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Upon hearing about a restaurant run by Turks from Bulgaria serving the specialties of Turkey’s northwestern neighbor, we decided to make a beeline to Istanbul’s Bağcılar district, where the neighborhood of Güneşli is home to a population largely composed of ethnic Turks with roots in Bulgaria. As soon as we arrived at Deliorman Kebapçısı and saw the photos of kebapçe and Shopska salad and an interior that looked just like the folksy home-style restaurants of Plovdiv and Sofia, we knew it was worth the hour-plus journey, which involved two metro rides and a fairly lengthy walk.

Nural Can runs Deliorman Kebapçısı with his father-in-law and two other relatives. Born in 1985 in the town of Shumen, in the Bulgarian region of Deliorman (which means “crazy forest,” a testament to the tangled, impenetrable nature of the northeastern land), Can was among the 360,000 ethnic Turks forced to flee their homeland for Turkey amid an intensifying ethnic cleansing perpetuated by the Bulgarian government beginning in 1984 known as the “Revival Process.”

Perhaps the most iconic symbol of this harrowing period was Naim Süleymanoğlu, one of the most successful weightlifters of all time, an Olympic multi-gold medal winner known as “Pocket Hercules” as he stood just 4’10” and weighed 140 pounds. Süleymanoğlu was born in the Turkish-majority city of Kardzhali and competed for Bulgaria from a young age. While still a teenager, the government forcibly changed his name to the more Slavic-sounding Naum Shalamanov. The athlete absconded to the Turkish embassy in Canberra while at a competition in Melbourne, ultimately leaving Bulgaria and settling in Turkey before the mass expulsion took place.

A large percentage of Western Turkey’s population traces its roots to the Balkans, and while many of the expelled Turks returned to their homes in Bulgaria, more than half ended up staying. Not to mention the millions whose ancestors came (against their will or otherwise) at different periods from Greece, Albania, Bosnia and Macedonia and settled in this part of Turkey, which shares cultural and geographic similarities with its Balkan neighbors.

Many of Can’s older relatives have since returned to Bulgaria. “They also came to Turkey in 1989 but it’s not easy leaving behind your house, your garden and everything and get used to a completely different system,” he said. “They gave up and preferred to go back. Of course, when they went back, there were those who didn’t find everything in its place, who had their homes looted.” Can remembers boarding the one-way train to Turkey as a toddler and tripping on a suitcase beforehand, resulting in a bloody nose.

The adaptation process was certainly easier for people like Can that came to Turkey at a young age and grew up here. Deliorman Kebapçışı functions as somewhat of a hub for Bulgarian Turks to enjoy the ambiance and flavors of their homeland, and it the only restaurant that we know of in Istanbul that serves kebapçe as its signature dish. Not unlike Bosnia’s cevapi or the cylindrical köfte of Turkey’s northwestern city of Tekirdağ, kebapçe are grilled links of beef rump and brisket mixed with breadcrumbs and a spice blend of salt, black pepper and cumin. They are a bit heftier than cevapi and köfte, yet juicy and delicious nonetheless, with the sort of snap sensation one encounters when slicing into a bratwurst. “For us, köfte is juicy and soft. Most people in Turkey prefer it tougher,” Can explains. They retain their flavor even as the temperature cools. Our plate came with four pieces alongside a refreshingly bright, punchy coleslaw-esque cabbage salad and a dollop of lutenica, a delightfully spicy red pepper sauce that provided the perfect kick.

Though simpler and very easy to make at home, we were perhaps even more excited by the Shopska salad, a brilliant configuration of fresh vegetables and shredded cheese that we started every meal with when traveling in Bulgaria. A similar version exists in Turkey, çoban salatası (shepherds’ salad) which, like its Bulgarian counterpart, is the most ubiquitous of its kind in the country. Both contain chopped tomatoes, green peppers, onions and cucumbers and are lightly drizzled with olive oil and vinegar. We were always rather underwhelmed by the Turkish version until we first visited Bulgaria and found what it was missing: a finely shredded bed of sharp white sheep’s cheese. The Shopska salad includes this as its shining ingredient, and since the cheese is so soft and finely sliced it mingles with the olive oil, vinegar and acidity of the veggies to create its own dressing as you eat it.

Deliorman Kebapçısı has been in its current location in Güneşli for thirteen years, but the family’s restaurant experience goes back much further. Though we rolled in just an hour before closing on a Saturday, the place was half-full, and was preparing for an engagement party the next day. Nevertheless, Can says that business hasn’t been the same since the pandemic and brutal inflation that results in prices on menus changing on a weekly basis – previously, they used to have lines out the door.

Though purchasing power has plummeted in Turkey, the quality of the food at Deliorman is priced as low as it can be. A portion of kebapçe, a Shopska salad and two waters set us back 150 TL ($8). It was a perfectly filling meal, and we didn’t feel the slightest need to dive into the basket of fresh bread that came with it all. Deliorman Kebapçısı may be at least an hour away from where we live, but we will happily go the distance to enjoy their unique flavors.

Published on January 12, 2023

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