Guide to SKOPJE

Destan – connecting people

Ask any of the citizens of Skopje which is the most famous kebab restaurant where the taste of the kebabs has remained the same as it was back in the time when they were children – and almost everyone will say the same. Destan.

The taste of the kebabs captures them today the same way it did when they were little children on a night out with their parents. As in the past, you can hear different languages from the adjacent tables, native and foreign, familiar and unfamiliar. People who have come for a treat – the famous “five” or “ten” with onion, kebabs made with beef and served in a simple manner with pita bread, a chilly pepper for the adults, beer, juice or mineral water. The simplicity is captivating. You are only given a fork, there is no fancy garnish – it is a simple masterpiece, like haiku.

The bond between Skopje citizens and Destan is specific and lasts a lifetime. Those who have had the opportunity to watch it closely say it is a friendly, strong connection between the owners and patrons. They have known each other for generations. The owners claim they know their customers so well they can tell you whose child used to be naughty, which one used to eat very little or could not get enough of the kebabs. They know all those who meanwhile became celebrities, and all the ordinary people.

Destan restaurants in Skopje Old Bazaar

Dare Mitrevski, a shoemaker and owner of the “Djambaz” shoeshop in the Old Bazaar, has closely followed the history of Destan. Times change, he says, but the quality and the reputation of Destan remain the same.

“I remember the restaurant from an early age, when I used to come to the shoe shop where  my parents worked. It was a great joy when they bought us kebabs. The best kebabs ever. I can still remember the distinct smell. People came from all over Yugoslavia. This was the street one had to go along from the Railway Station to the Old Bazaar. People queued to buy three, five or ten kebabs. In those days nobody bought fifteen or twenty as they do today. My father would earn some money and he’d say: run quickly and get some kebabs! We would hurry straight to Destan. Kebabs were not an everyday meal. We had to help in the shop, stay in while he was away running errands, and he would reward us with kebabs. There were five of us, four brothers and a sister, so we could not afford such a meal very often. Those were the days! The tradition of Destan continued with the owner’s sons and grandsons. They opened restaurants on both sides of the Vardar, their reputation is impeccable, the meat they use is excellent, the price is fair and it’s the same for everybody. When foreigners come to my shop and ask for a place where you can be sure the food is good, I send them to Destan. In all these years there hasn’t been a single dissatisfied customer or any problems with the food. They are a good family and I only have words of praise for them. Everybody knows them!” – says craftsman Dare.

Akif Hadzija, a fifth generation owner of the family business, spoke to us about the history of Destan.

Akif Hadzija

The family comes from the village of Brod in the region Gora, a region that is now in Kosovo. About 300 years ago their forefathers went to Turkey in search for a better life. They lived in the town of Inegol where they worked and learned the secrets of running a restaurant. In order to be closer to the family one of them, Maksut, decided to open a restaurant in Skopje’s Old Bazaar in 1913. He brought with him the recipe for Inegol kebabs that had been made there for centuries. Until the 1970s it was called “Old Bazaar” but everybody recognized it by Destan – third generation owner of the family business, and that is how it got its present name.

“People recognized the restaurant by my grandfather. They used to say: We’re going at uncle Destan’s.

That is how it got its name which means “a legend” in Turkish. Our family is big and we are all either restaurant owners or traders. We have relatives in Istanbul who run big restaurants but it is different there. It is a big city, there are a lot of customers so the quality is not so high. ”- says Akif.

Akif’s knowledge of the process of making kebabs is impressive. With mathematical precision he gives formulas and equations of the diameter of the kebabs, the thickness of the grill, the temperature – keeping the unknowns of the equation to himself as a secret of the trade. Every generation starts learning the trade from an early age. During the summer holiday they all help around the restaurant, learning how to behave towards customers so that one day they will become masters of the trade. The tradition of the Inegol kebabs has been so well kept by the masters Maksut, Imer, Destan, Esref and now Akif, that even the relatives from Istanbul send their children to be trained in the values and skills that are now lost in the big city.

When talking about the experience that Maksut brought into the family from Inegol, one begins to understand the beauty of living without borders in the vast territories of the Ottoman Empire. That was a time when people exchanged experiences and customs with people from the farthest parts of the Empire. The culinary recipes were invented centuries ago and perfected through the ages.

“We have a principle of equality. Everyone receives the same attention no matter whether they are rich or poor. Anyone can afford kebabs. Here everybody is equal and they all eat the same dish. It is not a coincidence that the dish contains what it contains – meat, onions and a chilly pepper. Meat is there to feed you. The onions have an antibiotic effect and help decompose cholesterol. Chilly peppers are beneficial for the blood vessels. It is a combination that has been consumed for centuries and has proved to be excellent.” – says Akif.

Krume Stefanovski, member of the band Starowski and manager of the shadow theatre “Shadow and Clouds”, tells a story about the greatness of Destan. During a stay in Istanbul where they performed at the National Theatre, he visited one of the restaurants of Destan.

“I can’t say whether Destan is the best, but it definitely is the most popular kebab restaurant in Skopje, and not only in Skopje. Destan family have a big restaurant in the centre of Istanbul where they make excellent kebabs, too. I found out that some of their relatives have opened kebab restaurants in New York and Chicago. It is nice to be able to share the same experience with people from Istanbul, New York and Chicago. Destan – connecting people.”

There are three Destan restaurants in Skopje, in the Old Bazaar, in Bunjakovec and near Macedonia Square. In 2013 they will celebrate their 100th anniversary but without much pomp although it is a jubilee worth celebrating. They say it is not in the tradition of the esnaf to give too much attention to it.

Vasko Markovski

photo by: Ivana Kuzmanovska