On a drab stretch of Wedding’s unglamorous Schulstraße, just across from the Leopoldplatz druggie hotspot, lies a small and unassuming shop. On the window is a logo with the text “halal” and the image of a hijab-clad woman in an apron. “Sometimes people ask if they can come in, or if it’s religious here,” laughs Elif Demirci, her eyes twinkling beneath a tight headscarf that matches her black full-body jilbab. Berlin-born Demirci is not just the face in the shop’s logo – she is also the brains, heart and hands behind the food phenomenon that is Maide Manti.
In my parents’ Heimat, a girl is said to be ripe for marriage only once she has mastered the art of fitting 40 manti into one wooden ladle
In this neighbourhood, passers-by are sure to notice the colourful sign that lists all the delights on sale here: böregi rolls, sarma (stuffed vine leaves), crispy-topped lahmacun flatbreads, kibbeh balls, and of course the famous manti – tiny, ravioli-like Turkish dumplings. But just in case the point needs hammering home, Demirci sometimes hauls out a three-meter-tall, inflatable Muslima doll, emblazoned with colourful pictures of her manti plates. It is a rather burlesque sight on dull Schulstraße, and a clue. Something here is more than what meets the eye. In fact, in the back of the deceptively small shopfront, hides a one-woman micro food factory, complete with a state-of the-art pasta-making station. This is where Demirci produces her manti and Sarma under the Muslima-branded Maide Manti label.
Maide in Berlin
Elif Demirci was born and bread in Wedding, “just round the corner from Leopolplatz”. Married when she was 15, in what she stresses was a “love marriage,” the 52-year-old divorced mother of six and grandmother of five experienced her entrepreneurial break after years of home life. “When my eldest daughter fell in love, and said she wanted to get married, we knew it would be a lot of expenses,” she recalls. “Then I thought: I’ll make manti!” These mini ravioli-like dumplings originate from the Turkish Kayseri province, where Demirci’s family comes from. “In my parents’ Heimat, a girl is said to be ripe for marriage only once she has mastered the art of fitting 40 manti into one wooden ladle,” she laughs. In no time, the resourceful 40-something was selling her beef-filled dumplings to restaurants around Wedding. “They were happy and kept ordering more. So I thought I should start selling them myself.” In 2015, Maide Manti was born – out of fate, necessity and motherly love.
Just as others have pop stars or influencers who inspire their fashion, the wives of our prophet Mohammed are my role models
Or perhaps out of Allah’s wish. The name “Maide” – a Muslim foodie reference, lifted from the Quran’s 5th chapter, Al-Ma’idah (“table spread with food”) – testifies to Elif’s enduring piety. Sent to a girls boarding school in Ankara at the age of 11, in her three years there she learned not just the Quran as well as Arabic, Turkish and Ottoman Turkish, but also a whole attitude to life. “Those years had a decisive influence on me. They taught me discipline, independence, patience, teamwork – all things my religion prescribes. Learning all this at an early age helped me move forward in life with more serenity,” she says. “It also opened me to different personalities and other ways of thinking. My religious boarding school years broadened my view on life.”
Demirci certainly combines her faith with an open mind. Her second (and current) husband, Umar Ali, is an Uzbek who came to Germany 20 years ago. Like her, he is a strict adherent of the Muslim faith – he is friendly and eager to exchange ideas, but will not shake the hand of a woman. Meanwhile one of Demirci’s sons is married to a Russian, and not all her friends and family are observant. “I have all kinds of friends – some modern Muslim women, some more traditional, it doesn’t really matter,” she says, showing a smartphone photo of a well-groomed blonde with long hair floating in the wind. Another close friend is the owner of Saphir, a thriving scarf and hijab business with two addresses in Berlin. “The clothes don’t make the woman,” she smiles. On the subject of fashion and her choice to wear black – both skirt and khimar – she says: “Just as others have pop stars or influencers who inspire their fashion, the wives of our prophet Mohammed are my role models.” Back when she was a housewife, Demirci used to teach Islam to women and children. Now, she no longer has the time.
A 20-hour day in the life
Demirci’s day begins at 5:30am with a morning prayer, the news and a cup of coffee; it rarely ends before 1 or 2am. This morning, she drove to the wholesaler to shop for ingredients “before it got too crowded”. She bought and schlepped 10 bags of flour, each weighing 25kg. “They were on sale,” she smiles, almost apologetically, while stuffing 20kg of vine leaves: she has an order of sarma for the following day. Then there’s the packaging, the labelling and the accounting. Umar Ali helps with the pasta-making machine, while daughters Rabia and Ufeyra, as well as youngest son Lütfullah, come to help with customers when it gets too busy. But essentially, this is a one-woman enterprise.
Maide Manti’s customers come from all over. Turkish-speaking locals, Germans and hip expats
The air fills with the smell of piping hot su böregi – she just took four large platters of the lasagna-like golden-brown cheese-filled pastry out of the oven. There is never a dull moment: some people call to place orders, while others drop in to pick up freshly baked goods or a bag of frozen manti to take home. During summer, they can also stay for a sit-down plate of the dumplings, drenched in Demirci’s spicy yoghurt-tomato sauce, at one of the three tables outside the shop.
Maide Manti’s customers come from all over. Turkish-speaking locals, Germans and hip expats – including, lately, some Americans who were tipped off by a popular food blog. Demirci speaks proudly of one Swiss couple who ritually come by for a bag of her manti every time they visit Berlin: “They discovered manti on a Turkish holiday – they say they can’t find any as good as mine at home.” She also reveals that Turkish Berlin women buy full trays of sarma to impress the dreaded Schwiegermutter with their ‘home-cooking skills’. “I also have customers from Turkey who bring my manti back home.” Demirci says the quality of her ingredients is key to her success. “It’s all freshly made, that’s a big difference,” she adds. “And it’s halal!”
“I thought, why not?”
It is clear that Demirci is a natural businesswoman. She’s trend-savvy, forward-thinking and happy to accommodate every customer’s wishes – like filling her manti with asparagus, at one restaurant’s request. She has also developed an assortment of meat-free and even egg-free options: “Many people from India ask after them. I also have soy yogurt for my manti sauce, but then someone came with intolerance to cow milk and to soy, so I improvised – I have coconut yogurt now!” She seems to enjoy the challenge. “I love to experiment,” she says. “Like when I come up with a new curcuma or beetroot dough, and then I start thinking: What can I put inside? It keeps me awake at night.” Recently, Demirci decided to make her own apple vinegar (“My husband says it’s very healthy – he drinks some everyday,” she grimaces). She has even taken on pickling – as attested by a couple of jars containing peaches, marinating on the shelf behind the counter. “I thought, why not? Let’s wait and see what happens in a few months,” she says with the starry-eyed enthusiasm of a hipster pop up chef.
That Demirci still manages to squeeze in her prayer breaks – five times a day – is a true time-management miracle. (“I just put a ‘Be right back’ sign on the door,” she explains.)
Her praying carpet is neatly folded on a shelf in the back office among food packaging, labels and admin folders. Also in the office are Demirci’s books. “I have 3000 books at home,” she says. “I’ve got to read every day. Either a novel or something I can learn about. I won’t sleep if I don’t.” Right now she’s alternating between a German manual on SEO for business, an English-German bilingual novella and a novel in Turkish. She is teaching herself English, and Russian is next on the list – “to speak it with my husband.”
While most of Berlin’s food businesses seem to be struggling to make ends meet, Demirci appears immune to the doom and gloom of her surroundings. “For now, I’m happy,” she says. “I have adjusted my prices, I have customers – I’m not getting rich, but I cannot complain.” She refuses to worry too much about the future: “Everyone gets panicky, what for? What happens is Allah’s wish. I do my work, I enjoy the present time, ‘don’t fear what comes next’ – it’s my motto. Plus there is always a plan B,” she hints, with her characteristic unassuming confidence. “I always wanted to learn mathematics.” She has also devised some plans involving a small staycation home, “a little oasis” in Berlin for local families. “There’s so much I’d like to do!”
But no matter how many ideas she comes up with – and no matter how successful Maide Manti becomes – Demirci says it all comes down to the love and support she gets from her family. “My children and my husband – they give me courage. They always say to me, ‘You can do it!’ That gives me so much strength.”
- Pink, green or yellow, filled with halal beef, cheese or lentils, Demirci’s manti go for €10-12 per one-kilo bag.