Palestinian-Syrian Chef Reem Assil’s New Cookbook Is ‘A Love Letter to My People’

Reem Assil wears many hats—she’s a chef, 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 over 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.

Photo: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press

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 co-conspirator 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 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.

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