Chief Reem Assil celebrates connection and community in Arabiyya


The author and entrepreneur shares her love of bread, how she found her purpose through food, and created a community with an Arab bakery around the corner

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Our cookbook of the week is Arabiyya by Reem Assil. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Mana’eesh (Herb Za’atar Flatbreads) and California Fattoush Salad.

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Turning flour, water, salt and yeast into food can be a daily occurrence in bakeries around the world. But the feat is no less impressive for its ubiquity.

Palestinian-Syrian chef Reem Assil sees bread as a “living, breathing” alchemy and believes everyone should experience working with dough.

“I’m really fascinated by alchemists and alchemy. I don’t know if it’s because my mom was a biochemist — I just have it in me,” says the owner of Reem’s California, a bakery with locations in Oakland and San Francisco.

There’s a science to baking bread, she adds, but once you understand the basics, “it’s an ever-evolving thing and you can grow with it.”

As Assil recounts in his first book, Arabiyya (Ten Speed ​​Press, 2022), this is how his bread education went. She spent years familiarizing herself with the dough while mastering Arabic bread-making techniques and experimenting with natural fermentation (i.e. using sourdough leaven: a mixture of flour and water fermented by lactic acid bacteria and wild yeasts).

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Bread is a common bond between rich and poor, says Assil. It’s also a cultural line, which shows up whenever she teaches Arabic bread-making workshops: regardless of their heritage, people tend to value the memories evoked by the freshly baked aroma above all else.

Being able to provide this connection to people drew Assil to bread; a food that she finds infinitely interesting.

“Every time I make dough, it’s going to come out a little different. It’s going to taste a little different. I think it’s kind of analogous to my life,” Assil laughs. “The different ingredients you put in there and the different elements. So I think that appeals to me.

Arabiyya by Reem Assil
Arabiyya is the debut book by Oakland-based chef Reem Assil. Photo by Ten Speed ​​Press

In Arabiyya, Assil recounts her family’s journey from Palestine (on her mother’s side) and Syria (on her father’s side) to the United States and charts her journey from community organizer to entrepreneur. It stands out from many other cookbooks, not only for the openness of Assil’s storytelling, but also for the balance she strikes between baking and cooking. Cookbooks usually emphasize one or the other: Arabiyya gives equal weight to both.

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“I tried to make it as accessible as possible,” says Assil. “In the ‘Middle Eastern’ genre, they skip a lot of bread. Like, it’s really fast with not many instructions.

Bread is central to most of the book’s 100+ recipes, which range from spice mixes and pantry snacks to small main plates, pickles and preserves. Assil offers an alphabet primer on the basics of bread-making, offers two master recipes (one sourdough, the other sourdough), as well as chapters dedicated to savory and sweet breads and pastries.

She scoffs at the baking world’s use of Eurocentric terminology, which first alienated her when she started baking professionally. With clear written guidelines and process photos, Assil makes baking welcoming rather than exclusive.

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“A lot of baking books can be really intimidating. The components of bread are very simple; the ingredients are very simple. But if you don’t have the intuitive knowledge of how to work with dough, how to solve problems, it can be very frustrating for the home cook,” says Assil.

With hand-rolled phyllo dough, puff pastry rolls with quince and cheese and Aleppo braided brioche, “there are recipes in the baking section that definitely show my nerdy baker side,” she adds. -she. “But I tried to vary the recipes so that there was a little something for everyone.

A trip to Lebanon and Syria in 2010 with her father and sister prompted Assil to quit her job as an organizer and enroll in a cooking school. Inspired by the local bakeries she visited on her travels, she saw an opportunity to create a community around an Arabic bakery back home in California.

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“I really wanted to work with my hands and get some of my brain out after 10 years of trying to figure out why the world was so unfair,” Assil says. “So when I went to the Arab world and discovered these places, I think it gave me a vessel to be able to describe to my family: ‘This is the mission. This is the end goal. It gave me that motivation.

  1. Mana'eesh (za'atar herbal flatbreads) from Arabiyya.

    Cook this: Herby Za’atar – Mana’eesh – Arabiyya Flatbreads

  2. California fattoush salad from Arabiyya.

    Cook this: California fattoush salad from Arabiya

When Assil opened Reem’s in 2017, she hadn’t anticipated the attention and accolades that followed (which included James Beard Award nominations). She started getting offers to write a cookbook but, as a trained baker, she was busy learning how to run a restaurant.

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“(I thought), ‘This is a chance for Arabs to really tell our story through our eating habits.’ But I certainly didn’t have the capacity. I had, by that time, opened three restaurants and had a child,” Assil said.

When she left her gastronomic partnership with Daniel Patterson, Dyafa, in 2019, Assil was once again in the spotlight. With the increased media coverage came a renewed desire to tell one’s own story.

“I felt like my story was kind of moving away from me, so I really wanted to reclaim this story from my experience as an Arab woman in the diaspora,” says Assil. “How I found my purpose through food and to debunk romantic tropes or stereotypes people had about what it meant to be an Arab woman.”

The book’s title, Arabiyya, translates to “Arab woman”. Assil wrote it as a tribute to the women who came before her, to those who are in her life now, and to the women who will come after her. “I know I don’t come in a vacuum. I know a lot of people have struggled before me to have a platform,” she says.

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Assil asked his aunt, Emily Katz, to help write the book. Food writing was new to them; as they unearthed family stories, the project turned out to be a “very cathartic” bonding experience. “And there’s something very funny about this white Jewish girl from Humboldt (county, CA) writing this Diaspora Palestinian girl,” Assil laughs. “It created a very unique story that really debunks a lot of the assumptions people might have had about me and my upbringing.”

Katz, who married Assil’s uncle Eyad, is also a character in his story. Before embarking on her career as an organizer and cook, “in the depths of the depression,” Assil moved from Massachusetts to California. During her time with her aunt and uncle, she recovered, reconnected with her roots, and laid the foundation for all that was to come.

“Above all, I want people to feel the joy I felt – that Arab hospitality brought me – in engaging with this book,” Assil says. “It’s the ultimate dinner book: use it to host people. It’s a way to connect and build community. And Arabic cuisine is what we do, and I hope that this book will inspire us.



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