Food & Culture

Hana Assafiri: how I eat

The Melbourne chef and founder of Moroccan Soup Bar chef and Speed Date a Muslim on the power of shared food... and her chickpea bake.

By Neha Kale
Hana Assafiri
Meet Hana Assafiri. Over the last 20 years, the Melbourne chef and activist has proved that cooking can empower the vulnerable — first through Moroccan Soup Bar, the North Fitzroy restaurant that garnered a cult following for its chickpea bake, and most recently with Speed Date a Muslim, a monthly event that aims to confront stereotypes of Islam through food and conversation. Here, she shares her formative culinary influences, the dishes she returns to again and again and why she thinks restaurants can break down boundaries.
You moved back to Lebanon from Melbourne when you were five. What were your earliest memories of eating there?
The reality is that upon our arrival in Lebanon everything became scarce almost immediately. The fondest meal that comes to mind is bread with a bit of mint, a drizzle of olive oil and a little salt – if you were lucky!
Who has had the biggest influence on the way you cook?
For me, food has always been synonymous with the intimacies between women. My mum, initially, was the person who influenced me, and then my eldest sister, who's 17 years older and was like a mother to me. I developed my perceptions about life in kitchens and around food.
What's different about cooking and eating in the Middle East?
In the Middle East, men source the ingredients and bring it to the women, who often put meals together creatively. There's also a lot of thought put into what a family is going to eat, whether there's enough protein or enough variety. The other big difference is that we usually eat a bigger meal during the middle of the day, not at the end of the day.
Your first restaurant, Moroccan Soup Bar, celebrates its 20th anniversary in June. How did it first come about?
It was founded to provide a safe space for women. I came from a 15-year background in crisis intervention. The limitations of the system I was working with meant that the most vulnerable members of society were the least likely to be supported.
I then realised that cooking could bring Muslim women together and validate their expertise. There was no funding and nobody thought it was a good idea. Friends, family and siblings all asked, "What are you doing?" We went against all the conventions in the hospitality industry at the time: it was vegetarian, there was no alcohol, people had to bring their own takeaway containers, we had a spoken menu. Now with social media, the more peculiar you are, the more people like you. You have to back yourself, no matter how afraid you are. It's a lonely space, but by God it's much more rewarding.
What do you cook at home for comfort?
There's this weird dish I make with spaghetti and yoghurt. It has yoghurt, tahini, garlic, pine nuts, almonds, butter, spaghetti and salt and you eat it with a green lettuce salad with lemon and olive oil. It's so easy to make and great when you just need a full belly and sense of satisfaction.
Where in Melbourne do you eat?
I'm simple, I'll eat anything, but I think when a place has integrity the food tastes better. I go back to Punch Lane, and I like The European and Blue Chillies. Otherwise, a falafel is good or a salad at home.
In 2015, you launched Speed Date a Muslim, a free monthly event that invites the public to ask Muslim women questions about their lives. What's it all about?
Speed Date a Muslim is built on the belief that human beings are decent, no matter how bigoted or ignorant our perceptions may sometimes be. When you peel away those layers by engaging with people and you watch people become curious rather than prejudiced, that's amazing.
What's next for you?
We're living in a time in which society is fractured and disengaged. I've seen a sense of departure from the things that make us human: our capacity to reason, to have empathy, to be curious about one another. The next chapter for me will be to re-engage community, to continue to empower women and shift disadvantage. But it's also about the wisdom of knowing your limitations. This year I want to bring everything I do back to Moroccan Soup Bar, extend our opening hours, and run some events and conversation salons.
Moroccan Soup Bar is known for its chickpea bake. How did you come up with such a hit?
Constant improvisation. I love textures and crunch and taste, and the more I offered my version of it, the more the community had a hunger for it. People think it's a dessert, or it's lasagne, or nachos. Some have said it's like an orchestra in the mouth – I think it's the unusual combinations of flavours. When I wrote my cookbook I was asked if I had any trepidation about putting my signature dish in there but I said, "No, the community made this dish, it's theirs to have!"