Chef Reem Assil's original vision for her first restaurant, Reem's California in Oakland, was about more than just the food her Arab bakery would prepare. It was about the sense of community she hoped it would inspire.
In Boston, Assil had grown up under the influence of food traditions from Palestine and Lebanon, but when she traveled there in 2010, she learned that what ended up on the Arab plate was only half the story. The rest was written in the warmth and hospitality of the food traditions of a regional people who, despite being made up of remarkably diverse ethnic communities, had all found a home in the Levant.
"As a kid, I'd revert back to [the feeling] that I'm not Syrian enough or I'm not Palestinian enough," says Assil. But in Syria, "the people just took me in with open arms as if I was their own. It was in those moments where I was like, oh my goodness, my people are the masters of hospitality. They really know how to make you feel welcome."
Across the Levant, Assil found that, like the people who had greeted her so warmly, the food was anything but homogenous. There were similar flavors, sure. Lemon, garlic, and olive oil were ever present. So were spice-forward stews, fresh herbs, and salads. But popular dishes in Syria—like muhammara (a dip made from roasted red peppers, walnuts, and olive oil) and zlebiye (a sweet, fried pancake filled with clotted cream and served for breakfast)—weren't commonly found across the border in Lebanon and vice versa.
In fact, really only one thing crossed the borders of ethnic enclaves unchanged: bread. In bustling corner bakeries, Assil was transfixed by the spectacle of fresh, steaming bread being pulled from the ovens, the crush of patrons watching the show as they awaited their turn. "It was just like magic," she explains. "Bread is a unifying component. It's transcendent of all cultures in some way."
Returning home, Assil believed that baking and sharing bread could be a way to build community in the Bay Area, too. Bread could be the conduit for "introducing the flavors of [her] culture to an American public that largely only knew Arab food as falafel and shawarma. She was right.
A decade on, Assil has indeed built a community of Levantine food lovers and warm, welcoming hospitality, first in farmers markets and pop-ups, then at the original brick-and-mortar location of Reem's California in Fruitvale.
"The street corner bakery experience...that sort of fresh-baked bread smell, the aromas of the spices playing with the meats, we really wanted to recreate that feeling," she says. And she has, first in Oakland, and now in San Francisco since the March opening of a second Reem's California location in the Mission.
The 7x7 Spice-In With Chef Reem Assil
Learn to make chef Reem Assil's baba ganoush two ways in episode one of The 7x7 Spice-In.
(Photography by Angelina Hong)
Most people know kafta—ground beef mixed with herbs and spices then rolled into a sausage shape or flattened like a patty—from kebabs. But when she was growing up, Assil's mom prepared kafta in meatball form and added a richly spiced tomato sauce, a versatile staple in the Arab kitchen.
Assil's kafta bil bandora is flavored with her seven-spice mix—a combination of allspice, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg. Those who prefer to keep their ingredient list on the shorter side can substitute the mix with a two-spice combo of allspice and garam masala.
The meatballs and sauce can be eaten solo or on a bed of pasta or rice; Assil says this dish works with just about any carbohydrate or starch.
Ingredients for Reem Assil's Kafta bil Bandora (Meatballs and Sauce)
(Photography by Angelina Hong)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, medium diced
2-3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 tsp Reem's 7-Spice Mix* or ½ tsp of allspice + 1 ½ tsp of garam masala (The Spice Hunter)
2 tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper (The Spice Hunter)
28 oz can San Marzano stewed tomatoes
1 cup water
*Reem's 7-Spice Mix
1 teaspoon allspice (The Spice Hunter)
¾ teaspoon cumin (The Spice Hunter)
¾ teaspoon coriander (The Spice Hunter)
½ teaspoon cloves (The Spice Hunter)
¼ teaspoon cinnamon (The Spice Hunter)
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom (The Spice Hunter)
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg (The Spice Hunter)
2 pounds ground beef (can use a mix of ground lamb and beef)
1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 cup of finely chopped parsley, unpacked (about one bunch)
2 tsp allspice (The Spice Hunter)
1 tsp cinnamon (The Spice Hunter)
1 tsp ground black pepper (The Spice Hunter)
1 tsp sumac
½ tsp nutmeg (The Spice Hunter)
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp vegetable oil for cooking
Prep your ingredients to make kafta bil bandora with Reem Assil on July 20th by using the promo code 7X7SPICEIN to receive 20 percent off purchases through September 1st at spicehunter.com. Tune in to episode two on IGTV and YouTube July 23rd.
About The Spice Hunter
The Spice Hunter was founded by a woman on a quest for the best spices from around the world. For the past 20 years, the California company has made it their mission to continue seeking innovative and global flavors that will bring inspiration and creativity to the home chef. Their spices and herbs are sourced from the finest growing regions in the world, and are both organic and non-GMO certified. Use the code 7x7SpiceIn to receive 20 percent off your purchase through September 1, 2020; spicehunter.com.