In the first episode of the BaSSamat podcast, we host Abla Amad, the owner of one of Melbourne's most iconic Lebanese restaurants, Abla's. The establishment which dates back more than 40 years in Carlton is a favourite among Arabs and the wider Australian community for its hospitality and authentic dishes.
Abla Amad, 85, has been one of Melbourne’s most recognisable restaurateurs since opening her establishment in 1979.
She has served up authentic Lebanese dishes to generations of Melburnians, and it's a journey that her family has accompanied her on.
SBS Arabic24's BaSSamat podcast showcases the stories behind the success of Arab Australians who have made a permanent mark on our country.
Now run by her daughter Margaret-Anne, the restaurant’s operations, like many during Victoria's crippling COVID-19 lockdowns, have been adversely affected.
But like it has for decades, it has endured during challenging times.
“Our regular customers kept us going throughout Melbourne's lockdown period,” Margaret-Anne says.
“The restaurant is still simple and modest, but it is also very popular.”
During this uncertain period, Abla says she “missed seeing and cooking for the people” and pledges to bring joy and warmth to their hearts in the future.
A family steeped in history
The earliest Lebanese immigrants to Australia settled in New South Wales in the late nineteenth century and Victoria began to see an influx from the 1880s.
The first Lebanese migrants worked in Victoria as hawkers, buying their goods from Melbourne and selling them in the regions.
Abla’s father-in-law Peter Amad was the last recorded hawker in Victoria and worked until 1963.
A plaque was erected in his honour at Kaniva, Western Victoria, in 1985.
A passion driven by love
Abla arrived in Australia in 1954 at the age of 17.
She made the long trek down under to visit her brother and uncle in Melbourne but never intended on staying.
“My mother told me when I begged her to let me travel to Australia, that if I go, I would never come back to Lebanon because many of those who went to Australia did not come back."
After meeting her husband John in Melbourne, she realised that her mother was right.
Although Abla didn't know how to speak English initially, the presence of the Lebanese community and family members ensured that she would learn and adapted to her new country.
“We used to meet every Saturday in a different family house. We would speak Arabic, sing, dance to our music, and cook many authentic Lebanese recipes.”
At the time, the Lebanese community in Melbourne was small and close-knit.
It was during this time that she learned a lot about cooking from a group of Lebanese migrant women and her mother-in-law.
It was common for them to meet at each other's homes, and Abla says joining them in their kitchens was the best way to pass on stories and recipes from one generation to another.
“When I first arrived here, I didn’t know how to fry an egg. My mum used to cook in Lebanon.
“My uncle Joe Mansour was a great cook, I learned so much from him too.”
Day after day, Abla served up her food to different guests to her home, and she soon realised that it was an effective way to bring people together.
“My husband used to call me every day to tell me that he would bring his friends over for lunch or dinner. My answer was always ‘I'm ready’.
"What struck the non-Lebanese families the most at my table was the raw kibbeh dish. I would explain to them what it is made of and urged them to taste it. Everyone who hesitated at the beginning and barely tasted it for the first time came back and ate more.”
Over time, her table could no longer cater to her five children, many relatives, friends and neighbours.
Encouraged by her friends and family, Abla opened her restaurant in 1979 in the vibrant suburb of Carlton, and it has remained in that spot ever since.
She says her decision to open the establishment, which is believed to be one of Melbourne's first Lebanese restaurants, came out of a “Sense of duty towards others”.
'I love people'
She says opening Abla’s was the most appropriate solution to accommodate the largest possible number of visitors at her table.
But her love for people, which endures to this day, prompted her to invite customers that she did not know, back to her home for a cup of coffee during her days off.
“When people pass by her home and say hello, while she sits at her balcony, she invites them in to have a coffee with her,” says Amy, Abla's close friend.
It's a sentiment Abla shares.
“I love people, I love people very much.
"Anything you do with love; it can never go wrong.”
To this day, the great-grandmother cooks food at home for her children and grandchildren and helps prepare the ingredients for the chefs at the restaurant.
Lebanese food to her, "Can only be prepared from the heart," which is why many customers call her "The queen of Lebanese kitchen."
In 2001, she published her first cookbook called 'Lebanese kitchen', which was launched by then-Victorian Governor John Landy.
She was recognised on Australia Day in 2015 with an appointment as a Member of the Order of Australia for services to tourism, hospitality, and the Australian Lebanese community.