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A Palestinian-Syrian chef's cookbook invites people to see any meal as a celebration

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Ramadan and its monthlong period of fasting ends this weekend, which means its closing feast is upon us - Eid al-Fitr. And for many Arabs, that means cookies.

REEM ASSIL: Super time intensive to prepare, but it has sort of the texture of a fluffy shortbread. And we stuff it with primarily dates. That's, like, the most popular filling. But I grew up having it with a walnut, sugar and cinnamon mixture.

KELLY: That's Reem Assil, owner of the Reem's California bakeries. She says her family used to make these cookies every year, not just at Eid but for other holidays.

ASSIL: Anyone who's made ma'amoul will know when you stick it in that mold, you have to slam it on the table. And it's, like, the most satisfying thing to get that cookie with the beautiful design but also to take out your aggression.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Reem Assil's recipe for ma'amoul appears in her new cookbook, "Arabiyya: Recipes From The Life Of An Arab In Diaspora." She told us it's part cookbook, part memoir about how 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 has often celebrated Eid.

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

KELLY: Right.

ASSIL: You know, you wake up on Eid morning, and you put on a new set of clothing. It's like you're - it's like a rebirth. You know, every Ramadan is a chance to reset your life, and Eid is like your coming out. So everybody is kind of their best, happy selves.

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

ASSIL: Oh, so this Eid, I get to be with my family. So we are going to hopefully be making stuffed grape leaves, which is not my favorite to make, but I love doing it with people. It's another communal act of filling and rolling. We like to stuff everything.

KELLY: Right.

ASSIL: Definitely lamb and spiced rice of some sort - lamb is a very essential meal on the table - and, of course, our ma'amoul.

KELLY: Your cookies - there you go.

ASSIL: Yep.

KELLY: The whole Part 1 of the book is about Arab hospitality. It's titled...

ASSIL: Yeah.

KELLY: ..."How To Host Like An Arab."

ASSIL: Yes.

KELLY: Give me a - lay out a couple of the most important principles of that.

ASSIL: Yeah. I mean, the biggest tenet of Arab hospitality is that it's a virtue. You're supposed to make anyone who comes into your home, friends and strangers alike, feel like they are at ease and that they are safe and they have a sense of belonging. And I always say Arab hospitality is about abundance, just making folks feel like they're well taken care of. And it's like sweet torture, you know. Even when you're full, we feed you more.

(LAUGHTER)

ASSIL: Yeah. It's just there are so many situations in which, particularly in the Arab world, they don't have the privilege of abundance. So to be able to create abundance in the midst of political turmoil or occupation, Arabs really know how to make even hardships be delicious, nourishing meals. So...

KELLY: Give me an example. It - you get to cook with your mom for this Eid. If I got to show up - and I think everybody listening wishes we could come have (laughter) - come eat...

ASSIL: Oh, yeah. Come on over.

KELLY: Come eat. Yeah. OK, we will take you up on it.

ASSIL: Yeah.

KELLY: What would you be serving us? How would you welcome us?

ASSIL: Yeah. You got to - you have to host at the drop of a dime. So if you were at my mother's house, guaranteed, she would have something made and frozen. She would have chicken stock. I think she would probably pull out and marinate a chicken, stuff it with rice, get it in the oven (laughter) or make a one-pot, you know, chicken soup.

KELLY: Does your mom cook from your cookbook, by the way, or is she like, oh, no?

ASSIL: Oh, my goodness. Well...

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

ASSIL: Yeah. Well, you know, it's so interesting because my mom moved to this country coming from civil war in Lebanon, when she didn't - she, in fact, did not know how to cook. And she was, you know, kind of forced by her circumstances to learn. So I didn't - you know, I got my inspiration and my flavor profiles from my mom, but I didn't in fact learn how to cook from her. And so when I got older and learned these recipes, it was really nice. She would, like, call me for tidbits on how to make a certain dish.

KELLY: Oh, that's great.

ASSIL: And that made me feel really proud in my career. But my mom is an excellent - take what you have and whip it together. She was just so good at creating these meals that feel lavish in, like, 30 minutes or less. You know, I think for us, the joy of cooking is to cook on our own terms. And my mom always cooked on her own terms, and that's why her food was so delicious.

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

ASSIL: Well, you know, hummus existed long before the state of Israel was created in 1948, and so there is an intentional omission of Palestinian (laughter). And that invisibilizes (ph) me - you know? - the fact not just that Israeli hummus is the Trader Joe's hummus, the, you know, the Americanized versions of hummus...

KELLY: Chocolate hummus and - yeah.

ASSIL: ...Hummus being put in every - Yeah, chocolate hummus is, like, blasphemous.

KELLY: (Laughter) As an American, I will second that.

ASSIL: And it feels - yeah. That sort of, you know, whether intentional or not intentional, devoiding food from its - cutting it off from its lineage and negating a whole people that enjoyed and subsisted off of that food for generations is really dangerous. You know, for Palestinians, we don't have much left. You know, we - you know, a lot of our lands have been taken from us. Our - you know, we've been cut off from our foodways. So our food is like the last frontier of, you know, marking our identity. And so it's really important for me as a chef here in this country to be able to talk about that food and have people question where the food comes from.

KELLY: Gets into all kinds of interesting questions about how food, like everything else, is political.

ASSIL: It is. It's inherently political - you know, the fact that I am able to cook food that my grandmother couldn't cook because she was displaced from her homeland.

KELLY: Well, I love the - what I took away as one of your goals with this cookbook is the invitation to all of us to think about how any meal can be welcoming, can be a celebration over at Eid (ph). It's a really lovely way of thinking about food and the role it can play in our lives.

ASSIL: Yes, absolutely. I mean, when I created my restaurants, you know, seven years ago, I wanted anybody to walk into Reem's and feel at home, whether they knew anything about Arab food or not. And I hope that people get that out of this book.

KELLY: We have been speaking with Reem Assil, author of the new cookbook "Arabiyya." Congratulations on the book launch, and happy cooking this weekend.

ASSIL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET'S "LOVE SALAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Linah Mohammad