The Mohyeddin Family's Radical Restaurant Mission
If Samira Mohyeddin had grown up in Iran, she would be a different person. She would not be able to sing or dance in public, or leave her hair uncovered. Certainly, she would have to hide the fact that she is gay. "If I was caught with another woman, under Sharia law, I would be killed."
As it is, Mohyeddin is a journalist, and radio and TV personality, instantly recognizable on the streets of Toronto with her shock of unruly silver hair and bright red lipstick. She is an affable guest on morning show cooking segments, where she can be seen encouraging the buttoned-up hosts to eat her mutton stew. On her popular CBC radio show, Unforked, she "picks apart the food we eat to reveal the culture and politics baked into it." You can tune in to hear her interviewing food historian and author Michael Twitty one day, or investigating the vilification of MSG the next.
Mohyeddin is also a restaurateur who uses her restaurant, Banu, as a tool for her activism — helping refugees from Iran's oppressive regime and educating her local community about Iranian food, history, and culture.
"We're not standing outside with placards," she explains. "It's not that type of activism. It's more of a one-on-one discussion with each customer. When people think of Iran they think of terrorists and ayatollahs. At Banu, we show them what things used to be like."
Farewell to Tehran
In 1977, when Mohyeddin was two years old, her mother, Zarrin, and father, Faraj, visited her aunt, Parvin Mohyeddin, on her farm in Canada. Parvin had suggested the family apply to immigrate from their native Iran to Canada, as the political situation in Iran was becoming concerning. Zarrin pooh-poohed this. It was nothing, she said. It would blow over. Aunt Parvin wasn't convinced.
Two years later, the Iranian revolution erupted and the dynastic, pro-Western government was overthrown and replaced by an Islamic republic, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that harshly punished those who sympathized with the previous regime. "My parents got a call from the Canadian embassy in Tehran. They were totally surprised," says Mohyeddin. Unbeknownst to them, Aunt Parvin had taken advantage of a Canadian program that allowed farm owners to bring in foreign workers as farmhands. On the very day that the Iranian government fell, January 16, 1979, the Mohyeddins were approved for landed immigrant status, a program by which non-Canadians were granted permanent residency (now just called permanent residents). They packed up and flew to Wickham, a small farming town in Quebec, planning to wait out the revolution, maybe for a year or two, and then return to Tehran, the city they loved. That never happened.
The family became displaced in the true sense of the word. The Moyheddins were divorced from their homeland, forced to adopt another country. The kids, Salome, Samira, and Amir, were raised speaking English and French; through snowy winters and Canada geese honking in V formation across late summer skies, watching leaves turn colors on strange trees in a landscape their parents never thought they'd come to know so well. But idyllic as it was, the family only lasted one year on the farm. "They were coming from a city of eight million to a town of 500," says Mohyeddin. "There was one corner store. My mom was like, 'We can't stay here, we've got to get to a city.' So we moved to Toronto when I was five."
At 18, Mohyeddin got her first job at a little French restaurant and "fell in love with the theater of it." While her brother Amir enrolled in chef school, she was finishing up a master's degree in Middle Eastern history. "What the hell am I gonna do with that?" Mohyeddin recalls. She suggested to her siblings that they open a restaurant.
Banu Is Born
In 2005, the Mohyeddins' restaurant Banu was born, an anomaly for Queen Street on the immediate west side of the city. At that time most of the Middle Eastern restaurants in Toronto were located north of the downtown core. "Most of them were in the Iranian part of the city and all the food and decor was the same; rugs hanging on the wall and it's 600 A.D. again." By contrast, Banu was surrounded by strip joints and karaoke bars, with only one other restaurant in sight. But Mohyeddin loved the neighborhood, which she'd lived in since the late 90's. They made it work.
Salome, the eldest, runs the front of house at Banu. Amir, the baby, runs the kitchen. Mohyeddin, true to her position in the middle, swings between both. They all step into the dish pit as needed. Faraj passed away five years ago, and Zarrin doesn't work at the restaurant in any official capacity, but she is still the unseen force behind it. "If you had Iranian parents, you would know that anything you do, they always have a role," explains Salome. "I've always been the chef, but at the beginning my mom helped me a lot," says Amir.
"Everything we do here, we do it the way we've been taught by her," adds Salome. "When we have a question we don't refer to a cookbook, we call her."
Room for Conversation
Descended from a former head of Iran's Social Democrat Party and a member of one of the country's first parliaments in the 1930s, the Mohyeddins are political activists to the bone, and Banu, over its 17-year history, has become much more than just a room in which to serve food. The walls themselves have been transformed, hung with framed news photos commemorating the last time International Women's Day was allowed to be marked in Iran, March 8, 1979.
"Two days before (that last International Women's Day) Khomeini said women will have to cover themselves, and he disbanded the Family Law Act which allowed women to get divorced and to have custody of their children. All of that was taken away. All the female judges, including Shirin Ebadi who (later) won the Nobel Peace Prize, were fired and told to get secretarial jobs," explains Mohyeddin.
"A lot of people think Iran was always like this, but no. This was done under coercion, done forcefully. They did not go gentle into that night."
The restaurant does not hesitate to take a stand on Iranian issues. Outside, above the doorway, a hand-painted hashtag reads "#FreeNasrin" as a show of support for the Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh who was detained and arrested in 2018 and sentenced in 2019 to 38 years and 148 lashes for defending the right of women to choose whether or not to wear the hijab.
Under the lintel, and to the left, is a large pane of glass, covered in frosted script, listing 176 names. It is the only public memorial for the victims of Flight 752, which was en route from Tehran to Kiev on January 8, 2020, when it was shot down by a surface to air missile fired by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. One hundred and thirty eight of those passengers were on their way to Canada. The Mohyeddins commissioned the memorial days later.
"You don't go to restaurants to be hammered over the head with reminders of disgusting things that governments have done. But we feel compelled," says Mohyeddin. "We try to do as much as we can from this far away." Their efforts offer solace to many: Surviving family members of those lost on Flight 752 visit regularly.
They also sponsor refugees. "There are thousands of LGBTQ Iranians living in Turkey right now, trying to get out and come here." The city of Toronto in particular has established governmental programs that assist people fleeing war, violence, and persecution in their home countries.
The Mohyeddins have worked with Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian-based nonprofit that helps LGBTQ people around the world escape state-sponsored violence and relocate to countries that are safer for them. Some of the people who come to Canada are given jobs at the restaurant. "It's amazing how, when you bring someone out of an oppressive society, they thrive. It's really nice to be able to do that," says Mohyeddin.
To understand what she means when she says "oppressive society" according to Human Dignity Trust, a U.K.-based watchdog organization that uses legal resources to defend the rights of LGBTQ people around the world, Iran criminalizes same-gender sexual activity, to the point of imposing the death penalty, which is occasionally administered by stoning.
"Women's groups in Iran have tried to ban stoning but it never gets passed," explains Mohyeddin. The government-sanctioned method involves different physical tactics between the genders, and both are, per an Amnesty International report, meant to prolong suffering before it results in death. "Parliament will pass it, but parliament in Iran is impotent. The Guardian Council controls the law. We have a Supreme Leader and a Guardian Council. It's all very Gilead," Mohyeddin says, referring to the dystopian Margaret Atwood novel and TV show, The Handmaid's Tale, which Atwood based in part on the rise of evangelicals in America under Reagan, and the Ayatollahs in Iran.
Standing Their Ground
Not long after Banu opened, a man came in to eat. Mohyeddin was serving a table and her customer pointed him out. Did she know who he was? Mohyeddin shook her head.
"That's Franz Ferdinand," the customer said.
"The Archduke of Austria?"
"No! The band!"
That's how Mohyeddin met Alex Kapranos, lead singer and restaurant writer. He was on a world tour and writing a column covering his culinary adventures for the Guardian. After he wrote about Banu, the local food media began showing up. "It's that quintessential story," Mohyeddin laughs. "Nobody knows you in Toronto until you get attention from somewhere else."
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In 2014, Vogue published the Global Street Style Report, a list of 15 of the coolest neighborhoods in the world. These included Silver Lake in Los Angeles, Bushwick in Brooklyn, Miami's Wynwood, Kreuzberg in Berlin, and Shimokitazawa in Tokyo. In the number two spot was Queen West in Toronto.
"The landlords jumped on that and jacked the rent," recalls Mohyeddin. "It was instant, everything doubled. And the people who had made the community what it was were pushed out."
A Teachable Moment
But, Banu stayed and the Iranian owners suddenly had a packed dining room. That's when their ad hoc in-house customer education program began in earnest. In Iran, a number of the words for food items are the same as in India. North American customers, more used to seeing these words on Indian menus, were confused.
"Paneer just means cheese — any kind of cheese. And naan just means bread — any kind of bread. Or they order chai and we bring it out and they say where's the milk and the cloves? And I'm like, chai just means tea." The Mohyeddins put an FAQ on the menu and it worked instantly.
"People did connect Iranian with Indian in the beginning," says Salome. "But our customers don't do that now. The FAQ isn't needed anymore."
The education program also meant de-mystifying the skewered testicles and brain sandwiches that are regular menu items in Iran. "We serve things that are not normally served at other Iranian restaurants but are things that are eaten in Iran. Heart, testicles, brain. Brain sandwiches are huge in Iran," says Mohyeddin. Organ meats are always offered at truck stops — grilled and served with a shot of vodka. "It's not for clickbait, and it's not the trend of nose to tail. That's just how we eat."
And by getting customers to treat it that way, not as a novelty, but as a delicious dish in its own right – then Iran doesn't seem so foreign. Immigrants have long used food to fight inherent bias, Banu is not unusual in that regard. They are exceptional because they do it with such intention and determination.
"We want to teach people about Iran before the revolution," says Amir. "We wouldn't have opened this place to just be a restaurant."
Salome adds, "We have been activists since we were children. We came to Canada because of the revolution in Iran. That shaped us into the adults we are today."
Rooted in Place
In 2020, Banu turned its dining room into a market in response to restrictions, and Toronto's growing appetite for Persian cuisine. Middle Eastern expats from all over the city came for their inventory of green raisins, barbari bread, salted cherries, rose petals, and dried limes. The business changed but its menu items remained the same; saffron chicken and barberry rice, green herb stew, and sumac-spiced koobideh.
When the city allowed restaurants to install patios on the sidewalks and parking lanes during the pandemic, Banu established outdoor seating for the first time in its history. For the past two summers, Mohyeddin could be found out front, overseeing a charcoal grill covered in skewers, pedestrians crowding past customers lounging under patio umbrellas. She looks forward to firing up the grill again soon. With warm weather on the horizon, their dining room has finally reopened, but they've decided not to shut down the market completely. "People would freak out," says Amir. Green raisins and dried limes have created a fan base in the neighborhood.
The Mohyeddins did not want to come to Canada, they came because they had to. And they can never go back.
"We weren't in search of a winter wonderland," says Samira. "We came here to take part in those fundamental freedoms Canadians have. Things we were robbed of in our own home."
The family created Banu as a living example of how their country used to be, and the myriad ways in which a restaurant can be more than just a place to eat. "The menu is our little Trojan horse," says Mohyeddin. "People are always amazed, they're surprised that we serve alcohol and we sing and dance. I'm not saying we're pushing an agenda … but we're pushing an agenda."