Reem Assil wears many hats—she’s a chef, an activist, and the owner of the bakery Reem’s California—and this week she’s added cookbook author to the list with the release of her first book, ‘Arabiyya: Recipes From the Life of an Arab in Diaspora’, out Tuesday from Ten Speed Press. Arabiyya contains more than 100 recipes for everything from pantry snacks to mezze to desserts, but it’s as much a memoir as it is a cookbook, encompassing many of Assil’s own experiences as a Bay Area woman whose life has been indelibly shaped by her Palestinian and Syrian heritage.
Vogue recently spoke to Assil about her writing process, the lessons she learned while cooking for her young son during the COVID-19 pandemic, the political power of food, and more. Read the full interview below.
Vogue: Where did the idea for this book come from?
Reem Assil: A few years back, a lot of people were asking me, “When is your cookbook coming out?” And at that time, I was a new mother, and it felt like I had just learned how to run a restaurant. A lot of my career has been learning as I go, sometimes the hard way, and I was like, “I don’t know when I’m going to have time to write a book.” Still, as people started paying more attention to Arab foods and Arab restaurants started to be spotlighted, I found myself sort of having this platform that I never anticipated, and I really wanted to tell my own story. My aunt is a coconspirator in this book, and we were just sitting around one day, and I was telling her about the story I was yearning to tell, and she was like, “We should do it.” That was in the summer of 2019, and she wanted a creative project, and I needed help trying to figure this out. So we signed on to write the book, and then the pandemic happened.
What was it like working on this book during such a difficult time?
It really was a labor of love. I had opened my second restaurant literally three days before the shutdown. I wasn’t thinking about writing a book; I was like, I need to keep both of my businesses afloat. It was really scary, and my aunt was like, “We need to write about this.” She just kept after me, and it turned out to be the most amazing blessing for me because I think I was just grieving a lot of things. I sort of went back to the roots of why I got into this, which was to really discover the flavors of my ancestors and of generations before me. Getting back in the kitchen and testing recipes and cooking at home was kind of a tall order, but it was thrilling for me—as a mother and as somebody who started off as a home cook—to go back to that. It was a nice sort of centering as the chaos ensued around me. Those six months of writing and testing and creating these recipes were sort of a healing process. The writing was an interesting journey because I really wanted to write a memoir as a kind of love note to my people. This was a love letter to my family and really to myself. Arabiyya means “Arab woman,” so it was cathartic to work on this in the pandemic, almost like writing in a journal.
Were there any recipes or food rituals you developed during the pandemic that you’re keeping?
The big habit that I developed was going back to my mom’s one-pot meals, where you throw everything in—your vegetables and proteins—and you add these rich, warming spices. I started to do that a lot. I’m sad to admit my four-year-old is a lot more picky now, but at the time that I was writing this book, it was cool because he was really loving these one-pot meals. I felt like I was giving him not just nutrients but also a connection to his Palestinian and Syrian roots.
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Do you like to think of food as being political, or does that framework ever feel burdensome?
Well, I think food, for me, is inherently political. Food is connected to land and the way people relate to the land, and unfortunately, in our world, resources are scarce, and there’s a lot of extraction of resources. It’s hard to talk about food without talking about that because if you don’t talk about that, you render invisible the people who make the food, right? As humans, we love to feed, and we love to connect to people; ever since people could cultivate and create food, we’ve been sharing it with others. When I cook food, I’m not sitting there being like, I’m gonna be political. I’m doing it to connect to people, and there’s something really beautiful about that. However, the fact that I’m cooking the food is political because I’m cooking food that my grandma couldn’t cook because she was displaced from her land. So to pay homage to that does feel like a responsibility. I think it’s a beautiful thing, though, because we’re all storytellers, and food is a way that we tell stories. I have both the responsibility and the privilege to be able to tell the story of myself through my food because that’s healing for me, and my hunch is that when people know the story of the food they’re eating, it’s that much more delicious.
Originally published in Vogue.com