Chef Reem Assil in the kitchen of her Mission District restaurant, Reem's California. (Photography by Angelina Hong)

Introducing The 7x7 Spice-In: Cooking at Home With Chef Reem Assil

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Tune in on Monday, June 29th for episode one of our video cooking series, The 7x7 Spice-In. Chef Reem Assil will be making her Baba Ghanouj 2 Ways!

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Back before she opened her Mission restaurant, before a bakery in Fruitvale had even crossed her mind, Reem Assil's saj was drawing hungry farmers market shoppers like moths to a flame. From the convex griddle she pulled warm Arab flatbreads topped with aromatic herbs and spices, brined cheeses, and ground beef. People couldn't get enough.

As the popularity of Assil's market stand grew, so did her kitchen. Two more sajes were brought from the Middle East and the chef began to do pop-ups at Mission Pie, just around the corner from the food incubator program La Cocina, where her business was launched. Within two years, the Bay Area's first brick-and-mortar Arab bakery, Reem's California, had a space of its own on the corner of Oakland's Fruitvale BART station transit center.


This March, just days before the first shelter-in-place order was issued, Assil made her next big move. She opened a second Reem's California in San Francisco's Mission District, taking over the space once occupied by the restaurant's early champion, Mission Pie. They had come full circle.

"My vision for the Mission space was to really be a bakery—a bakery and a dine-in space. We wanted to keep the legacy of Mission Pie as a sort of sit-down neighborhood spot where people could dine but could also watch the action," says Assil.

Growing up in Boston, Assil's relationship to her Arab culinary heritage wasn't always straightforward. In her mother's kitchen, a mishmosh of food traditions picked up in Palestine, Lebanon, and the U.S. made their way to the table. "It was a merger of Americana with Arab world. Like she would make spaghetti and tomato sauce, but the way that my mom would make tomato sauce was really how you'd make tomato stew back home, with allspice and cinnamon," she explains. "That's kind of how I approach my cooking."

When Assil moved to the West Coast in 2003 she began to dive deeper into Arab recipes. "Learning about my own cuisine, living in California brought it to its full potential," she says. "For example, dandelion greens. You can get those in the farmer's markets here and they're really abundant in Gaza, where my mom is from, but I didn't grow up knowing this dish."

It was a trip to Lebanon and Syria in 2010, though, that ignited Assil's passion for the foods of the Levant, a fuse lit by the corner bakeries in Beirut, Lebanon. "Just walking into those bakeries, the hustle and bustle, and you're watching bread fly out of the ovens onto the shelves hot and smoking...That was the pivotal moment of 'I want to come back and create that, I want to learn how to do that,'" she recalls.

A decade later, Assil has created a bakery and restaurant to nourish the Bay Area community built on the dynamic food traditions of the Arab world. And while COVID-19 has been a major interruption, it has also helped Assil to pursue new avenues of social justice through her food, a value at the core of her business. Instead of continuing to sell to the public, Reem's Fruitvale location has been turned into a commissary to provide hundreds of meals daily to those most vulnerable in the pandemic.

While Reem's Oakland restaurant remains closed due to COVID-19, you can donate to support her furloughed crew on GoFundMe. In the Mission, Assil is fielding online orders of popular dishes like the Pali Cali, a flatbread topped with sumac chicken, caramelized onion puree, arugula, and pickled onions. The restaurant is also offering take-home meals and kits like the shakshuka kit, which comes with sauce, eggs, and all the fixings for two to three people.

Introducing The 7x7 Spice-In With Chef Reem Assil

Chef Reem Assil, making her baba ghanouj.

(Angelina Hong)

This summer, 7x7 is teaming up with Assil for The 7x7 Spice-In, a series of three video cooking classes made possible by 7x7 partner, The Spice Hunter. For her first cooking class, launching on IGTV and YouTube on Monday, June 29th, Assil is preparing two eggplant dishes, versions of the popular mutabal and baba ganoush that are served at Reem's.

Even though most Americans know baba ganoush (sometimes spelled baba ghanouj) as a smoky eggplant and tahini dip, in many parts of the Middle East it's actually called mutabal. "Tahini is the base [and it's combined with] a vegetable with garlic, lemon, salt, some aromatics. I add cumin for some smokiness," she explains.

The eggplant version is common, but mutabal can be made with butternut squash, swiss chard, or just about any vegetable. Beet mutabal is a staple on the Reem's menu.

Baba ganoush, on the other hand, is more like an eggplant salad. It combines the same smoky mashed eggplant, lemon, and garlic as mutabal, but replaces the tahini with diced tomato, bell pepper, and onion. "On the Arab table, both are traditionally enjoyed as part of a mezze—like tapas or small-shared plates—but you can easily do them as a side or appetizer, too," says Assil.

On June 29th, head over to 7x7.com or 7x7's Instagram page to tune in for Episode 1 of The 7x7 Spice-In, and look for your chance to win a care package from The Spice Hunter! If you'd like to cook along with Assil, below is the list of ingredients you'll need to prepare her Baba Ghanouj 2 Ways.

Ingredients for Reem Assil's Baba Ghanouj 2 Ways

(Angelina Hong)

Eggplant Tahini Dip

2 large globe eggplants

2 cloves garlic, sprout removed, minced

1⁄4 cup tahini (Assil recommends Tarazi brand.)

2 lemons, zested and juiced (about 1⁄4 cup juice)

1⁄2 teaspoon cumin (The Spice Hunter)

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (The Spice Hunter)


Smoky Eggplant Salad

2 large globe eggplants

2 cloves garlic, sprout removed, minced

2 lemons, zested and juiced (about 1⁄4 cup juice)

3 small roma tomatoes or 2 vine ripened tomatoes, diced finely

1 red bell pepper pepper, diced finely

1⁄2 medium onion, diced finely

1⁄2 teaspoon cumin (The Spice Hunter)

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (The Spice Hunter)


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.

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