If you’ve been to Reem’s in San Francisco’s Mission District, a restaurant inspired by the traditions of local Arabian bakeries, you’re probably familiar with the crackle and flavor of flatbreads, and how spring strawberries find their way among typical greens and pitas fried in fattoush. There aren’t enough bakeries like Reem’s in the United States (proclaims this student of Arabic cuisine), but its existence has begun to inspire others across the country to similar heights of excellence.
And if you’ve ever heard of Reem Assil, the Syrian Palestinian chef and owner of the restaurant, you probably know that she brings much more to her profession than superb baking skills. She was a union and community organizer before turning to a culinary career, and she brings an activist spirit to her life in the food industry. Beyond converting Reem’s to a worker-owned model in an effort to upend hierarchical restaurant models, Assil has the courage to be outspoken on many topics: including Palestinian rights, the intersection of food and social justice, and the many evils of capitalism.
She pours the breadth of her being into her first cookbook, “Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of a Diaspora Arab”. The secrets of his mana’eesh spread with za’atar and olive oil are here, along with intros to Yemeni honeycomb bread flavored with orange blossom and rose water, and tutorials on regional variations of savory turnovers. There are other lovely dishes that channel his ancestry: djej mahshi (chicken stuffed with spicy rice) ideal for Sunday dinner; clay pot prawns flavored with garlic and Gaza-style dried dill; and the always comforting kafta bil bandoura (meatballs in a heady tomato sauce).
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Of equal importance are the essays that frame each section of the book. She writes clearly and honestly about her family’s immigration experience and the complexities of isolation, assimilation, and ultimately the resistance she experienced in achieving a sense of belonging in the world. The first part opens with memories of summer family visits to Los Angeles, but moves on to her grandmother’s trip; she was one of 700,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes in 1948 when Israel was created.
So, yes, you can jump right to the much-quoted passage on page 139 about his feelings about what fellow Palestinian author Leila Haddad calls the “hummus kumbaya” narrative. But any reader who has absorbed the context of the book in the preceding pages feels the weight of Assil’s intention: she claims the right to tell her own story.
Assil and I discussed that — and notions of seasonality in his cooking, and what his next book might be — in a conversation this week. A side note: Many of my Arab friends these days are expressing dissatisfaction with the term “Middle East,” a vague colonialist term that should go the way of “the Orient” in broadly describing Asia. Assil prefers SWANA – Southwest Asia and North Africa – to position his family’s home region, and it is referenced below.
The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
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What is the reception of the book to you, and how do you find people’s understanding and understanding of food from this part of the world?
Writing something so honest is quite vulnerable. Part of the impetus for writing this book was to pick up some of my own story; I felt like the narratives were forming around me, and it was kind of polarizing. Like I’m either the controversial figure or the sweetheart, you know?
I just wanted to show the complexities and nuances of what it means to be in the diaspora, especially as an Arab in this country and at this time. I set out to try to challenge stereotypes about myself, but then I had to remember to challenge the stereotypes of others in understanding them. In Texas, Charleston, and other places where I wasn’t sure if people had access to Arabic foods other than, you know, the more whitewashed version of “Middle Eastern food,” people come to me and know me and have told me how moved they are by the stories in my book. It has been amazing for me. It’s like I’m going out [laughs] and that people accept me and accept my nuances.
As for people’s understanding of our eating habits: I am pleasantly surprised at how well people know some of the basic recipes. Maybe it’s because of my restaurant. I am part of this wave of Arab leaders who claim origin, and I am proud of it.
When it comes to recipes, your book goes far beyond the savory and sweet baking and other dishes you serve at Reem’s. It includes, for example, an intimate shakriyah (stew of lamb and spiced yogurt) and dinner centerpieces such as stuffed squid in an arak tomato sauce. How was the recipe research process for you?
Recipes follow stories, unlike the reverse, as cookbooks are sometimes written. Even putting the pastries right in the middle was a little controversial – but, like, that’s the top, right?
Some of the recipes were created for the book, and some that I had collected over the years and tried to refine, and some of those were our hits at Reem’s. The ones I was trying to create for the book – I absolutely had to dig deep into my memories. I hope that will be apparent in the book, but there is a kind of amnesia growing up in America as a child of immigrants. I haven’t had that romantic experience of great Arabic meals. I really had to stretch myself to remember some of these things. I had to, like, sit down with my mom and ask her, “What did we eat growing up?” And then, “Oh, this dish, yes. So how did you do it?”
Because with the generation before us, they didn’t measure anything. It was just a bit of this and a bit of that. My grandmother was the family cook and she didn’t let anyone into the kitchen. These recipes are gone. She suffered from dementia at the end of her life. Her caretaker prepared the food and she always thought she was the one cooking.
So it was hard to understand, but in a way it didn’t matter – it was more the stories behind the dishes that I wanted. I can develop recipes. In the end, I think it was a nice fusion between my interpretation as a California chef, without losing the soul of how my mother did or my grandmother would.
SWANA’s food is so beautifully seasonal. Seeing what was growing in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in the summer a few years ago reminded me of Southern California. But so few menus in restaurants that serve dishes from the region express seasonality. Yours does, of course. I’m thinking of an asparagus manoushe I ate at Reem’s in March. But the veg section of the book feels like some sort of salvage.
I had no idea at first that I would have a vegetarian section in the book. There is a huge vegetarian population in the Arab world. Meat is expensive; it is a commodity, it is a luxury.
And of course, if you’re an immigrant to the United States, you’re just trying to hold on to your culture, and you’re going to buy whatever you can find at the grocery store, so maybe that’s why you’re seeing a lack of seasonality. But I guess “recovery” is a good word for it. People will come up to me and say, “Oh, you put a California twist on this dish. And I will say, “No, not really, there is also pumpkin in traditional Palestinian dishes.
What couldn’t you include in the book?
The fusion of the Arab Diaspora with other cultures is a subject that has fascinated me for a long time. Reem’s ethos is really about relating to the neighborhoods we find ourselves in – finding the convergence of ingredients and methodologies, exploring them and celebrating them. My cooks come from so many different parts of the world, and their hands are on the food, you know? That’s what makes it even more delicious. They put this little extra – you know, morita peppers on our labneh, or whatever. A few recipes in the book talk about it, like chicken al pastor style, but there are a lot of restaurant specialties we run that we could have included in the book as well, but didn’t.
But I’m really fascinated by Diaspora Arabs around the world and the impact they have on the cuisine around them, but also the impact of other cultures around them on their cuisine. And as I laid out in the first chapter [which opens describing visits to her grandparents’ home in Los Angeles]this first book is California – about California at its broadest spectrum, including the immigrant communities that pass through it.
I wanted to tell those kinds of stories, but the editors came back and said, “Why don’t you tell your own story first? And I was like, “Okaaay.”
Well, your work certainly creates space for diaspora connections at the most micro level. I think you might get a follow up idea here.
Yeah, exploring the cuisine of Diaspora Arabs might just be the next book.