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Meet one of the first families to bring falafel to Australia

Lebanese migrants Dib and Nizam Ghazal began making falafel in their Sydney restaurant in the late '60s. Source: Ghazal family

Ever wondered who brought the recipe for falafel to Australia? How about mouth-watering Lebanese bread? On the third episode of the BaSSamat podcast, we speak to the family of the late Dib Ghazal, who was one of the first migrants to make falafel and fresh Lebanese bread at his Sydney restaurant Abdul’s.

Most Arab countries have never agreed on where the recipe originated, or even what to call it.

It is known as "falafel" in the Levant, "Ta'meya" in Egypt and Sudan, and "al-Bajiya" in Yemen.

Despite these differences, the popular deep-fried ball or patty made from ground chickpeas and/or fava beans has become a staple across the Middle East and gained household recognition around the world.

Apart from the recipe, an Egyptian theory about the origin of the name falafel, which other countries have somewhat agreed on, credits the Copts.

"Delicious falafel balls, arabian cuisine"
The origin of falafel is unknown and controversial.

It is believed the Copts of Egypt served it as an alternative for meat during Lent, and the name consists of three parts: Fa, la, and fel, meaning rich of fava beans in the Coptic language.

Across the Middle East, the dish is colloquially known as the “kebab for the poor” or the “lover of the rich”.

It was so popular in Egypt that McDonald's for a time served a "McFalafel" in its breakfast menu.

In Australia, you will find falafel in most restaurants as a vegetarian option, and it has also found its way onto supermarket shelves.

But how exactly did this deeply traditional dish make its way down under?

Falafel arrived in Australia with the arrival of Middle Eastern migrants, who brought their own recipes with them from their respective countries.

The late Dib Ghazal was among the first of these migrants to sell falafel at his restaurant, Abdul's, in Sydney's Surry Hills. Along with the dish, he was also among the first migrants to prepare traditional Lebanese bread in his establishment.

مطعم Abdul's في مدينة سيدني
Some of the dishes served at Abdul's in Sydney.
Nancy Ghazal

Hoda Ghazal is the last of Dib's nine children to work at the restaurant.

"In the beginning, there was no Lebanese bread, it was difficult to serve Arabic food without bread,” she tells SBS Arabic24.

Memories of the past are rich for Nancy Ghazal, who remembers how hard her grandparents and parents worked at the restaurant. 

“My grandmother Nizam was known as ‘Umm al-Abd’, she kneaded dough to make the fresh bread for the falafel sandwiches that my grandfather used to make.

"They started selling falafel sandwiches only on Saturdays and Sundays, and customers were lining up in front of the restaurant door up to the end of Elizabeth Street."

السيدة نظام غزال مع أطفالها.
Nizam Ghazal with her children.
Nancy Ghazal

According to his daughter, Dib didn't intend on staying in Australia after he migrated in 1965, instead, he wished to achieve success before returning to Lebanon.

"Most of those who migrated to Australia at that time were intending to return to their home country," Hoda says.

"But for our family, especially me and my siblings, we began to get used to life here. Year after year, my parents were unable to make a decision to leave us here and return alone."

Abdul’s was originally an Arabic sweets shop before Dib began selling falafel to customers who were mostly Arab migrants.

“They used to come over after visiting the Maronite church near the restaurant,” Hoda says.

In 1968, Dib's son-in-law decided to sell the shop, promoting Dib and Nizam to acquire it and run it with the help of their children.

Hoda recalls: "My father was not enthusiastic about the idea very much, as they didn’t speak English at all, just ‘hi’ and ‘bye’.”

Each of the children had a role to play in the restaurant after completing their school work.

"My father used to cut parsley for the tabbouleh, he was the fastest among us. My grandmother made the dough for the bread and two of her daughters helped her with that. My grandfather used to make and fry the falafel and two of his sons used to put the salads on them and wrap them as sandwiches," Nancy says.

The other family members would help take orders.

The restaurant’s popularity began to grow among both Arab migrants and locals during the early 1970s and Nizam started adding other Arabic dishes to the menu.

"My grandmother used to tell me about the people who used to come to the restaurant to eat the Arabic dishes that she prepared, they cried out of joy and homesickness. This is how we gained Arab migrant customers," Nancy says.

She says many Australian customers were impressed with the taste of the vegetarian dishes, especially falafel.

They were trying to find out more about the origin of the recipe and the story behind the man who brought it to Australia.

"They were interested in the smallest details. My grandfather was trying to tell them that falafel is a popular dish among the poor in Lebanon. Also, he came to Australia to create a better future for his family,” Nancy says.

Despite the challenges that Dib and Nizam faced due to their language constraints and the difficulties of acquiring the ingredients they needed to cook, they are today considered one of the most successful migrant couples in Sydney.

“They are very well known in our community. Until today, I get customers telling me that they used to come with their parents to Abdul’s when they were little, and now they are bringing their kids,” Hoda says.

“[My parents] used to speak to others using signs and made substitutions for ingredients they couldn’t find.”

السيد محمد غزال مع أولاده عمر وشادي وابنته نانسي وأحفاده.
Mohamed Ghazal with his children Omar and Shadi, his daughter Nancy and his grandchildren.
Nancy Ghazal

The history of the restaurant goes back more than 50 years, and so far, four generations of one family have benefited from it.

Its popularity and the support it receives from longtime and even new customers is evidence to the family of the legacy left by Dib and Nizam.

Nancy believes the sacrifices made by her grandparents have paved the way for them to survive and succeed in one of Sydney's most competitive industries.

"We are benefiting from this shop so far because of the journey they made for us, also with time, our children will benefit from our journey too. The standard of living that we enjoy today stems from their hard work.

“We will never give up or give away the restaurant because of the hard work and the love they have put in it to establish it.”

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