusy, not too spicy, and the texture and flavor of everything, you can feel it… you should feel all the ingredients that are in the dish”.

Coming in a close second, the lamb shank was roasted to utter perfection. At first I was surprised by the lack of steak knife at the table, but the moment I dug in, I understood why. The lamb was cooked impeccably, falling off the bone like melting butter. The dense, meaty dish was elevated by citrusy spices, and balanced with tender lentils served on a sizzling skillet. What more can you ask?

The potato skins are a popular dish with a loaded story behind it. Chef Noori took a deep breath before starting. “There was a time a time when we did not have food,” he said, heavily. He explained it like this:

One day, Noori was working in the kitchen slicing onions, and he was crying. His manager approached him and asked if it was because of the alliums or something else.
“Both,” he replied, “it makes me cry because there was a time when we did not have anything… when I slice them, sometimes I feel like I’m back in that situation...sometimes all we would eat is bread and onions. These are the things that I know, a way to survive, a way to start living again - potato skins and onions.” The beginning of everything, for Hamid.

In addition to potato peels and onions, the dish includes greens, such as cauliflower leaves, all crisped together in a satisfying snack, designed to precede any entree. The modern adaptation of Hamid’s childhood meal features garlic, tomatoes, jalapeno, and light splices.

Trials and Tribulations

Like many immigrant business owners, Hamid had many challenges to overcome to get to the point he’s at now. Besides the uncertainty of familial obligations, one of the struggles he’s faced has been conquering the trauma of his past. As Noori was growing up, the Taliban was fighting to take control of Afghanistan, and it completely changed the home he once knew. When he was 8 years old, he was working in a gas station when there was an explosion, and he became trapped inside as a fire raged around him. He was rescued, suffering just a burn on the back of his hand. “Nobody believes this, but now when I go to the gas station, it all comes back to me,” he said, “it’s always alive, that moment the gas station started burning”.

Another roadblock Noori faced was funding. Opening a restaurant is incredibly expensive, often costing more than $300,000. However, he fought uncertainty with incredible vulnerability. “Everybody supported me,” Hamid said, “whatever you see here wasn’t bought with my own money… if you share your dreams with others you’ll see that there are thousand of the right people around you who are just waiting to see how they can help you”.

Noori’s advice to those wanting to follow a similar path? “Wherever you go, you can change the world. If you bring hope, people will follow you”.

Visit:
The Mantu
10 S Thompson St
Richmond, VA 23221
Tel: (804) 716-6760
Hours:
Mon: Closed
Tue - Sun: 5:00 pm - 10:00 pm

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