When was the last time you had a chance to sit down with members of your community, and share a meal? As human beings, we use food as a way to tell stories and to connect people. It is nourishment – both figuratively and literally.
Mazi Mas, meaning ‘with us’ in Greek, is a not-for-profit pop-up restaurant and social enterprise that employs refugee and asylum seeker women to cook the meal.
Cooking for someone is an intimate act, and as we start to take in the spreads in front of us, it becomes obvious that each piece of this meal has a story to tell. The recipes have been handed down from one generation to the next – and by making them for us, these women are bearing pieces of their soul.
It’s more than a menu – it’s a collection of stories about each of these women’s lives.
The women here are used to cooking for their big families – but the prospect of serving 65+ people a four-course meal is undoubtedly on their mind. They needn’t worry – as we take our first bite of lavash and pickled vegetables, the room is filled with the happy sound of glass-clinking.
Nicole Donelly, one of Mazi Mas Adelaide’s driving forces, takes the floor. She explains that this operation is not only an employment-gaining opportunity in a professional setting, it exists to give these women a sense of community, a sense of place in a world where perhaps they have struggled to feel welcome.
And most of all, a chance to celebrate their culture through food.
“It’s been a really uplifting, humbling and deeply rewarding experience…,” she says.
“Most of all, to be able to provide opportunities for these refugee and asylum-seeking women, who for whatever reason, now call Australia home.”
Nicole coaxes the women out of the kitchen, and although shy, they are soon proudly introducing themselves.
We learn of head chef Mahroo, who left Iran and sought refuge in Australia and has been living here for four years. Most of the women hail from Iran, but others are from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
The excitement on their faces is contagious.
We take several more bites from our shareplates and it becomes clear that we are in some experienced hands.
Although Nicole is often the spokeswoman for Mazi Mas Adelaide (she also works for Amnesty International), there are many women who volunteer their time. Most notably, chefs Fatema Ayubi (of Parwana Afghan Restaurant fame) and Rhiannon Mercurio, who not only works for Leigh Street’s Pink Moon Saloon, is also eight months pregnant.
For Rhiannon, the reward is in the cuisine and culture of the women.
“Food has the ability to transcend language barriers – it brings women together from similar circumstances.
“It’s such a beautiful exchange of skills and culture, this is inherently what Mazi Mas is about – women learning from each other and being empowered. Our role is to facilitate and create such opportunities.”
How does Fatama find the time to do this – especially having a full plate with a restaurant and catering business?
“I am very busy, but the most rewarding aspect is being able to guide them, see their confidence grow and ultimately take ownership. I feel very privileged and humbled. I’m able to teach the women the cooking skills that I have inherited but at the same time, I inherit just as much from them.”
But what we see tonight is just a glimpse of the work involved.
First, they had to secure a venue and kitchen space to cater for 65+ people. That is where Mama Jumbo came in – Caroline, one of the owners, had been to a Mazi Mas event previously and saw her venue as the perfect space to offer for such a project.
The Mazi Mas crew also have Thebarton Senior College to thank. Not only did they volunteer their commercial kitchen for use for preparation, they also connected Mazi Mas with two of their students.
One of them, Maysoon, is running the floor tonight.
She is from Syria and moved to Australia three years ago. She can’t practice law in Australia, even though she is fully qualified in her home country. So instead, she followed her other passion – pastries. Maysoon aspires to be a chef and specialise in pastries, and being a part of Mazi Mas is adding a few rungs to the ladder leading to her dream.
As the next course arrives – yatimche, which could be described as a Persian poutine – it becomes clear that we are surrounded by people looking for a more open and inviting Australia.
Nicole confirms our thoughts.
“Some of the people who are coming to these dinners are politically minded and others come for the food. Either way it’s a great way for them to actually meet refugee women and hear their stories.
“This really helps to humanise the current government debate and policy around refugees and those seeking asylum in Australia, it demonstrates the positive cultural influence and hard working nature that these women bring to this country.”
Food for thought has never been more affirming.
Another dish arrives – zereshk polo – and it melts in our mouths. Looking around, there are satisfied smiles and patrons interacting, many asking the women questions.
This is what it’s all about, “to be able to celebrate their individual cultures through food and break down those barriers of social isolation,” Nicole says.
“Most women will come to Australia with their family – the men will go out and work, and are able to establish connections and a support network. The women, however, because of the more patriarchal culture they come from, are more likely to be at home, raise the children and can easily susceptible to loneliness, loss of community and loss of identity.”
As dessert arrives, (a wonderfully presented fereni – custard dessert made with rice flour, sugar, milk and rose water) everyone changes seats, getting to know each other and the women who’ve cooked for us.
We are a part of something much bigger than a home-cooked meal – we’re left with a genuine sense of connection.
Mazi Mas has done its job.
The next dinner is scheduled for spring (we are assured that Fritz will be the first to hear about, so keep a look out). Tickets are around $65.
Want to get involved? Donate your time, wine, a venue or booking the women to cater an event by contacting [email protected]
Got an event that’s bringing people together? Been to a Mazi Mas event? Tell us about it in the comments, below.