A Palestinian-Syrian chef’s cookbook invites people to see every meal as a celebration: NPR – Advice Eating



MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Ramadan and its month-long fast ends this weekend, which means that its closing festival is upon us – Eid al-Fitr. And for many Arabs, that means biscuits.

REEM ASSIL: Super time-consuming to prepare, but it has the texture of a fluffy shortbread. And we mainly fill it with dates. This is, so to speak, the most popular filling. But I grew up on a walnut, sugar, and cinnamon concoction.

KELLY: This is Reem Assil, owner of Reem California Bakeries. She says her family used to bake these cookies every year, not just for Eid but for other holidays as well.

ASSIL: Anyone who has made ma’amoul will know that when you put it in this mold you have to slam it on the table. And getting this cookie with the beautiful design is pretty much the most satisfying thing but also to release your aggression.

(LAUGH)

KELLY: Reem Assil’s recipe for Ma’amoul appears in her new cookbook Arabiya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora. She told us it’s part cookbook, part memoir about how the food helped her understand who she was as a Palestinian and Syrian now living in the Bay Area. But first, she told us a little about how she often celebrated Eid.

ASSIL: It’s the time of year I joke that all year round you don’t see people coming to the mosque, but they come (laughter).

Kelly: Right.

ASSIL: You know, you wake up on Eid morning and you put on new clothes. It’s who you are – it’s like a rebirth. You know, every Ramadan is a chance to reset your life and Eid is like your coming out. So everyone is somehow their best, happiest self.

KELLY: Give me the highlights of what’s on your Eid menu this year.

ASSIL: Oh, so this oath, I can be with my family. So hopefully we’ll be making stuffed vine leaves, which isn’t my favorite concoction, but I love making it with people. It’s another collaborative act of fill and roll. We like to cram everything.

Kelly: Right.

ASSIL: Definitely lamb and some seasoned rice – lamb is a very important meal on the table – and of course our ma’amoul.

KELLY: Your cookies – there you have it.

ASIL: Yes.

KELLY: The whole part 1 of the book is about Arabic hospitality. It is titled…

ASIL: Yes.

KELLY: … “How to host like an Arab.”

ASIL: Yes.

KELLY: Give me a – lay out some of the key principles of it.

ASIL: Yes. I think the most important tenet of Arab hospitality is that it is a virtue. They are designed to make everyone who comes into your home, whether friends or strangers, feel comfortable, safe and have a sense of belonging. And I always say that Arabic hospitality is about abundance, just about making people feel cared for. And it’s like sweet torture, you know. Even if you are full, we will continue to feed you.

(LAUGH)

ASIL: Yes. There are just so many situations where, especially in the Arab world, they don’t have the privilege of abundance. So, in order to create abundance in the midst of political turmoil or occupation, the Arabs really know how to turn even difficulties into delicious, nutritious meals. So…

KELLY: Give me an example. It – you get to cook with your mother for this oath. If I had to show up – and I think every listener wishes we could come and eat (laughter) – come eat…

ASSIL: Oh yes. Come over.

KELLY: Come eat. Yes. OK, we’ll take care of it.

ASIL: Yes.

KELLY: What would you serve us? How would you greet us?

ASIL: Yes. You must – you must host in no time. So if you were with my mom, I’m sure she would have prepared and frozen something. She would have chicken broth. I think she’d probably pull out and marinate a chicken, stuff it with rice, pop it in the oven (laughter), or make a one-pot chicken soup.

KELLY: By the way, does your mom cook from your cookbook or does she say, oh no?

ASSIL: Oh my goodness. Spring…

KELLY: (Laughter) I knew how to do this before you were born.

ASIL: Yes. Well, you know, it’s so interesting because my mom moved to this country from the civil war in Lebanon when she didn’t – she actually didn’t know how to cook. And she was, you know, kind of forced by her circumstances to study. So I didn’t – you know, I got my inspiration and flavor profiles from my mom, but I didn’t actually learn how to cook from her. And as I got older and learned these recipes, it was really beautiful. She would like to call me for some tidbits on how to cook a particular dish.

KELLY: Oh, that’s great.

ASSIL: And that made me really proud of my career. But my mother is an excellent one – take what you have and whip it up. She was just so good at creating these meals that feel sumptuous in about 30 minutes or less. You know, I think for us the joy of cooking is cooking on our own terms. And my mother always cooked on her own terms, and that’s why her food was so delicious.

KELLY: Without wanting to start a war, I would like to say that in your book you write about hummus, the chickpea dip that many Americans will be familiar with and that many Americans believe is Israeli for what it is, but it is also present in many Arabic cultures. Talk to me about how you decided to write about it and the place hummus has in it all.

ASSIL: Well, you know, hummus existed long before the State of Israel was formed in 1948, and that’s why Palestinian is left out on purpose (laughter). And that makes (ph) me invisible – you know? – the fact that Israeli hummus isn’t just Trader Joe’s hummus, it’s, you know, the Americanized versions of hummus…

KELLY: Chocolate hummus and – yes.

ASSIL: …hummus in everyone – yeah, chocolate hummus is so blasphemous.

KELLY: (Laughter) As an American, I agree.

ASSIL: And it feels – yes. That kind of, you know, whether intentional or not, stripping food of its ancestry and negating an entire people who have enjoyed and thrived on that food for generations is really dangerous. You know, we don’t have much time for the Palestinians anymore. You know, we – you know, a lot of our lands were taken from us. Ours – you know, we’ve been cut off from our food routes. So our food is like the last frontier of our identity. And so it’s really important for me as a chef here in this country to be able to talk about this food and get people to wonder where the food comes from.

KELLY: Deals with all sorts of interesting questions about how food, like everything else, is political.

ASSIL: That’s it. It’s inherently political – you know, the fact that I’m able to cook food that my grandmother couldn’t cook because she was expelled from her home country.

KELLY: Well, I love that – what I took away as one of your goals with this cookbook is to invite us all to think about how every meal can be inviting, like a celebration over at Eid (ph). It’s a really beautiful way to think about food and the role it can play in our lives.

ASSIL: Yes, absolutely. I mean, when I started my restaurants seven years ago, I wanted everyone to come to Reem’s and feel at home, whether they knew anything about Arabic food or not. And I hope that people get that out of this book.

KELLY: We spoke to Reem Assil, the author of the new cookbook Arabiya. Congratulations on the book release and happy cooking this weekend.

Asil: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FOUR TETS “LOVE SALAD”)

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