Reem Assil’s Arab Hospitality
The Oakland baker, restaurateur, and author grows her Bay Area community
By Kristina Sepetys
Reem Assil’s delicious food honors her Palestinian-Syrian heritage as well as her Bay Area present. Fiercely passionate about promoting Arab hospitality, Assil 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,” said the award-winning chef during a phone call as she was buzzing through her typically busy day.
Experience with bakeries in Beirut, Lebanon, and cooking for Arizmendi Bakery here in the Bay Area inspired Assil to open her own shop in Oakland making traditional Arab mana-eesh (flatbreads) incorporating California ingredients. The round breads are a popular street food in many Arab countries, eaten throughout the day as a meal or snack.
In 2021, Assil passed along her original Oakland (Fruitvale) restaurant location to Crystal Wahpepah, who opened the intertribal Wahpepah’s Kitchen later that year. “[We were grateful] to pass on the space to another Indigenous woman of color,” Assil says.
Reem’s California Mission in San Francisco lives on, and Reem’s Oakland baking continues around the corner from the former restaurant as a commissary kitchen producing plain flatbreads, flatbread with za’atar and cheese, handheld pastries, cheese pies, spinach pies, and falafel sold at numerous Bay Area outlets.
“We launched a kiosk at the Ferry Building in late November, where we’re selling fresh baked-to-order mana-eesh. And we’re about to announce a new flagship location in Oakland that will involve a bakery and café.”
At the heart of Assil’s vision has been a transition to a worker-owned business model.
“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,” she says. “Part of what’s really cool about our expansion plan is the non-extractive investment model we’re using. We have two lead investors who have helped us to craft a strategy to put workers first in the profit-sharing. As part of the plan, we’re doing a community fund raise through Wefunder. Investors will earn back one-and-a-half times their investment.”
An Intermingling of Cultures
Last year brought an exciting new chapter for Assil with the publication of her first cookbook, Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora. It’s a collection of her signature Arab 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.
Flatbreads made in a traditional Middle Eastern style are Reem’s signature item, but the array of dishes she created for the restaurants and the cookbook show a distinct California culinary inflection as well as the 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 [restaurants were] 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 Al 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 Al 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 La Gringa 3.0, a menu item that she describes as like an Arab taco. “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 United 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 with the new ideas percolating for her bakery. “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 trying to give voice to others.”
Inside the book: Arabiyya
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, as well as recipes for 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 and baklava. We worked hard to make sure these recipes are foolproof.”
Arabiyya provides a valuable list of nearly a dozen resources—from artisan collectives to grocers—for authentic, high-quality, and sometimes hard-to-find ingredients. The book also includes 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, where workers and people at the margins are brought to the center. ♦
Learn more at reemscalifornia.com.
Kristina Sepetys is a writer and an enthusiastic, if somewhat predictable, home cook. She lives in Berkeley with her husband, who dreams impossible dreams of meals that don’t include lentils.
Mahalabiya, Arab Milk Custard and Strawberry Compote
- Yield: Makes 4 servings 1x
From Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora by Reem Assil
Mahalabiya is the custardy cousin or, I would argue, maybe the original Italian dessert panna cotta. In my search for a simple but elegant dessert, I became obsessed with learning about this delicacy. It has roots in seventh-century Persia and was introduced to Arabs in tenth-century Baghdad, but it must have influenced custards beyond the region. Mahalabiya is not much different from blancmange in Europe and maja blanca in the Philippines.
Mahalabiya is the ideal canvas for showcasing seasonal fruit. When it’s apricot season, I incorporate a thin layer of M’rabaa Mish Mish [sun-dried apricot preserve] on top. When it’s summer, this chilled dessert gets a crown of berries, as it does in this recipe. Strawberries in this recipe can be swapped for eight ounces of any seasonal fruit, so feel free to be creative!
This custard firms up beautifully in small glasses or ramekins. The trick to perfecting this fragrant treat is to frequently whisk the custard as it cooks, so as not to scald the milk.
For the custard:
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon gently cracked cardamom pods (about 18 pods)
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1 cup cold heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons rose water
For the topping:
- 8 ounces strawberries, hulled and quartered or sliced
- 1 tablespoon rose water
- 1 tablespoon sugar, plus more as needed
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice (about1/2 lemon)
- 1/4 cup crushed pistachios, toasted
- 2 tablespoons dried rose petals (optional)
To make the custard: In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the milk, sugar, and cardamom pods and bring to a slow simmer. When bubbles start to form, turn down the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes to steep the cardamom pods.
In a medium bowl, whisk the cornstarch into the cream until fully incorporated. Slowly whisk the cornstarch mixture into the hot milk, until it’s thick-ened. When the mixture holds the imprint of the whisk’ s loops, remove it from the heat after about 5 minutes.
Add the rose water and then pour the warm mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. Transfer into four 6-ounce serving glasses or ramekins. Refrigerate, uncovered, for 4 to 6 hours to firm and chill.
To make the topping: In a medium saucepan, combine the strawberries, rose water, sugar, and ground cardamom and bring to a boil over high heat. Then turn down to low, cover the pan, and simmer for about 10 minutes to release the fruit’s juices. Uncover the pan and simmer until the liquid thickens and the strawberries soften, intensify in color, and start to shrink, another 10 to 15 minutes. Add the lemon juice. Adjust the sugar to taste. Let cool.
Just before serving, spoon the compote onto each chilled custard and sprinkle with the pistachios and rose petals.
The custard can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2022. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photographs copyright © 2022 by Alanna Hale.