Monday, September 10, 2012

Authentic Halal Food from Gilak by Hossein


Published in Appetite Magazine, March 2012 issue as One Magical Night: Authentic Halal Food from Gilak by Hossein



      Stepping into Hossein’s is like walking into an enchanting chapter from the One Thousand and One Nights.   With the heavy draperies hanging from elaborately carved wooden arches and colorful Moroccan chandeliers glowing from the ceilings, I almost expected a magical carpet to bring us in. What I got was even better – a night of exquisite Persian, Arabic and Indian cuisine under the commanding spell of Chef Hossein Sohrabi.



The genie in a chef’s hat

      Chef Hossein has the impressive presence of a supernatural genie that’s bound to grant wishes. I suspect though that anyone would find it extremely difficult to make Chef Hossein do anyone’s bidding, but food he will most willingly grant. The former bodybuilder and lifeguard was also in military service, as required for all 18 year-old male citizens in Iran. Who would have that a PhD graduate in Business Management would turn into a recognized chef?  Chef Hossein tells us that the love for food runs in the Hossein family. In fact, his brother is also a chef and exchanges recipes with him online. 

      With a vigorous “Come here!” the restaurateur made me run to the kitchen. He insisted that we wolf down whole chunks of juicy beef kebab (P334), instead of the hesitant bites we were taking from the freshly cooked meat.  Surprisingly, popping hot meaty portions into your mouth makes a whole world of difference in appreciating a kebab. He reminded me of my grandfather who wouldn’t take no for an answer whenever he had prepared some exotic food I just had to taste. When I told him my grandfather also went to the same school as he did in college, his eyes crinkled into a smile before he replied with, “God bless him!”

     The authoritative air is not the only reason you couldn’t refuse a dish served by Chef Hossein.  Once I took my first bite, I was enchanted.  He is hard to resist, because his dishes are just meant to be relished.  An example is one of Hossein’s beef specialties, the Beef Dopiaza (P424).  From the huge Chef’s Appetizer, my favorites were the motabal (eggplant with tahini paste and olive oil) and dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves).  The only thing in this entrée not for vegetarians was the meat samosa.  I’m a carnivore, but I would definitely want more of the homos, falafel, vegetable samosa, and tabulee included in this dish. When asked what the dolmeh was stuffed with, Chef Hossein simply says “It’s magic.”




Pages of food

     Chef Hossein tells us that he still studies every night.  “You want to see my books? Come!” I tore my eyes from the parade of dishes to be photographed and followed him to his office. He brings my attention to the many books on his shelf.  In a Persian Kingdom, Tempted, Cookbook Diary and A Taste of Persia…everything was about food.  Chef Hossein opens a page from one of them and tells me to read about Iran’s claim to culinary fame.

Spellbound by Saffron
      
      “If you eat too much, you might get high,” the Chef’s wife Gloria Sohrabi warns us about the very expensive and flavorful saffron spice natively grown in Iran.  “You put only a little”, Chef Hossein agrees.  Saffron is the female part (stigma) of the lilac-colored saffron flower.  This probably explains the heady allure of saffron, which as Gloria tells us, is also said to be an aphrodisiac.  The saffron is handpicked, taking 70,000 to 250,000 flowers to make one pound of the red seasoning.  Not only does saffron add flavor and color to a dish, its thin strands are also reputed to contain healing powers.

 

      I loved its distinct appetizing aroma in my Plain Rice with Saffron (P168).  Combined with the yellow Biryani rice (P180), the saffron taste was still perceptible from the chunks of shrimp tandoori, and beef, lamb and chicken kebab that Chef Hossein had cut up into a tasty mix of rice toppings.  You can get a whole plate of the grills and rice when you order the Supreme Kebab II (P2625), but make sure that you bring a lot of friends to dine with you.  Hossein’s grilled meats are served in huge portions and are very tasty.

Love spells Hossein
      
      Chef Hossein had plunked a whole stack of publications in front of me, ordering me to leaf through some featuring his restaurants.  A heavy coffee table book caught my eye though: Manila’s Best-Kept Restaurant Secrets.  “Find Hossein’s,” was the Chef’s instruction, and I couldn’t help but comply. There it was: Best Specialty Restaurant.

      While the Chef is certainly proud of his culinary heritage and thriving business, I feel that the love for his family surpasses all his other passions.  He proudly tells us of his four children, two of whom also cook.  In the photo shoot, the Chef dons his tall chef’s hat and holds Miss Gloria close and kisses her. “Right now,” he says over dinner, “I focus on my wife.”    

      This was truly one of my best nights over dinner with people I just met.  While he wouldn’t spill any of his kitchen secrets, Chef Hossein willingly talks about Iran, narrates their inspiring love story as husband and wife, and gives us advice.  “Enjoy your life when you are young darling!,” the Chef addresses each of us, “Don’t miss the time because you’re never born again.” Then with more emphasis, “Don’t say yes! Do it!”

     Chef Hossein has been here since 1978 and the first time he started grilling kebab, the other Iranians told him to go home.  Today, he has received invitations to put up the Hossein restaurants abroad, but he says he plans to stay here. As he declares, “This is my home”.


One more night of magic

     There are 580 dishes in Hossein’s; that’s more than a hundred nights you can experience a dose of Middle Eastern charm.   Chef Hossein tells me that I can come back any time to read his book about saffron. I will definitely return for another magical night.

      At the beginning of the interview, I was wondering if Chef Hossein still ate in his restaurants all the time.  In response, the Chef told me, “I love my food.” I’m sure many of his customers would reply with, "We do too!".

Gilak by Hossein is located at the 2nd level, Greenbelt 3, Ayala Center, Makati Center, Makati Ave.  For reservations, phone (02)7290266 or 7290267.

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