Rediscovering Communal Ramadan Meals Brought Me Back To My Purpose As a Chef
As an Arab in the diaspora, dishes like lemony lentil soup hold much meaning (and flavor) for chef Reem Assil.
I remember the morning I marched into the kitchen and declared to my parents that I would fast for Ramadan. I was seven years old and decided it was time for this rite of passage. I wanted to feel the sense of accomplishment I saw in adults around me when we sat down over elaborate meals for one special month each year, whether mujaddara (rice lentil pilaf) at home or Pakistani biryani at iftars (the traditional meal to break fast) at our local mosque. My parents cautiously let me try half-days once in a while, but I’d forget that I was fasting and pop cereal or potato chips into my mouth. Mortified at breaking my fast, the only consolation was my mother’s words: “That’s okay. God made you forget to give you a break; your fast is not broken.”
I grew up in a Palestinian Syrian household in the suburbs of Boston, where our Muslim cultural traditions, especially as they related to food, were seamlessly interwoven with our Arab identity. As an Arab in the diaspora, I wanted to feel a sense of community and belonging. Nothing accomplished that like Ramadan, when breaking fast meant creating togetherness. It was the one time of year we gathered weekly at potlucks with other Arab families and enjoyed specialties I typically only saw during this holy month—like Amarideen, an apricot juice made from fruit leather from Syria, or Shorbat Addas, a light lemony red lentil soup sprinkled with fried pita chips. At any given Azoumeh (“gathering” or “invitation” as we call it in Arabic), a sweet cheese phyllo knafeh delicacy was also sure to show up.
During visits back to Syria and Lebanon while I was a child, I remember how the cities in those countries came to life after sunset during Ramadan. For that first hour of darkness, the streets went quiet; everyone was in their homes praying and enjoying the first bite to break fast with their loved ones. But soon after, whole families spilled out onto the streets. Bakeries, restaurants, and vendors opened for business, releasing aromas of orange-blossom-drenched desserts and hot steamy bread. Every block was filled with mouthwatering scents.
More than the food, I remember the camaraderie I experienced both in my Arab American household and back in Damascus, Beirut, or Gaza—communities joined in restraint and also the joy of nourishment. I felt proud to be part of a culture so rich in food and celebration of life. Moving away to college (and then eventually to California to embark on a new career in community organizing) marked a sharp turn away from those weekly gatherings. Instead, I found myself hurriedly cracking small bags of Dorritos to break my fast between midterms. Early morning suhours (the meal we had as a family right before sunrise) slowly disappeared, too, as the long hours of my non-profit job often meant missing occasions to break bread with friends who observed Ramadan. Even the dinners I prepared for myself lost meaning when I lost physical connection with my family and entered adult life away from them.
In 2010, I traveled to Syria and Lebanon during the month of Ramadan to reconnect with my roots after an almost 10-year absence since 9/11. At that time, I was desperately searching for a sign to point me to my purpose. I had been estranged from my family and had gone through multiple life transformations. I feared that they would not accept a girl from America as their own. And yet they did with open arms. My greatest memory was snacking on the rooftop and chatting over generous spreads of labneh, zaatar, and bread pastries paired with a perfectly prepared argileh (a traditional water pipe with apple-flavored tobacco) until a mere hour before sunrise. We’d sleep throughout the afternoon and wake up when it was time to make a meal for iftars. I returned to the U.S. knowing that my purpose would involve recreating the communal eating that was so magical to me on that trip. It brought me closer to my path to opening Reem’s California, my bakery and restaurant.
Today, remembering Ramadan traditions gives me much joy. At Reem’s, I’m now able to provide the sense of belonging I once felt—then lost—growing up in the diaspora. I love celebrating this month with Arab specialties from around the Arab world—whether it’s Atayef (yeasted stuffed pancakes drenched in syrup from the Levant), or Harira (Moroccan lentil soup). This is my opportunity to pull out all the stops for the Reem’s community—no matter their religion—to enjoy the delicacies of the holiday. Because my culture, after all, is one of community building, and if there is a month I strongly associate with that, it’s Ramadan.
Reem Assil’s new cookbook, Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora (Ten Speed Press), comes out April 19.