How this remarkable Oakland baker, restaurateur, and (now) author has grown her Bay Area community
By Kristina Sepetys
Reem Assil is committed to producing delicious food that honors her Palestinian-Syrian heritage as well as her Bay Area present. Fiercely passionate about promoting Arab hospitality, she brings equal focus to her pursuits in community building, social justice, and sustainability. With a background in organizing to help marginalized people advocate for themselves in their workplaces, she’s also inspired by the way a bakery can help knit together a community’s cultural life.
“Community is everything for us,” she says during a recent phone call as she was buzzing through her typically busy day.
Assil’s journey into baking began after a trip through her family’s homelands in the Middle East, where she came to admire the hospitality she saw nurtured around the bakeries. She studied baking, joined the worker-owned Arizmendi Bakery collective, and gradually formulated her idea for a shop where she could offer mana-eesh, the traditional Arab flatbreads that are eaten throughout the day as meals or snacks in many Arab countries.
Baking Up a Business, the Transition to Worker-Owned
What started as a humble bakery grew into two eponymous bakery/restaurants—Reem’s California Fruitvale in Oakland and Reem’s California Mission in San Francisco. In the process, Assil was honored with a James Beard semifinalist award for Best Chef West and another as a Rising Stars Chef by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Last fall, Assil passed along her original Oakland (Fruitvale) restaurant location to Crystal Wahpepah, who created the new intertribal Wahpepah’s Kitchen. “[Crystal is] getting a lot of accolades for her food, including being in the running for the James Beard award for emerging chefs,” Assil says. “[We’re] grateful we were able to pass on the space to another Indigenous woman of color.”
Reem’s baking in Oakland continues around the corner from the former restaurant space as a commissary kitchen producing plain flatbreads, flatbread with za’atar and cheese, handheld pastries, cheese pies, spinach pies, and falafel. These are sold by Good Eggs, Berkeley Bowl, Bi-Rite in San Francisco, and soon, quite a few more Bay Area outlets as the business transitions to worker-owned.
“We spent the better part of 15 months preparing for that,” says Assil. “It has elements of the Arizmendi model, but slightly different, building on a lot of different models. I want all our workers to see themselves as a part of Reem’s whether they’re in Oakland, San Francisco, or involved with another project.”
Reem’s Food and its California-LatinX Connections
Flatbreads made in a traditional Middle Eastern style are Reem’s signature item, but the array of dishes served at Reem’s California show a distinct California culinary inflection as well as this baker/activist’s commitment to participation in a vibrant community of intermingling cultures.
“A lot of our food is a take on the Arab original with influences from California and other subcultures,” she says. “Both of my locations are in the heart of LatinX areas, and many of my staff come from those places. We have a lot of employees from Central America who might say, ‘Let me add my spin on this’.”
Assil says there’s historic basis for the intermixing between Latin and Arab culture. “I feel a strong affinity for that. Like my El Pastor-style Red-Spiced Chicken, a recipe in the cookbook that’s a meld that goes back to when Levantine Arabs, mostly from Lebanon and Syria, fled to Mexico to avoid Ottoman rule, bringing with them love of marinated meats grilled on spits. Arabs brought shawarma to Mexico in the early 1900s. The origins of El Pastor are actually linked to shawarma. People equate shawarma with lamb and beef, but as shawarma traveled through the Arab world, a chicken element was introduced.”
Assil also mentions mentions La Gringa 3.0, “a sort of an Arab taco” that’s on the menu at the Mission restaurant. “We fill a flatbread with braised lamb, bake it with Oaxacan cheese, add pickled onion [and] herbs, and serve it with a consommé made from the juices and aromatics as dipping broth.”
The California influence is seen in Reem’s most popular wrap, the Pali-Cali, which she says is spun off from musakhan, an iconic Palestinian chicken dish. “My mother, like others in the Unites States, adapted the recipe by serving the chicken cooked in purple-reddish sumac with caramelized onions on a tortilla. I do my own thing, serving it with avocado on saj bread [an unleavened flatbread], which is great for wraps.”
Regarding za’atar, that distinctive spice mix of wild thyme, ground sumac berry, sesame seeds, and salt that flavors Reem’s breads, we learn that the name also refers to an herb that comes with a story: “Za’atar is from the same family as thyme and oregano,” says Assil. “It’s a wild-growing, drought-resistant plant that grows abundantly, almost like a weed, though it’s not so widely available here. The Israeli government prevents Palestinians from foraging it. Families smuggle the seeds back from the overseas Arab world to grow the plants here. I’ve long wanted to start a za’atar farm and have tried to find plots of land where I could. It takes a lot of za’atar to make the mix. It’s definitely on my bucket list to create a cooperative so farmers can grow it and make a living.”
Assil continues to spread the gospel of Arab hospitality. “I’ve got something new coming in Oakland, but I can’t share details just yet. I’m also working on a kiosk to be located somewhere in the Bay Area. I really want to continue to work to try to change this whole restaurant industry. I’m continually trying to find my voice through this special space of Reem’s, and also try to give voice to others. And now I want to take that even one step further. I learned a lot from the pandemic.
An exciting new chapter in Reem Assil’s journey is the publication this spring of her first cookbook, Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora. It’s a collection of her signature Arabic recipes as well as an expression of her passion for Arab hospitality, which has carried through all of her Bay Area endeavors. “The book is about not just food but also about the communities and culture that inform it,” Assil writes in the introduction.
Readers will find more than 100 recipes for flatbreads, dips, snacks, sweets, and platters to share. Standout combinations include Arab-Spiced Burger Patties, Lamb Dumplings in Yogurt Sauce with Mint Oil, Blossom-Scented Shortbread Cookies, and Hazelnut-Praline Baklava. One sees the reflection of Assil’s Palestinian-Syrian heritage as combined with California’s abundant, varied produce and the influences of the restaurants’ locations within LatinX communities. Among the recipes are many of the most popular dishes at her bakeries, like the vegan Chocolate Chip-Tahini cookies.
“Those cookies have a cult following,” she told me. “Besides the flatbread, the book also includes the recipe for our very popular Pali Cali, a sumac braised chicken, and baklava. We worked hard to make sure these recipes are foolproof.”
Assil’s book provides a valuable list of nearly a dozen resources—from artisan collectives and grocers—for authentic, high-quality, and sometimes hard-to-find ingredients as well as personal food memories, informative culinary history, reflections on the politics of many aspects of Arab food, and insights drawn from the author’s efforts to create a more equitable restaurant and food culture and industry, where workers and people at the margins are brought to the center.
Purchase this book from your local independent bookseller at the following events or on indiebound.org
Meet Reem Assil at these Book Release Events in Oakland, California:
May 21, 2022 at Rockridge Market Hall: Come meet and converse with the author as she signs your copy of Arabiyya. From May 19 through 23, the Market Hall kitchen is making several Arabiyya recipes to feature on the deli menu.
June 24, 2022 at ReStore Oakland: A big book launch featuring Reem’s food, a live DJ, a meet and greet, and book signing. Hosted by the Middle East Children’s Alliance and a few other social justice nonprofits, it is likely to be a fundraiser. Find details at Reem’s website.
Make these recipes from Arabiyya:
The licorice scent of anise and the citrusy orange play beautifully off the earthy spice notes of turmeric in this vibrant, sun-colored cake. Serving this family favorite reminds me of the ways my grandmother used to befriend neighbors and make community wherever she went. This Lebanese village cake spoke to her country roots, as she adapted to city life in Beirut.
The key to this cake’s delicate crumble is mixing just enough. Cutting the butter into the flour saturates the grain without activating the gluten: too much mixing, and the cake will become gummy. Greasing the pan with tahini instead of butter provides a nutty finish and a subtle heft to the bottom crust. If you don’t have tahini, butter works fine. The heartiness of the buttermilk makes this a good breakfast pastry, mid-afternoon snack, or a treat for guests.
Makes twelve 2-inch squares
- Tahini or melted unsalted butter for greasing the pan
- 1 orange, sliced into ⅛-inch-thick rounds for garnish
- 1½ cups/300g sugar
- 1 cup/240ml buttermilk
- ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons/150ml orange juice (about 4 small oranges)
- 2 tablespoons/30ml orange blossom water
- 1½ cups/250g fine semolina flour
- 2 cups/300g plus 2 tablespoons/18g all-purpose flour
- 1½ teaspoons/6g baking powder
- 1½ teaspoons/4g ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon/3g anise seeds
- ¾ teaspoon/2g kosher salt
- ¾ cup/158g melted Clarified Butter (page 96), ghee, or vegetable oil
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9 by 13-inch straight-sided baking pan with the tahini.
Halve the orange rounds until you have 12 nice pieces. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine the sugar, buttermilk, orange juice, and orange blossom water and mix until the sugar has dissolved.
In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl, combine the semolina flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, turmeric, anise seeds, and salt.
To mix by hand: Slowly drizzle in the clarified butter. Use a fork or your hands to rub the butter into the flour mixture until the flour is fully saturated and forms fine crumbles. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and, with a mixing spoon or spatula, pour in the wet ingredients and mix until almost no lumps remain. (The batter will resemble cornbread.) To mix in a stand mixer: Using the paddle attachment on low speed, slowly drizzle in the clarified butter, until the flour mixture is fully saturated and forms fine crumbles. Pour in the wet ingredients and mix until almost no lumps remain. (The batter will resemble cornbread.)
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Lay down three even vertical rows of four orange slices.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature.
The cake can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Recipe and photo reprinted with permission from Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora by Reem Assil, copyright © 2022. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photographs copyright © 2022 by Alanna Hale
SALATET FATTOUSH ∙ فتوش سلطة
California Fattoush Salad
In my earliest food memories, my mom is frying leftover bread into an addictive crunchy snack, a topping for soups or, more often than not, croutons for fattoush. Although I loved the chips, I fault the tasteless trucked-in tomatoes for my childhood aversion to the salad, an aversion I abandoned the first time I tasted field-fresh tomatoes in California. There’s no need to forgo this staple of the Palestinian dinner table when tomatoes fall out of season, since citrus makes a great winter substitute.
The medley of vegetables is what makes Fattoush so special. If you’re not a purist, you can make it a medley of anything. Mine has all the elements of a delicious balanced salad: mustardy arugula, Little Gem or romaine lettuce for crunch, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, spicy radishes, and fresh herbs. This base welcomes seasonal additions. In the summer, I add corn—grilled or raw—pomegranate seeds, pickled cherries, or fresh purslane. In the winter, I swap segments of Cara Cara oranges and other citrus and fried sunchokes in place of tomatoes. In the spring, I look for varieties of radishes, including Easter Egg, Ninja, and French Breakfast to mix things up a little.
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
- 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 cups store-bought pita chips or 2-inch pieces of pita bread, fried
- 2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
- 1 Persian cucumber, halved lengthwise and cut into ⅛-inch crescents (about 1 cup)
- 4 radishes, sliced into thin rounds
- ¼ red onion, halved stem to root and thinly sliced into crescents (about 1 cup)
- 2 cups Little Gem lettuce or chopped Romaine
- 2 cups loosely packed arugula
- Leaves from 2 sprigs of parsley
- Leaves from 2 sprigs of mint
- 1 tablespoon sumac
To make the dressing: Combine all of the ingredients in a blender or a bowl and mix or whisk to incorporate. Make sure to whisk well again before using, since the oil will separate.
To assemble the salad: In a medium bowl, toss half the chips with the tomatoes, cucumber, radishes, onion, Little Gem, and ¼ cup of the dressing.
Lay the arugula on a serving platter and cover evenly with the dressed veggies and chips. Tuck the remaining half of the pita chips into the salad to fill in any gaps. Drizzle the remaining dressing over the salad. Sprinkle the parsley and mint over the dish and top with the sumac.
Recipes and photos reprinted with permission from Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora by Reem Assil, copyright © 2022. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photographs copyright © 2022 by Alanna Hale