How to Make Creamy Hummus with Crispy Spiced Lamb
Chef Reem Assil’s new cookbook paints a beautiful portrait of the Arab diaspora.
Reem Assil hasn’t always been an award-winning chef. In fact, she barely knew it was something she could pursue professionally. Despite growing up surrounded by classic Arab dishes like knafeh, hummus, and Musakhan, the Palestinian-Syrian virtuoso had been pursuing a career in the nonprofit industry until a trip altered her path forever.
“Food had always been calling me—I knew I wanted to work with it some way,” Assil says. “But it wasn’t until I went to Syria and Lebanon with my father that I had an aha moment, thinking to myself, ‘I want to recreate the feeling I have in these food spaces back home in California.’”
And thus began Assil’s food journey, opening a bakery in Oakland (which now serves as a commissary kitchen), being named a 2018 James Beard Semi-Finalist for Best Chef Wes, and is currently nominated for James Beard Outstanding Chef. All her efforts have led to her first cookbook, Arabiyya, which debuts on April 19.
Assil’s cookbook is more than a collection of recipes—it is a celebration of family and food, and an intimate exploration into the complexity of the Arab experience. It begins with pages on her childhood, discussing anything from being the daughter of a Palestinian refugee to memories of eating chocolate cake in diapers with her neighbor. Flipping through its pages feels eerily similar to the warmth of gatherings with loved ones, as she takes the reader through her life, complete with old family Polaroids and intimate wedding photos.
“I wanted to boldly tell the stories of Arabs in diaspora—not just our struggles and resilience—and to help a larger audience understand a culture and a region of the world that is often misunderstood,” she says. “It was very important to me to debunk any myths or break down any generalizations that people may have about Arabs. We are a complex people with a beautiful culture, and that is worth celebrating.”
The informative yet personal feel contributes to Assil’s larger goal, which is to share the flavors and beauty of Arab culture with as many people as possible, inviting anyone willing to read into her world of allspice and phyllo dough. “No matter where we are, through our food, Arabs find a way to create a sense of home,” she says.
Amongst the recipes of stuffed squid and flatbreads, Assil’s Hummus with Spiced Lamb is one of the more familiar dishes in the book, with a creamy chickpea-tahini base topped with crispy lamb breast and her own homemade chile-spice mix. The dish is undoubtedly versatile—Assil notes that whether you are serving the dish at a dinner party or making it at home as a snack, it is guaranteed to impress. “It’s a way of really upping the game on hummus and experiencing it the way Arabs do back in the homeland,” she says.
Assil seeks to showcase, cultivate, and pass on the experience of Arab food, and the dish is the perfect example. It is commonly referred to as hummus bil awarma, roughly translating to “meat preserved in its own fat.”
“The recipe represents the longstanding beauty and wealth of flavor that is the Arab experience,” she says. “Our preservation techniques root back all the way back to generations before, during war and famine when we needed to do these things to survive. But now awarma is a luxury and we can treat it in different ways.”
Despite the assumed simplicity of the dish, Assil warns that getting a smooth hummus is the biggest challenge. She recommends using a high-powered blender and peeling the chickpea skins, as well as making sure they are thoroughly blended before adding other ingredients. As for the lamb, other than picking the right meat, Assil likes to save the fat for future dishes like home fries or roasted vegetables.
“I love imagining how the people dipping into it are going to feel,” Assil says. “And, of course, I love eating the crispies of the meat as I’m cooking and preparing it!”
Hummus with Spiced Lamb Recipe
• 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
• 2 tablespoons Chile-Spice Mix, 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-Tahini Spread
1. In a small bowl, whisk together the salt, spice mix, and oil to make a viscous paste. On a small sheet tray, rub the lamb with the rub and let it sit, covered, at room temperature for 2 hours or marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
2. If the lamb has been marinated overnight, remove it from the refrigerator 1 hour before cooking to bring it to room temperature.
3. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
4. Pour the oil into a cast-iron skillet or heavy pan and warm over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, sear the lamb, browning each side for about 3 minutes or until a deep golden char is achieved. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 1 to 1½ hours or until the meat softens and easily pulls away from the bone.
5. Once cool enough to touch, pull the meat from the bone, coarsely chop it into bite-size pieces, and shred the pieces into strands. Reincorporate the juices and rendered fat into the pulled chopped meat.
6. Just before serving, reheat the cast-iron skillet and crisp the lamb, pressing the strands with a spatula, browning the bottoms and then flipping the meat to do the same on the other side. You should have a varied texture with a mix of crispy and soft pieces.
7. When ready to serve, scoop the hummus onto a plate or into a shallow bowl. Use the back of a spoon to form a moat between the outer edge and the center. Spoon the hot crispy lamb, along with its juices, into the well and garnish with a bit more oil and spice mix. The lamb can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
• 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 kosher salt
• 2 teaspoons dried lime, ground
• ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Toast the coriander, cardamom, and cumin in a dry pan over medium heat until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. The spices will begin to dance around in the pan when they are close to being done. Be careful not to let them burn.
2. Once they are slightly darker in color and fragrant, remove them from the pan and let cool completely.
3. Then grind them to a coarse powder in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Mix with the Aleppo pepper, salt, dried lime, and cinnamon.
Chickpea Tahini Spread
• ¾ cup dried chickpeas, or one 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
• ¼ teaspoon baking soda (for dried chickpeas only)
• 2 garlic cloves
• 5 tablespoons lemon juice (about 2 lemons), plus more as needed
• 1½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
• ¼ cup ice water, plus more as needed
• ½ cup tahini
• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
• 1 teaspoon sumac for garnish
• 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or Chile-Spice Mix for garnish
1. If using dried chickpeas, soak the chickpeas overnight or for at least 12 hours.
2. Drain the chickpeas, place them in a small pot with the baking soda, and cover the beans with about 6 inches of clean water. Bring to a boil, skim, discard the residue from the water’s surface, and decrease the heat to a simmer over medium heat. Cook, uncovered, until the beans soften, about 30 minutes. Test for doneness by squeezing a bean between your thumb and forefinger. A perfect bean crushes easily but does not turn to mush. Drain in a colander when done cooking.
3. Immerse the beans in a bowl of cold water and rub between your palms, pouring off any skins that float to the surface. Drain and repeat two or three times. If using canned chickpeas, repeat the same step, rubbing off as many skins as you can. Reserve 2 tablespoons for garnish.
4. Combine the remaining chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, and salt in a food processor and pulse. Add the ice water. Blend at high speed for 5 minutes, until no lumps remain. (Yes, that’s right, for 5 minutes. Set a timer and walk away.) At the 5-minute mark, slowly drizzle the tahini into the mixture on medium speed. The mix should be airy and form stiff peaks. If it’s the texture of ice cream, it’s too thick, so add additional ice water as needed. Adjust the lemon juice and salt to taste.
5. When ready to serve, scoop the hummus onto a plate or into a shallow bowl. Use the back of a spoon to form a moat between the outer edge and the center. Drizzle your canvas copiously with olive oil and garnish decoratively with the reserved whole chickpeas, sumac, and Aleppo pepper. Hummus can be stored, ungarnished, in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.