side by side of family eating and dipping in bowl
Credit: Photo: Nader Khouri | Food + Prop Stylist: Jillian Knox

American Azoumeh: Chefs Reem Assil and Mohammad Abutaha Talk Arab Hospitality and Cooking in Diaspora

published Apr 1, 2022
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Being in diaspora is something Chef Reem Assil thinks about often. She’s an Arab American chef whose Syrian-Palestinian family has been displaced from their homeland not just once, but twice. The first was when her family left Palestine for Lebanon, and then again when they left Lebanon for the United States, where Reem was born. 

So what does it mean to cook the food of your people outside of your homeland? This question is central to Reem’s food philosophy. How does your location change what you cook? Can you create food to help you remember home? And where is the line between tradition and innovation in a cuisine, or is there even a line at all? For the last several years she’s explored questions about what it means to cook her food — which is still Arab food — through her farmers market stand, her bakery Reem’s California, and, newly, in her debut cookbook, Arabiyya: Recipes From the Life of an Arab in Diaspora which comes out this month (April 19; Ten Speed Press).

When we invited Reem to join us in celebrating Arab American Middle Eastern Heritage Month she already had an idea bubbling: Host an azoumeh with her friend and fellow Arab chef, Mohammad Abutaha, the owner of Oakland-based shawarma joint Shawarmaji. Why azoumeh? Because there’s no better time or place to catch up with an old friend than at one of these gatherings. To hear Mo and Reem describe it, azoumeh is more than a dinner party — it’s a casual feast you throw for your 50 closest family and friends. It’s a chance for everyone to catch up over a shared meal. 

So welcome to Reem and Mo’s azoumeh. The menu is full of vibrant dishes from both chefs. Mo brought creamy, smoky avocado mutabal for starters, and Reem is supplying heaps of her signature sourdough Arab bread. For dessert there’s date-walnut pie. Dinner features crowd favorites like a simple Arab salad of tomatoes and cucumbers to go along with a generous platter of lamb qidreh. This fragrant dish of lamb, chickpeas, and rice is cooked in a clay pot — called qidreh in Arabic — which gives this dish its name. 

As at any good azoumeh, Reem and Mo had a chance to take a break from their busy schedules to catch up. We get to listen in to hear what they had to say about cooking Arab cuisine in California, how their respective grandmothers influenced their cooking, and why a longing for home is always present in the food of chefs in diaspora. This is a joyful, reflective conversation between friends with shared heritage and connected culinary paths. We have the honor of joining their table as they share stories and catch up. So pull up a seat, grab a plate, and read on. 

Credit: Photo: Nader Khouri | Food + Prop Stylist: Jillian Knox

Reem: I’m so excited to host our first ever joint azoumeh. I’ve been waiting for you to ask me forever. [laughter]. I remember the first time I met you back when we were working at Reem’s together, you were actually hosting a bunch of azoumeh. And I love azoumehs. I thought that was such an ingenious idea. Can you talk about why you did them? What is an azoumeh? And what’s the significance of it in our culture?

Mo: So azoumeh is more than just a dinner party. It’s more like inviting your community and your friends and family and loved ones over to share a meal. And it’s always big. Never fewer than eight, nine people. 

Reem: So you got to invite the whole family. [laughter]

Mo: Yeah, exactly. [laughter]

Reem: And the neighbors?

Mo: You can’t not invite somebody or else they’ll get mad. So you have to invite literally everybody you know.

Reem: … And then hope somebody will drop off so that you can make sure you have enough food.

Mo: Exactly. And, really, it just came from a situation where I didn’t have these azoumehs in the United States when we moved here. We didn’t have that much family and even our friend circles aren’t that big. So whenever we would have dinner parties, they would be smaller dinner parties — not quite like what we used to have in Jordan. And I just wanted to relive those experiences. I was mainly missing things like the first day of Ramadan, or the first Eid at my grandmother’s house with the whole family — all the uncles and aunts and all the nephews and nieces. I wanted to revive those experiences — and share them — because I also knew that there were a lot of Arabs here who missed those feelings and wanted some way to relive them. 

Reem: So would you say you were trying to build community with other Arabs in diaspora in the beginning?

Mo: Yeah definitely. I mean, it was a way of — yes — rebuilding a community with Arabs in the diaspora, but also sharing with non-Arabs what it’s like to go to an Arab party. And to share that piece of our culture with them.

Reem: That’s kind of similar to the Arab street corner bakery concept that I had with Reem’s. I really wanted to invite people in to show them how Arab hospitality is something very magical. 

Mo: Definitely.

Reem: People are like, what is Arab hospitality? I’m like, it’s sweet torture. We just feed you until you’re stuffed. [laughter] What makes a good azoumeh for you? 

Mo: Honestly, the main thing is the number of people. I really like big azoumehs where you see people you haven’t seen in a long time. Everyone’s catching up, and a million different conversations are going on. Everyone’s sharing how their life has been. It’s a fun way to catch up. Food-wise, it’s always good because there’s always rice. Spiced rice more than anything. 

Reem: And there’s usually always a big meat component of some sort.

Mo: Always a meat component. Either lamb or chicken. I mean, it’s still more of an event than just coming together to eat food.

Reem: Right. It’s more about the experience of being around other people and feeling connected, right? And having a sense of connection.

We’ve talked about you growing up with your grandmother and that really resonated with me. I think both of us have strong matriarchs in our family. I feel like my teta — my grandma — really lives in everything that I d, particularly after her passing. I didn’t realize it until after she passed that she really influenced the way I cook and the way I host. 

Can you talk a little bit about your grandmother and her influence on you and your path to cooking?

I really wanted to invite people in to show them how Arab hospitality is something very magical.

Reem Assil

Mo: Yeah, definitely. My grandmother passed away a few years ago. And I am one of the younger grandsons, so I didn’t have that connection with her when she was a little bit younger. I’ve only seen my grandmother as a 70s-plus year-old person. Even when she was that old she was always in the kitchen. Even if she wasn’t cooking herself, she was there supervising. And honestly, I think she would put most of these high-end chefs to shame. [laughter]

Reem: Tell me more. [laughter] 

Mo: She would go around and taste everything. The people cooking are usually my aunts and my uncle’s wives. They would be cooking something for Eid because at least 50 people come over for Eid. 

Reem: Like you’re cooking for a restaurant. 

Mo: Yeah! So they’re all cooking these different components and dishes and my grandmother is basically going around tasting everything. 

Reem: She’s the real chef!

Mo: Right! Just making sure that everything is good. I remember one time, my uncle started eating something and he was like, Oh, it’s so good. And he said thank you so much to my grandmother, right? And then, one of my aunts was like, actually, I made it. But with my grandmother, even her just overseeing the cooking was enough to make the dish better.  

Reem: She’s like a true chef, like a true leader delegating. That feels so different from my grandmother. She didn’t ever want a sous chef. So it took forever for us to prove to her that we can be your assistants. We can pick that parsley. We can blend the hummus. But yeah — that’s a testament of a true leader to be able to delegate and watch over.

Mo: The one thing that she did not let anybody else do is pick the produce. So every Friday, I would go to the — we call it suq al khudar, which means the vegetable market. So every Friday morning, I would go with my dad and my grandmother. We would just walk around. She would have this big cart, going to different vendors, picking out the food to be sure everything was really good quality. And that’s one thing that I do — that we do in my family. We don’t care. We’ll pay extra as long as the produce is worth it. 

Reem: A dish is as good as its ingredients. Right? Do you remember what her favorite dish was to make? And what was your favorite dish she made?

Mo: Well, I think they’re both the same thing because we had it so often. Which is allayet bandora. So allayet bandora means frying up tomatoes. And it’s a dish that’s known throughout the Arab world and usually eaten for breakfast. But my family — and I think it’s mainly because of the region that we’re from, from Yaffa — does it differently. Basically it’s tomatoes and just a little bit of beef and garlic, simmered for hours, like six, seven hours, until it’s just a sauce. And then we eat that with rice and roasted lamb.

Reem: I’ve had your allayet bandora. Stamp of approval. It’s delicious.

Mo: It’s not even close to my grandmother’s. [laughter]  

Reem: Well, you know, in California, we can get nice tomatoes. But I’m sure in a more Mediterranean climate, you can get them close to all year round!  

We’ve talked a little bit about your Palestinian roots. We both have Palestinian blood. And I think it’s really central to our being in diaspora not once, but twice. What is your family history? What is the journey of your Palestinian side? And how do you keep that alive through your food and your cooking?

I cook not to necessarily cook new things, or invent new things. It’s mainly to relive my upbringing in Jordan.

Mohammad Abutaha

Mo: My grandfather and grandmother grew up in Jaffa. And they moved to Jordan in 1948 like a lot of Palestinians. But my father was born in Jordan. My grandfather was in a lot of social circles, if you will. And he was really present in the Jordanian social circle. So, our family has a good mix of both traditions. Jordan is mainly Bedouin culture, whereas Palestine is mainly a farming culture. Both cultures play into our azoumehs. For example, we serve coffee in the beginning — Bedouin coffee — as a welcoming to our guests. It’s a very Bedouin tradition,

Reem: The coffee part, yes.  And it always comes first, right?

Mo: Exactly. Because Bedouins usually are traveling. So after your hard travels, you come into the tent and you are welcomed with coffee to help revitalize you. So that’s what we do in our azoumehs. And then we cook with fresh fruits and vegetables — stuff that you don’t have in the desert, like tomatoes and cucumbers. All the delicious, fresh things. And for breakfast, eating salad with bread. Which, you know, is such a Palestinian thing. Just a very simple salad — tomatoes, onions, lots of olive oil, and bread. 

Reem: Yup. That’s the quintessential breakfast.

Mo: Exactly. So it’s a mixture of both cultures. 

Reem: Let’s talk about your culinary path. How would you describe your food? 

Mo: I cook not to necessarily cook new things, or invent new things. It’s mainly to relive my upbringing in Jordan. I try to recreate dishes that I’ve had, maybe once or twice, like at a friend’s house or an uncle’s house or stuff that my mom or grandmother didn’t really cook regularly. I try to recreate that from my memory of their taste more than anything. Growing up, you see these dishes — like the ones my grandmother would make — and they seem so simple. 

Reem: But actually they’re very sophisticated. 

Mo: Yes, so it’s become a real appreciation for the people who actually develop these foods. 

Reem: I think that’s such a diasporic thing for Arabs — that recreating the feeling — because a lot of us can’t go back to our homeland. So we have to create home away from home. And then that evolves, because inevitably we don’t have the same produce or ingredients or we are exposed to different ingredients. 

Can you talk about moving here to California? And how that impacts your cuisine in any way? 

Mo: It does a lot. I’ve been noticing lately that I tend to use peppers and chilies a lot. And yes, we do use peppers in Jordan, and my family does use peppers, but not to the extent that I’m using peppers now. That’s from cooking with a lot of Latinos in the kitchen. Learning from them how they cook staff meal. Also working in kitchens here [in California]. I used to work at Noosh and Turkish cuisine also has a lot of peppers. So that’s one thing that wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t in California.

Reem: And you weren’t always a cook, right? What sparked your culinary career? Can you talk a little bit about how you got into this?

Mo: Basically my family moved to the U.S. so I could go to college here. I was studying mechanical engineering.

Reem: Yes, I remember I met you back then.

Mo: Yeah, we actually met through somebody at San Francisco State where I was studying mechanical engineering. And in my last year, I understood that I just wasn’t happy. I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I enjoyed physics and math. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other people around me did. And I also didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoy food. So I understood that wasn’t the path for me. It was a really difficult decision to make. The fall semester, I was like, Okay, I’m just going to get a job at a kitchen and to see if I like it. So that semester, I was going to school and working as a dishwasher. By the end of that semester, I decided to just drop out and work. I think I knew in the beginning that I wanted to open up a restaurant. Except now instead of becoming an engineer, making lots of money, and then opening up a restaurant, I’m working my way up and then opening up a restaurant.

I think that’s such a diasporic thing for Arabs — that recreating the feeling — because a lot of us can’t go back to our homeland.

Reem Assil

Reem: And now here you are, the owner of an acclaimed restaurant called Shawarmaji! Can you talk about Shawarmaji? Did you always imagine that was going to be the business concept or did that evolve over time?

Mo: I will admit, in the beginning when I started as a dishwasher, working my way through, I didn’t necessarily want to cook Arabic food. It wasn’t on my mind.

Reem: You had an appreciation for other cuisines? 

Mo: I had that dream of opening up a Michelin star restaurant. And it just being classical French or whatever … because that’s what they tell you it should be. But after working at Reem’s, I found more of an appreciation for our cuisine and realized this is actually what I wanted to do.

Reem: Our cuisine is pretty elevated in and of itself.

Mo: You know, I desire to show people that this is our food and you can put it at the same pedestal as any other cuisine in the world. The desire to cook Arabic food started there. Now, shawarma is a different beast. Shawarma was my go-to fast food when I was in Jordan. It was something that I ate all the time. 

Reem: It’s very nostalgic. 

Mo: When I went back to [Jordan] to visit, my plane would land and the first destination would be a shawarma restaurant. Then home. So it was something that I really missed, and something that we didn’t have here in the Bay area. Here and there I was playing around with shawarma, trying to make something delicious for myself at home. Then a friend asked me to cater her birthday. I made shawarma bites, and everybody really loved it. One of my friends was like, you should really make this happen. I had a little bit of money saved up, so I bought a shawarma machine from Amazon. It was not good quality but it did the trick. It worked. I would have azoumehs at my house and instead of having actual food, it would be shawarma. And then the idea grew from there. I wanted to open up a restaurant with my friend; that didn’t work out. So the idea was on the back burner for a year. Then I found myself in a position where I didn’t have a job. 

Reem: Sometimes that’s the best. 

Mo: Yeah, exactly. I had experience doing pop-ups and stuff like that, and I was like, you know what, I really want to do a shawarma pop-up. I want to share with people what proper shawarma should taste like.

Reem: And you specialize in chicken shawarma, which I think Americans are not used to when they think about shawarma. They usually go to the beef and the lamb, right? 

Mo: Yes, definitely. Chicken shawarma was definitely pioneered by Arabs. Shawarma itself was invented in Turkey. Traditionally, it was lamb and beef. But as it moved down into Syria and Jordan — mainly Syria — they started using chicken instead of lamb. That’s where the shawarma we have today comes from. The most unique thing about it is the chicken with the garlic sauce, toum. It’s a sauce that people don’t necessarily know about, yet it is such a staple in Jordan and in the Arab world. 

Reem: My first memory of it was getting a whiff of it with the chicken on the streets of Lebanon.

Mo: Exactly. It’s the best condiment for chicken. And it’s completely vegan. People don’t realize. It’s also very complicated to make. Complicated, but simple at the same time because of the emulsification process. 

Reem: So you just went at it and focused on perfecting one or two staple things to create the concept of Shawarmaji.

Mo: The main thing is that it’s a simple sandwich. Shawarma is just the chicken, garlic sauce, and cucumber pickles. This concept is something that a lot of non-Arabs have never seen before and it’s a food that a lot of Arabs want to eat but for some reason nobody was really making it. So it was an instant hit. It’s been awesome to see that. And we grew from there.

Credit: Photo: Nader Khouri | Food + Prop Stylist: Jillian Knox

Reem: I compare that to my journey of wanting to have that for man’ousheh (Lebanese oven-baked flatbreads). I was, like, that’s gonna be the future. I want it to be like the burrito or the pizza — something that’s part of the fabric of U.S. cooking that Arabs get to feel proud of. As I was coming up in the farmers markets, my first customers were the Americans. I felt like I was never going to be good enough for the Arabs. But then Arabs were like, I’ll pay six or seven dollars, even though you can get it for like three bucks back home. They were so proud that I was representing the culture. And it’s just as good.

You know, we have a sourdough base for our bread, but because of everything from globalization to war, manousheh is not being made the traditional way back home. So in a way, I feel like I’m honoring tradition. Every once in a while people are like, oh, this is like a Californized version? And I’m like, not really. So it’s always this balance of how do I make sure that I’m pushing these dishes and really celebrating California and place while keeping the heart and the tradition of that dish. I feel like you have the same approach. You really honor the vibe at your azoumehs. It is not actually about the food, but the experience of that food. And you have fun with it! You use the experiences you had working in high-end restaurants and places like Reem’s to have fun with it. 

What would you say is the trick to honoring the traditional way, but also pushing things?

Mo: I definitely wanted to honor the traditional way. That was my main goal setting out. At the same time, I wanted to keep it interesting — not just for customers, but for me as well. But before somebody comes and tries my special or a collab I do with another chef that technically isn’t traditional shawarma, I want them to have a traditional shawarma first.  

Reem: They need to actually understand the fundamentals first.

Mo: Exactly. For example, I know there’s some weird hummus out there. But if you don’t understand what hummus is, how can you enjoy a creative take on it?

Reem: Right, right, right. That’s really interesting. I think a lot of Arabs in diaspora or newer immigrants shy away from these sorts of evolutions, because they don’t want to lose the traditions. But if you go back to the Arab world, and they’re doing really creative things. I’ve seen tikka masala manousheh! This isn’t a vacuum; even back home people are evolving the food. 

Mo: But that’s the thing! Back home everybody already understands the basics. So if you’re innovating and doing something new — everyone knows what’s new about it and what’s different. 

Reem: That’s so true. 

Mo: So they can appreciate it more. For example, in Jordan, there’s a place that makes smoked brisket shawarma. They literally throw the whole thing into the ground and smoke it. And it’s served with barbecue sauce, too. So it’s something completely different. It’s more like American barbecue than it is like Jordanian shawarma. But there is a relationship there.

We’re getting to redefine Arab cuisine as it really is. It is exciting to see that happen

Reem Assil

Reem: That totally makes sense. I never thought about it that way. So in Bedouin culture, meat cooking is very distinct. Can you tell me a little bit more? I consider you a meat master. Without sharing all your trade secrets, what is the key to a really well-cooked meat?

Mo: The reason Bedouins eat a lot of meat, and why lamb is such a staple, is because of the nomadic culture. Animals, like lamb, become a food that can go around with them. And their whole culture is around finding ways for the animals to survive more than anything. So they’re basically looking for food for their animals. So obviously, their wealth is in their stock, right? So when a guest comes and you slaughter an animal for them for food, it’s an honor. You’re giving part of your wealth. So that’s why we cook a lot of lamb — especially for celebrations and azoumehs. It’s a very interesting food.

Reem: It’s so significant in our culture.

Mo: Yeah, definitely. I feel like people don’t understand how different it is from beef. Beef has, like some lean parts and some fatty parts and some strenuous parts. Each part is completely different. Whereas lamb is a smaller animal. And the fat is distributed somewhat evenly throughout the whole animal. And you’re really only eating, you know, the two legs and the shoulders. That’s pretty much it. That’s where all the meat is. 

Reem: That’s true.

Mo: The lamb back home is a different breed than what we have here. The main way to cook lamb is to braise it or boil it.

Reem: So cooking it in a liquid of some sort.

Mo: Exactly. Adding — in Arabic we call them mutayabat. Basically stuff that has nice smells. To counteract the lambiness of lamb, if you will. 

Reem: That’s such an Arab thing.[laughter] I feel like we do that with fish. 

Mo: With lamb, like with the qidreh we boil it with a lot of spices like cinnamon, bay leaf, black pepper, and cardamom. These are staple seasonings for lamb. So any dish that has lamb in it has these aromatics. When my grandmother would make a whole shoulder or leg, it was basically braised then roasted. 

Reem: We do the same thing at Reem’s. 

Mo: So you get that nice, fall-off-the bone situation, but also the crispy bits. 

Reem: Oh yeah, that’s my favorite. Well, this is making me hungry. I just want to say that it’s really fun getting to see other Arab chefs all over the country getting our time. Arabs have contributed to the cuisine in this country for so long but because of anti-Arab sentiment our food has sometimes been hidden away behind subdued flavors. But I feel like we’re really pushing the edge and people love it. And we’re getting to redefine Arab cuisine as it really is. It is exciting to see that happen. So congratulations on all your success as well!  And let’s go eat!