Book Club: James Beard Award finalist Reem Assil’s cookbook is a diasporic celebration of California farm-to-table with quintessentially Arabian flavors. Tracing the sights and smells of his heritage, Arabiyya by Reem is poised to become a contemporary classic.
Arabiyya is a collection of over 100 bright and bold recipes influenced by the vibrant flavors and friendly culture of the Arab world [Penguin Random House]
We don’t want our cookbooks to be simple anymore. Gone are the days when readers and publishers demanded nothing more than revenue.
The past decade has seen a wave of cookbooks with stories of culture and personal travel at the forefront of recipes – many of these books have focused on Arabic culture.
The kitchen of Gaza by Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt and The Palestinian table and The Arabesque Table by Reem Kassis are a few that have been recently published.
To this list we can now add Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in the Diaspora by James Beard finalist chef Reem Assil.
“Soothed by California’s climate, nature and ingredients, Reem found more than mental and physical healing – she has found her roots and her purpose”
For connoisseurs of Arabic cuisine in America, Reem is no stranger. Reem’s California, her bakery with locations in Oakland and San Francisco, has quickly gained something of a temple status for her skillful use of California’s brilliant ingredients to serve Arabic dishes.
A few years ago, the New York Times praised Reem’s as “an Arabic bakery in Oakland full of Californian love”. The bakery has also been the target of anti-Palestinian racism, including from the extremist Jewish Defense League, for its mural depicting Palestinian activist Rasmeah Odeh.
Cooking was Reem’s saving grace. Faced with a debilitating digestive disorder that made basic eating an arduous process and the general wreckage of family stress, Reem dropped out of college and headed to the Bay Area of California to recharge with her Arab uncle and Jewish aunt.
Soothed by California’s climate, nature and ingredients, Reem found more than mental and physical healing – she found her roots and her purpose.
Arabiyya is a refined text of Californian recipes with Arabic roots, and interspersed between the pages the story of Reem and that of his family.
His grandparents fled both the Nakba for Gaza – the 1948 “catastrophe” of the forced exile of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians at the hands of Zionist troops – and the 1967 Nakba, which forced the family to flee Gaza for Lebanon. The Lebanese Civil War of 1975-90 led to another flight, this time to Greece and later California.
Growing up as an American child, Reem knew little of this story or of her grandmother’s inspiring resilience in the face of repeated tragedy. It was after the death of her sitty (grandmother in colloquial Arabic) that she pasted many parents’ tales of her grandmother’s determination to recreate Arab hospitality no matter where she landed.
Her identity as a Palestinian was deemed threatening by others in Lebanon and later in the United States – but she never bowed out; she walked with grace and dignity.
Arabian hospitality meant the home was a safe comfort no matter the headwinds outside, and, at times, her grandmother went to great lengths to make it happen. A story of running away during a break in the fighting in Beirut has become a family tradition: This dear old sitty couldn’t forget her lemons (who would serve fish without lemons?!) even in the midst of a rocket attack that left her. swept away.
“I realized that my grandmother, who loaded the table to the edges with tasty morsels of my favorite dishes, lives through me”
How food can heal us and give us a sense of grounding became the common thread that tied Reem’s story to that of her sitty. “I came to realize that my grandmother, who loaded the table to the edges with tasty morsels of my favorite foods, lives through me,” Reem recounts in a typically evocative passage.
Reem’s trip to California – learning to cook not as a functional matter but as an act of love and spontaneity, like experimenting with an unfamiliar vegetable – allowed her to see how her story is connected to her family’s journey and has forged a stronger Arab identity that was essential to defying the post-9/11 climate of prejudice. Food was both the path to family and cultural heritage and pride.
Now, a quick note on these recipes. It’s Arabian cuisine by way of California – Arabian and Californian cuisine emphasizes seasonal ingredients – so you’ll find classic Arabian dishes here, but many of them are remixed, like the Californian Fattoush Salad where the tomatoes are replaced with oranges and fried citrus fruits and Jerusalem artichokes. And Reem’s Mana’eesh (which is a favorite at his eponymous bakery) ranges from traditional za’atar flatbread to Funky Red Pepper and Cheese.
This well-rounded cookbook — with accessible instructions for the home chef — leaves plenty of room for desserts, like the wonderfully inspired Lebanese Smoothie Parfait or Kowktail.
Reem’s familiarity with smoothies made by Vietnamese immigrants inspired her to add condensed milk to the original drink.
All of this food is wrapped in a story of family, hope and happiness – Reem embraces it wholeheartedly with infectious energy. Arabiyya deserves to become a classic among rooted Arabs here and there.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a writer and civil rights activist based in Washington, DC. His work can be found at the Washington Blade, Palestine Square and in other publications.