Although you might not notice the small shop at first, you can’t miss the line that starts forming down the block on St. George’s Road just before 6 p.m. when Moroccan Soup Bar opens.
Inside, diners are ushered into a small room packed with tables, chairs and benches, all filled with chattering customers. Delicate glassware and vibrant tagines are nestled amongst shelves and golden lanterns hang from the ceiling, emitting a soft light in the already warm atmosphere. Here, chef and owner Hana Assafiri has been serving up family-style vegetarian meals for over twenty years.
The restaurant is unconventional in more ways than one. It is an alcohol-free restaurant in which diners are saddled close to strangers. There is also no physical menu; rather, guests are guided through a spoken list of the daily offerings. The easiest choice is to have the full banquet, which features heaping piles of mezze, dolmades, house-made dips and pickled vegetables, slow-roasted eggplant, hearty tagines, bright salads with fragrant grains, and the restaurant’s iconic chickpea bake. Everything is spiked with cinnamon, saffron and fresh herbs. At the end of the meal, sticky baklava, almond biscuits, citrus cakes, and Turkish delight are served with sweet Moroccan mint tea or Turkish coffee.
Assafiri buzzes between tables while talking to diners, helping pass dishes from the kitchen to her all-female staff. Locals who have frequented Moroccan Soup Bar since its opening in 1998 confirm little has changed over time, including Assafiri’s agenda for the restaurant, which has always been about more than food.
“The inspiration for Moroccan Soup came from a need to better support women who the system was just not adequately supporting,” Assafiri tells me as we sit down for a bite at Moroccan Soup Bar Two Go, the sister restaurant opened last year to help alleviate the usual queue at the original. “I saw an opportunity to enable women who found themselves on the margins and often in some of the most desperate situations of crisis, and to give them real, practical solutions to address their immediate needs.”
Assafiri was raised in Lebanon and Melbourne with a Moroccan father, Lebanese mother, and five siblings. “Growing up, our parents couldn’t distinguish us from the ingredients they were cooking with because we were always in between their feet, running in and around them,” she laughs.
Assafiri reflects on her childhood, and recalls the importance of the kitchen. “Traditionally, this space has been held by women, as it was in our home. The conversations that happened there did not happen in our living rooms or lounge rooms,” she says. “Being around women in the kitchen implicitly gave me a sense of security, and made me especially perceptive in that environment.” It was in that kitchen environment where she learned to cook from her mother, and through “observation and necessity, and because it happened in a place where I found safety.”
Last year, Assafiri came forward to share her own story as part of the #MeToo movement. She knows well the isolation, fear and injustice many women have experienced in the face of violence and abuse. As a passionate advocate for women’s rights, she uses Moroccan Soup Bar as both a means of empowering women and as a platform for advocacy.
Historically, food and women have always gone hand in hand, and the traditional occupation of this space has not existed solely without subjugation. Assafiri is focused on shifting that paradigm in such a way that food becomes a springboard for education and change. “Cooking, certainly in a cultural context, has been something women have been conditioned to do, and that’s often been a source of inequality,” she says. “If we reframe that and approach cooking as something we’re really well-versed in doing, it becomes a source of our own empowerment.” She says at her restaurant, they enable through cooking, and in turn through support, advocacy and education “so women then champion the very causes that once left them disadvantaged.”
At Moroccan Soup Bar, Assafiri says they see nearly a one hundred-percent success rate amongst the women they support in not returning back to violence. “We break that cycle through speaking to their real needs,” she says.
In addition to cooking, the women who work with Moroccan Soup Bar engage in a number of community initiatives. The restaurant holds regular “Speed Date a Muslim” themed nights where guests can engage in one-on-one conversations about notions of Islamophobia, which often manifests as random attacks on Muslim women. The aim is to break stigma and create a more human experience. Assafiri says the event sells out each month.
Upstairs at Moroccan Soup Bar Two, a reading room houses a library of books all authored by women from classic to contemporary, fiction to politics, and are available as an inspirational and educational resource.
Assafiri also hosts “Open Table” events in which diners are invited to have honest conversations and contest ideas about progress. Topics focus on human rights, with themes including responsibility toward reconciliation and First Nations Peoples, social media and connectedness, violence against women and the role of men, climate change, and seeking asylum. “Yes, we’re going to talk politics,” states Assafiri. “And I’ll give you a side of bread while we do it.”
“We’re living in a world today which has been fundamentally transformed by the internet and social media,” Assafiri says, which she believes “has brought about a polarization of world views and divisiveness in the way in which we speak about one another.” It is her hope to provide what she believes is a much-needed space in which to engage in respectful discussion. “Moroccan Soup Bar serves to be an extension of our dining rooms, where once upon a time, people got together around the table and had conversations about their social and familial values.”
Of course, Assafiri knows some guests just come to Moroccan Soup Bar for the food, but she believes many want something more. “People are really hungry for spaces to come together to speak to the real social tensions, and no one else is offering them. Political spin and the closed loop with media leave no place to discuss the nuances of what is going on in our world, how things have changed, and how we want the future to be,” she says. Starting locally and creating strong communities to achieve a global unity is her solution.
“Movements are built by people, not by individuals,” Assafiri says. “If we can come together, learn to be more open and celebrate our differences, diversity is what will sustain us.”