Reem Assil wasn’t always an award-winning chef. In fact, she hardly knew it was something she could pursue professionally. Despite growing up surrounded by classic Arab dishes like knafeh , hummus and Musakhan, the Palestinian-Syrian artist had been pursuing a career in the nonprofit sector until a trip changed her path forever.
“Food was always calling to me – I knew I wanted to work with it in some way,” Asir says. “But it wasn’t until I went to Syria and Lebanon with my father that it dawned on me and I thought, ‘I want to recreate what I felt in these food spaces back home in California.'”
And so began Assil’s culinary journey, opening a bakery in Oakland (now serving as a commissary kitchen), being nominated as a 2018 James Beard Semifinalist for Best Chef Wes, and currently being nominated as a James Beard Distinguished Chef. All of her hard work led to her first cookbook, Arabiyya, which debuted on April 19.
Assil’s cookbook is more than a collection of recipes-it’s a celebration of family and food, and a deep exploration of the complexity of the Arabian experience. It begins with pages from her childhood, discussing memories from being the daughter of Palestinian refugees to eating diapered chocolate cake with her neighbors. Flipping through its pages feels very similar to the warmth of gathering with loved ones as she takes readers through her life, including old family Polaroids and intimate wedding photos.
“I wanted to be bold in telling the stories of the Arab diaspora – not just our struggles and resilience – and to help a wider audience understand cultures and regions of the world that are often misunderstood. ” she said. “It’s important to me to debunk any myths or break down any generalizations people have about Arabs. We are a complex people with a beautiful culture, and that’s worth celebrating.”
The informative but personal feel contributes to Assil’s larger goal of sharing the flavors and beauty of Arab culture with as many people as possible, inviting anyone who wants to read about her world of panko and lasagna dough. “No matter where we are, through our food, Arabs find a way to create a sense of home,” she says.
Among the recipes for stuffed calamari and flatbread, Assil’s hummus with five-spice lamb is one of the more familiar dishes in the book, with a creamy chickpea sesame sauce served with crispy lamb breast and her own homemade Chilean spice blend. The dish is certainly versatile – Assil notes that whether you’re serving it at a dinner party or making a snack at home, it’s sure to impress. “It’s a way to really elevate the hummus game and experience it the way Arabs do back home,” she says.
Assil strives to showcase, nurture and deliver the experience of Arabian cuisine, and this dish is the perfect example. It is often referred to as hummus bil awarma, which roughly translates to “meat preserved in its own fat.
“This recipe represents the long-standing beauty and richness of flavor of the Arabian experience,” she says. “Our preservation techniques go back generations, and we needed to do these things to survive during wars and famines. But now awarma is a luxury, and we can treat it differently.”
Although the recipe looks simple, Assil warns that getting smooth hummus is the biggest challenge. She recommends using a high-powered blender and peeling the chickpeas, and making sure to blend them thoroughly before adding the other ingredients. As for the lamb, in addition to picking the right meat, Assil likes to save the fat for a later dish, such as home fries or roasted vegetables.
“I like to imagine what it’s like for people to indulge,” Assil says. “And, of course, I like to eat the meat crunchy while it’s cooking and preparing!”
Hummus with Five Spice Lamb Recipe
- 1½ teaspoons coarse salt
- 2 tablespoons Chilean spice blend, plus more for garnish
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
- 1½ pounds lamb breast or shoulder, cut into 1-inch-thick slices
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as sunflower
- 1 recipe Chickpea Sesame Pesto Sauce
- In a small bowl, whisk together salt, spice mixture and oil to make a sticky paste. On a small plate, rub the lamb with the rub and let it sit, covered, at room temperature for 2 hours or overnight in the refrigerator to marinate.
- If the lamb has been marinated overnight, remove it from the refrigerator 1 hour before cooking to bring it back to room temperature.
- Preheat oven to 350°F. 4.
- Pour the oil into a cast iron skillet or heavy pot and heat over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, roast lamb, browning each side for about 3 minutes or until it becomes deep golden brown. Cover pan with aluminum foil and bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until meat is tender and falls easily off the bone. 5.
- Once cool enough to touch, remove meat from bones, roughly chop into bite-sized pieces, and tear pieces into strands. Add the juices and fat back into the pulled meat.
- Just before serving, reheat the cast iron skillet, crisp the lamb, use a spatula to brown the shredded meat, and turn the meat to the other side. You should have a different texture with a mix of crispy and soft pieces.
- When ready to serve, spoon the hummus onto a plate or shallow bowl. Use the back of the spoon to form a moat between the outer edge and the center. Spoon the hot, crispy lamb with its juices into the well and garnish with more oil and spice mixture. The lamb can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Chilean Spice Blend
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
- 2 teaspoons whole cardamom seeds (about 17 pods)
- 2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
- 6 tablespoons Aleppo pepper
- 2 teaspoons coarse salt
- 2 teaspoons dried lime, grated
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Place the coriander, cardamom and cumin in a dry pan and toast over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until fragrant. Near the end, the spices will begin to dance in the pan. Be careful not to let them burn. 2.
When they have darkened in color and are fragrant, remove them from the pan and cool completely. 3.
- Then grind them to a coarse powder in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Mix with Aleppo pepper, salt, dried lime and cinnamon.
Chickpea Sesame Paste Sauce
- ¾ cup dried chickpeas, or one 15-ounce can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda (dry chickpeas only)
- 2 cloves garlic
- 5 tablespoons lemon juice (about 2 lemons), plus more as needed
- 1½ teaspoons coarse salt, plus more as needed
- ¼ cup ice water, plus more as needed
- ½ cup sesame seed paste
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
- 1 teaspoon lacquer for garnish
- 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or Chile-decorative spice blend
Directions for use
- If using dried chickpeas, soak chickpeas overnight or for at least 12 hours.
- Drain chickpeas and place in a small saucepan with baking soda and cover beans with about 6 inches of water. Bring to a boil, skimming any residue from the surface, then reduce the heat to a simmer over medium heat. Cook, naked, until beans are tender, about 30 minutes. Test for doneness by squeezing the beans between your thumb and forefinger. Perfectly cooked beans crush easily but do not become mushy. Drain in a colander after cooking. 3.
- Immerse the beans in a bowl of cold water and rub them between your palms to pour off any skins that float to the surface. Drain and repeat two to three times. If using canned chickpeas, repeat the same steps, rubbing off as many skins as possible. Reserve 2 tablespoons for garnish. 4.
- Blend remaining chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice and salt in a food processor. Add ice water. Blend on high speed for 5 minutes, until no lumps remain. (Yes, that’s right, 5 minutes. Set a timer and walk away.) At the 5 minute mark, slowly drizzle the sesame paste into the mixture on medium speed. The mixture should be aired out and form firm peaks. If it’s the texture of ice cream, it’s too thick; add more ice water if needed. Adjust the lemon juice and salt to taste.
- When ready to serve, spoon the hummus onto a plate or shallow bowl. Use the back of the spoon to form a moat between the outer edge and the center. Drizzle your canvas with a generous amount of olive oil and garnish with the reserved whole chickpeas, lacquer tree and Aleppo pepper. The hummus can be stored undecorated in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.