BUSAN, South Korea — About six years ago, Kebabistan, a little Turkish restaurant, under Turkish ownership, opened up in PNU. It seated maybe eight people uncomfortably, but the food was so good that nobody cared—people all across the city made their way from all across town because their taste buds demanded it. Over time, the restaurant expanded to the point where franchises opened up in Ulsan and on Koje Island —things were looking great for this little slice of Turkey in Busan.
The original PNU location was eventually sold to another Turkish proprietor who (how can I put this lightly?) essentially ran the business very differently and alienated a lot of the western customers who were accustomed to the traditional taste. The food lost its pizazz, the prices went up, the service went down —you can pretty much fill in the blanks from there.
Last year, rumours began to swirl; the original family ownership was coming back to to take over. Thankfully, the rumours proved true; now the same original great taste is back in the kitchen and back on the tables, and Busan is much better for it.
As a Greek person craving homemade food, I’m out of luck if I don’t make it myself. At one point, about 14 years ago there was a Mediterranean-esque joint in PNU that failed miserably, ostensibly because it tried to compromise too much between the Korean and the western palate. This is a fate that often befalls many good restaurants, because ultimately they’re trying to make money. That’s why I’m happy to see Kebapistan back in business, because they’re not short-sighted and refuse to compromise on their dishes.
As for my top pics on the menu, I’m a big fan of the Adana kebab, but their Iskender Kebab and Karniyarik (grilled aubergine
stuffed with meat and sauce; sort of a cousin to moussaka
) are out of this world. Honestly, if you throw a dart at their menu, you’ll find something delicious. They’ve also got draft beer, as well as bottled Heineken, Budweiser, and Corona. If that doesn’t suit your fancy, check out their Turkish coffee, order it medium-sweet and kick back with a killer piece of baklava. Just what the doctor ordered.
Recently, I had the chance to talk to the owner and chef, Hasan Yilmaz, the brother of Mehmet Yilmaz, the original owner.
Haps: Welcome back to Busan—it’s been quite a few years since Kebapistan first started out. Can you talk a little about it?
Hasan: Kebapistan started in PNU 6 years ago. Then 2 years ago, we sold off the business. And about 3 months ago, we decided to try again, bringing back the same menu as when we left off. The same falafel, the same hummus.
Haps: Can you explain why the restaurant changed so much after you sold it? The menu and name was the same, but things weren’t quite what they were when it was so popular.
: Well, for one thing, the sauce for the kebabs was changed by the previous owner to suit the Korean palate, but it was too different for regular customers who knew better. Then the Doner Kebab
, for example; it should always be slices of meat piled high—they were instead using the one-piece chicken or lamb chuck, and it just wasn’t the same. We marinate our meats overnight, for at least 24 hours. The previous owner just threw everything together on the days they would cook—it was faster and easier to prepare, but it wasn’t as delicious.
Haps: Why should people come here, when there street stalls selling Kebab in several places around the city?
Hasan: For Korean (tastes), it’s fine, but it’s not authentic. Bey Kebab in Kyungsungdae has closed down, no surprise there—they made their shiskababs with curry sauce, which is Indian, not Turkish. Saray Kebab in Haeundae has closed down. In Dushil, there’s a kebab restaurant, but it’s more expensive, they don’t serve alcohol, and it’s non-smoking. The average single customer has to spend around 20,000 won there.
Haps: Can you talk a little about how you got into the business?
When I first arrived in Korea six years ago to help my brother, I didn’t know how to cook—my teacher was an older man named Adem; he’s still in Busan. His sauce is the exact same recipe we use today.
Haps: What would you recommend to a first-time customer?
Hasan: I recommend the hummus and falafel for westerners. The lamb Adana Kebap, and shish kebap also. The sandwich bread is homemade—the revani (baklava) is also homemade—you can’t get phyllo pastry in Korea. We sell Turkish Raki by the glass (note: the Raki was on order at the time of this interview, in early June).
Haps: Lamb might be my favourite meat to eat, but it’s not for everybody, is it?
Hasan: For some people, the smell of lamb is a little too strong, so we always have the chicken kebabs ready, but every two or three days, we will put out the lamb on the grill. And then, even if the lamb isn’t fired up, and some customers want it, we can cook some on the pan. It’s not a problem.
For a map and directions to Kebapistan, check out their Haps food page here.