Baking Without Borders
From Farmers’ Markets to Fruitvale, Arab Flatbread Champion Finds Fans
By Sarah Henry | Illustrations by Margo Rivera-Weiss
The first in a series profiling local immigrant food makers with strong ties to cultures around the globe
From organizing street protests to serving street foods: Reem Assil made a mid-career switcheroo that’s both unconventional and very Bay Area. Burned out by a decade of social justice work, the community organizer has reinvented herself in the food world. These days, she’s creating community through her eponymously named baking business.
“Where do the revolutions take place?” asks the 33-year-old of Palestinian-Syrian background who lives in North Oakland with her Filipino husband. “It’s in the cafes and the bakeries. Movements like the Black Panthers had their own breakfast programs. Part of effecting change is building things the way we want the world to be.”
Make no mistake: Through Reem’s, the bakery, Assil promises a delicious revolution. Those familiar with her farmers’ market stands in Oakland and San Francisco can attest to the tastiness of Assil’s fermented Arab flatbreads. Warm and comforting, they are a blend of the familiar and the foreign all wrapped up in one juicy package. And now Reem’s is opening its own brick-and-mortar bakery, coming soon to the Fruitvale district in Oakland. At press time the grand opening was slated for mid-May.
“At Reem’s we lead with the human piece. We engage people through our food,” says Assil. “We don’t hit them over the head with our politics, we just live our politics. We are unapologetically who we are.”
And who is Assil? She’s the offspring of Arab immigrants, the product of a devout Muslim father who grew up in Damascus and a Palestinian mother, who, like many displaced refugees, relocated to Lebanon as a child and culturally identifies with that country. Her parents met in Beirut and, fleeing the civil war there, immigrated to Lancaster, Pennsylvania—Amish country—in 1982. Go figure. The couple relocated to Sudbury, a Boston suburb, where Assil grew up enmeshed in a small but close-knit Arab community. The family took trips to nearby Watertown, with its Middle Eastern bakeries, in search of the tastes of home. Assil’s parents (dad an engineer, mom a biotech scientist) had Assil—their oldest of three daughters and a straight-A student—pegged as a doctor or lawyer.
But when she went to college in 2001, things started to unravel for Assil. Her parents got divorced. 9/11 happened. She was an international relations major at Tufts University at a time when the nation was at war in the region her family hails from. Assil fell prey to debilitating anxiety that, she says, manifested itself physically: She developed a severe digestive disorder, lost 30 pounds, and dropped out of school because she simply wasn’t healthy enough to stay. “I was afraid to eat. I convinced myself I would never eat again. I lost my love of food.”
It took six months and relocation to the Bay Area—where she had extended family—before she was well again. She decided to move here permanently; she considers the Bay Area a healing place. She fell into community activism and embraced California’s seasonal approach to cooking. The next ten years were relatively healthy and happy ones for Assil, then an amateur home baker, before she hit another wall.
Finding a Sense of Self by the Mediterranean Sea
In 2010, Assil decided to take a trip back to the Middle East. She wanted to reconnect with her father and touch base with her cultural roots, but she was also in search of direction, perspective, and rejuvenation. Visiting family abroad can be stressful at times, she says. “Dad’s side of the family is super Muslim, they all cover; I’m the only one who doesn’t. I get a pass because I’m the American. But I also want to connect with my Arab side. It’s tricky.”
The father and daughter spent time traveling on their own, including to Syria’s Mediterranean coast, and then on to the seaside city of Beirut. The beautiful landscape reminded her of her adopted home in California, she says. Assil was also enamored of the Arab hospitality she experienced in her travels. Wherever they landed, people made her feel at home. “I struggle sometimes because I have my connections to these countries through my parents, but I didn’t really have my own,” says Assil. “But on this trip I felt a personal connection with the land. Some of the places we visited don’t even exist anymore: they’ve been destroyed, bombed.”
In particular, she was struck by the role bakeries played in the cultural life of communities. Whatever political turmoil might be happening in the streets, a bakery was a safe haven, a refuge from the troubles outside. She recalls lively conversations and fresh baked goods finding their way into hungry customers’ hands. She wanted to bring some of that Arab food—and good feeling—back home.
In 2011, she enrolled in a baking program at Oakland’s Laney College. The same year she landed a job at the worker-owned cooperative Arizmendi Bakery in Emeryville, where she practiced her skills and mulled over her idea of making traditional Arab flatbreads with California ingredients.
She honed that concept with the help of La Cocina, the San Francisco–based incubator kitchen that works predominantly with low-income women and women of color. Accepted into the program in 2014, Assil birthed Reem’s, the business, there. For the past few years, Assil has sold her flatbreads at pop-ups, catering gigs, and farmers’ markets.
The premise behind her product: a meshing of Middle Eastern–inspired fare with local, seasonal bounty. Her menu is based around man’oushe, (pronounced man-OO-sha), a flatbread with za’atar (a savory spice blend of wild thyme, sumac berry, sesame seed, olive oil, and salt) that Assil ate on a regular basis as a kid, sometimes accompanied by seasonal vegetables, cheese, or cured meats such as sujuk, a spicy beef sausage.
The flatbread is a popular Arab street food in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. It’s served for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or as a late-night snack. She and her kitchen crew make the bread in the traditional manner: The slow-leavened dough is stretched over a hard canvas-covered cushion before it’s placed onto a saj (a domed, concave griddle) where it puffs slightly and gets crispy around the edges.
Assil’s man’oushe are topped with Arab riffs and Golden State farm-to-table twists. They are served rolled like a wrap or open-face. The popular “Cali-Pali” (see recipe on below) is a traditional chicken, sumac, and caramelized onion combo. Her classic comes with za’atar—but also cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and mint.
This is a boot-strappy affair. Assil, who is making a modest salary, raised $50,000 on Kickstarter to help fund the bakery build-out. And she won OpenTable’s 2016 Open For Business Restaurant Contest, which garnered another $15,000 towards opening costs and helped elevate the nascent business’s profile.
Plans for the bakery include a Middle Eastern pastry program featuring rose and pistachio croissants and orange blossom cardamom morning buns, as well as semolina and date cookies, baklava, and turmeric tea cakes. Savory menu items will include her signature mana’eesh (that’s the plural form of man’oushe) and other Arab street-food fare such as muhammara, a roast pepper and walnut dip, accompanied by the bakery’s pillowy pita, braised lamb, and shakshuka (eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce).
Reem’s, the permanent location, has found its home in a corner building that once housed a fast-food restaurant. It’s located in the mixed-use Fruitvale Village development, right on the BART and AC transit lines. So Assil is mindful that her customers may want to grab-and-go as they commute. For those with time to hang out, the bakery will have inside seating and a large courtyard area. “We want to encourage outdoor seating and café culture—like you see in the Middle East and Europe,” says Assil. “Seventy-five percent of the year Oakland has the weather for that,” adds Assil, who was named a 2017 Rising Stars Chef by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Keeping a Food Culture and Its People Alive
Reem’s, which has been running as a lean nine-member crew, is in staff-up mode pre-bakery opening. Given her organizing background, Assil is keen to hire and train workers who experience barriers to employment, whether at-risk youth, the formerly incarcerated, or recent immigrants and refugees.
And she’s in the early stages of exploring whether she can turn a dream into a reality, partnering with a nonprofit to create a farm opportunity for Syrian refugees in the Bay Area, many of whom have rural backgrounds, with the idea of growing za’atar ingredients for the bakery and beyond.
Above all, this child of Arab immigrants wants her bakery to be a place of refuge in the community during uncertain political times. Assil believes bread transcends culture. “We want to make our food accessible
Assil feels a responsibility to keep the foods of her family’s culture alive. “By making the food of my people, I’m paying homage to my culture. I talk about the history and the politics behind the cuisine, and how some have tried to take our foodways, claim them as their own, appropriate them, and make a profit from them. I have a problem with that and I’m not afraid to say so.”
Of course, nobody “owns” food, adds Assil. Over time, as cultures mingle in different ways for different reasons, cuisines blend as well. “Some of those mergers are pretty and others—not so much. Food for indigenous people is like an oral history, a documentation of our existence. If you erase our food, it’s like you’re trying to erase us as a people.”
Assil and her husband are in the process of finding a home in Fruitvale near the bakery. Her ex-elementary teacher husband is a firm advocate of living in the community you work in; Assil agrees. “I love the Fruitvale neighborhood. When I lived here before, on my street there was a Venezuelan family, a Chinese family, a Mexican family, a Black family, and a white family,” she says. “We’ll bring the Arab-Filipino to the mix.”
Assil has long wanted to establish roots in Oakland. “I like to joke I have refugee syndrome,” she says. “We’re refugees wherever we go, temporarily housed whether in the kitchen, at the market, always moving, popping up somewhere else…. The bakery is a way to finally come home.” •
Find Reem’s on Fridays, 8am to 2 pm, at Old Oakland Farmers’ Market. Her bakery at 3301 E. 12th Street, Suite 133, Oakland opens on May 16. reems.california.com
The filling for Reem Assil’s Middle Eastern flatbread pays homage to traditional Palestinian cooking (roast chicken and sumac) with a nod to the Golden State (hello arugula). It’s a flavor-filled cross-cultural wrap. Pair with your preferred hot sauce, as desired. —SH
1 tablespoon sugar
1½ teaspoons active dry yeast
Kosher salt (use 2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal or 1 teaspoon Morton brand)
3¼ cups bread flour, plus more for surface
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for bowl
Chicken and assembly
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
1 small onion, chopped
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs (about 4)
1 tablespoon ground sumac (find at Middle Eastern markets and specialty foods stores)
Kosher salt (use 2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal or 1 teaspoon Morton brand)
¼ teaspoon bahārāt*
Bread flour (for dusting)
1 cup trimmed arugula
2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds
To make dough
Whisk together the sugar, yeast, and ½ cup warm water (105°–110°) in a medium-size bowl until yeast is dissolved. Let sit until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together salt and 3¼ cups flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in yeast mixture, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, and ¾ cup warm water. Stir with a wooden spoon from the center out to gradually incorporate dry ingredients until you have a rough, shaggy dough.
Turn out onto a flour-dusted work surface and knead lightly to bring together into a single mass. Continue kneading, adding flour as needed if sticky, until dough is smooth, supple, firm, and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place in an oiled bowl, turning the dough to coat with the oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm spot until doubled in size, 1¼–1¾ hours.
To prepare chicken and assemble dish
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add onion and reduce heat to low. Cook, stirring often, until onion is very soft and deep golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool slightly.
Preheat oven to 300°. Toss onion, chicken thighs, sumac, salt, bahārāt, and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large bowl until chicken is well coated. Transfer to an 8- x 8-inch baking dish and arrange chicken in a single layer. Cover tightly with foil and bake until chicken is cooked through and tender enough to shred, 55 to 65 minutes. Let cool.
Place a rack in lower third of oven and set a pizza stone or upside-down rimmed baking sheet on rack. (Use two sheets side by side if you can fit them.) Preheat oven to 500° or highest setting.
Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 4 pieces. Form into smooth balls, dust lightly with flour, and cover. Let sit until relaxed, 10 to 15 minutes.
Working with one piece at a time, roll balls into ¼-inch-thick rounds and flour both sides. Stack rounds, separating with plastic wrap, as you go. Transfer a round to a generously floured pizza peel or an upside-down baking sheet (not the one that’s in the oven) and carefully slide dough onto pizza stone. Bake until flatbread is puffed in spots and edges are golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes, depending on oven temperature. Transfer man’oushe to a wire rack and let cool slightly. Repeat with remaining rounds of dough.
Pull cooled chicken meat into large bite-size pieces and divide among flatbreads. Top with arugula and pomegranate seeds and drizzle with more olive oil.
*Literally “spice” in Arabic, bahārāt is a mix that typically contains allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cassia, cloves, nutmeg, and dried red chili peppers. Find it at Middle Eastern markets and specialty foods stores.
Assil and her kitchen crew make the flatbread in the traditional manner: The slow-leavened dough is stretched over a hard canvas-covered cushion (see illustration below) before it’s placed onto a saj (a domed, concave griddle) where it puffs slightly and gets crispy around the edges.
Contributing editor Sarah Henry’s food stories have appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and San Francisco, and online at NPR’s The Salt, Civil Eats, and Lucky Peach. Henry writes regularly for Edible San Francisco and Edible Marin & Wine Country. She is the author of Farmsteads of the California Coast and the co-author, with chef Preeti Mistry, of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook: Indian Spice, Oakland Soul, due out this fall.
Oakland-based artist Margo Rivera-Weiss makes food-related art, draws daily, and teaches sketchbook classes every third Wednesday of the month at Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland. Connect with her at margoriveraweiss.com, or on Facebook at Margo Rivera-Weiss – Art or East Bay Sketchers.