Arabiyya: Recipes from the life of an Arab in diaspora

Arabiyya: Recipes from the life of an Arab in diaspora
Book Club: James Beard award finalist Reem Assil's cookbook is a diasporic celebration of Californian farm to table with distinctly Arab flavours. Tracing the sights and smells of her heritage, Reem's Arabiyya is fast becoming a contemporary classic.
5 min read
29 June, 2022
Arabiyya is a collection of 100+ bright and bold recipes influenced by the vibrant flavours and convivial 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 editors, demanded nothing more than recipes.

The past decade has seen a surge of cookbooks with narratives of culture and personal journeys foregrounding the recipes – many of these books have been focused on Arab culture.

The Gaza Kitchen 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 Diaspora by the James Beard finalist chef Reem Assil. 

"Soothed by California’s climate, nature and ingredients, Reem found more than mental and physical healing – she found her roots and purpose"

For connoisseurs of Arab cooking in America, Reem is no stranger. Reem’s California, her bakery with locations in Oakland and San Francisco, has quickly acquired a kind of temple status for its skilled use of California’s brilliant ingredients in the service of Arabic dishes.

A few years ago, the New York Times praised Reem’s as an “Arab Bakery in Oakland Full of California Love.” The bakery was also the target of anti-Palestinian racism, including from the extremist Jewish Defense League, for its mural of Palestinian activist Rasmeah Odeh.

Cooking was Reem’s saving grace. Facing a debilitating digestive disorder that made basic consumption an arduous process, and the general wreck of familial stress, Reem dropped out of college and headed to California’s Bay Area 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 purpose.

Arabiyya is a refined text of Californian-based, Arab-rooted recipes, and interspersed amongst the pages is Reem’s story and her family’s.

Her grandparents fled both the Nakba for Gaza – the 1948 “catastrophe” of forced exile for roughly 750,000 Palestinians at the hands of Zionist troops – and the 1967 Naksa, which forced the family to flee Gaza for Lebanon. The 1975-90 Lebanese Civil War led to one more flight, this time to Greece and later California. 

Growing up as an American child, Reem did not know much about this story or her grandmother’s inspiring resilience in the face of repeated tragedy. It was after her sitty’s (colloquial Arabic for grandmother) passing that she pasted together tales from numerous relatives of her grandmother’s determination to recreate Arab hospitality no matter where she landed.

Her identity as a Palestinian was deemed threatening by others both in Lebanon and later in the United States – but she never bowed down; she walked with grace and dignity.

Arab hospitality meant that home was a safe comfort no matter the headwinds outside, and, at times, her grandmother went to some great lengths to make it happen. A story of sneaking out during a pause in the fighting in Beirut became family lore: dear old sitty couldn’t forget her lemons (who would serve fish without lemons?!) even amidst a rocket attack that swept her off her feet. 

"I’ve come to realize that my grandmother, who loaded the table to its edges with tasty morsels of my favourite foods, lives through me"

The way that food can heal us and offer us a sense of grounding became the thread that tied Reem’s story to her sitty’s. “I’ve come to realize that my grandmother, who loaded the table to its edges with tasty morsels of my favourite foods, lives through me,” Reem relates in one typically evocative passage. 

Reem’s California journey – learning to cook not as a functional matter but as an act of love and spontaneity, such as experimenting with an unfamiliar vegetable – allowed her to see how her story is interwoven with her family’s journey and forged a stronger Arab identity that was essential to braving the post-9/11 climate of prejudice. Food was both the path to family and cultural heritage and pride.

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Now, a quick note about those recipes. This is Arab cooking by way of California – both Arabic and Californian cooking emphasize seasonal ingredients – so you’ll find classic Arabic dishes here but many of them are remixed, like the California Fattoush Salad where tomatoes are swapped for oranges and citrus and fried sunchokes. And Reem’s Mana’eesh (which is a favourite at her eponymous bakery) range from the traditional za’atar flatbread to the Funky Red Pepper and Cheese.

This well-rounded cookbook – with approachable instructions for the amateur chef – leaves plenty of room for desserts, such as the wonderfully-inspired Lebanese-Style Smoothie Parfait or Kowktail.

Reem’s familiarity with Vietnamese immigrant-made smoothies inspired her to add condensed milk to the original drink.

All this food is enveloped in a story about family, hope and happiness – Reem embraces it wholeheartedly with infectious energy. Arabiyya deserves to become a classic amongst Arabs rooted here and there. 

Khelil Bouarrouj is a Washington, DC-based writer and civil rights advocate. His work can be found at the Washington Blade, Palestine Square, and other publications.