Oakland chef Reem Assil publishes his first cookbook, ‘Arabbiya’


If you’ve been following her career, it’s no surprise that Oakland chef and social justice warrior Reem Assil is a finalist for the coveted James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef.

Assil, the owner of Reem’s California Arabic bakery and restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission district and his commissary kitchen in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, introduced legions of fans to delicious Syrian-Palestinian cuisine. She mentored Arab chefs who went on to open their own restaurants, including Samir Mogannam from Beit Rima and Mohammad Abutaha from Shawarmaji. She helped create a more equitable kitchen, dismantling hierarchical systems and bringing often marginalized people back to the center. And his restaurant, Reem’s, has spent the past 15 months preparing worker ownership, which is expected to be official by the end of the year.

Somewhere along the way, Assil has found time to feed around 100,000 people affected by COVID-19, launch the Fruitvale Workers COVID-19 Hardship Fund to provide assistance to restaurant workers, and most recently to write a deeply personal first cookbook, a collection of ‘recipes for resilience’ that illustrates how Assil’s Arab roots and hospitality have influenced everything she does.

Oakland chef Reem Assil has released her first cookbook, “Arabiyya,” featuring 100 bold and tasty recipes. (Ten Speed ​​Press)

It all started the day Assil left her job as a community organizer to devote herself to baking. The full inspiring story is told in “Arabiyya: Recipes From the Life of An Arab in Diaspora” (Ten Speed ​​Press, $35), beginning with his first job at Oakland’s Arizmendi Bakery and entering the kitchens of La Cocina, the women’s restaurant incubator program in San Francisco. His sold-out farmers’ market stalls led to the opening of his groundbreaking Arabic bakery around the corner.

‘Arabiyya’, which means Arab woman, offers 100 deliciously daring recipes from Assil’s childhood and the restaurant. The lineup includes the herb za’atar flatbread, the mana’eesh, which started it all, as well as the quintessential parsley-flecked patties for burgers and his fattoush salad, a staple on Reem’s menu. A self-proclaimed bread obsessive, Assil also shares tips for mastering savory and sweet Arabic breads and her pantry staples for “hosting like an Arab.”

More than spice blends and layered rice dishes, “Arabiyya” stands out for its five moving essays, in which Assil shares her coming of age as an Arab woman in the United States. Readers will recognize the fierce toddler who told her mother she could cross the street holding hands – clutching the two in front of her – and relishing reading about Assil’s eye-opening journey to the Levant in 2010.

There, in the bakeries of Beirut’s bustling Hamra Street, she fell in love with mana’eesh as a vehicle to nourish the soul and decided to enroll in Laney College’s Baking and Pastry Program. There are also devastating stories of the war dating back to Assil’s grandmother, a brave and determined woman who grew up in a family of Jaffa orange farmers and was one of 700,000 Palestinians expelled from the region in 1948. Assil sees her grandmother in herself. .

“As I built a business and a life of purpose, rooted in our Arabic eating habits,” she writes, “I realized that my grandmother, who loaded the table on its edges with tasty morsels of my favorite foods, lives through me.

In effect. We recently caught up with Assil to discuss “Arabiyya”. The book comes out on April 19.

Q You call the recipes in this book “resilience recipes”. What does this mean to you? For readers?

A. Resilience really means the ability to thrive no matter what. I wanted to celebrate my people’s ability to adapt to anything that comes their way, creating a home away from home through their eating habits.

For people reading this, I hope I’ve inspired my story of how making the most of what you have sometimes makes it even better than before, whether it’s the food you cook or the life path you you choose.

Q Hospitality is a strong theme in “Arabiyya”. What do you most want to convey?

A. Learning from the Arabs, hospitality is not just a good virtue, it’s how we survive as humanity. In my research, one story comes up again and again: when we meet strangers, we welcome them into our homes, make connections, and even learn about food practices from our guests.

We are the best community builders. Arabian hospitality is how my people have survived desert journeys, wars and invasions, and it inspires the dishes I create. This lineage is a beautiful thing, worth tracing and celebrating. It’s the dinner book. It teaches you how to host and approach community development through this lens. I hope people will feel inspired to be community builders and welcome friends and strangers.

Q You have done so much work to bring equality to the kitchens. What still needs to be done?

A. There is so much to do. One of the goals of Sumoud, our worker ownership apprenticeship program, is to enable staff apprentices to have more voice and agency in Reem’s governance/decision-making and to develop skills, the wisdom and confidence to be leaders at work and in our communities.

We want to create and grow a culture in which all individuals, especially the most marginalized, feel heard, seen and respected and that when more of us come together to make decisions together, we have more agency, ownership and equity in our workplaces and in our lives in general. Hopefully this will challenge inequitable power dynamics and systems and create safe sanctuary spaces in kitchens and beyond for people to thrive.

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