Food & Drink
Sara Assad-Mannings

Meet Bunhead, the Palestinian baker advocating for Gaza from her Herne Hill shop

“Palestine, south London and food are the pillars of my identity,” says Sara Assad-Mannings, the mastermind behind Bunhead bakery, her brand that also encompasses all three.

Her home-cooked Palestinian-inspired buns were initially a passion project during lockdown – now she sells out in a couple of hours at south London markets.

It’s a success, something I had to wrestle the humble Assad-Mannings to admit, because for the half-Palestinian baker, it is more than a pat on the back that she can bake a good bun.

Her business has her homeland at its core and a purpose – to show solidarity during a time of war and tragedy and inspire others to follow.

Immediately after Israel launched its war on Gaza, Assad-Mannings, 29, feared for her country’s existence.

“I was genuinely scared there was no more Palestine, that Palestine was going to be erased,” she says.

She thinks of her family, her mum’s brothers and sisters live in the West Bank and are facing increasing settler violence.

Her dad, who is British but lived there for six years, also has friends in Gaza. At the time we met, about four months after the war began, almost 30,000 civilians had died.

Such devastation and lack of intervention from western governments to help Gaza left Assad-Mannings “horrified” but she says the resilience of her people back home “has fortified my sense of purpose or my sense of self and what I want to do with the business”.

And that, for Assad-Mannings is to keep her culture alive, and food is her way of doing that.

At her new permanent bakery in Herne Hill, set to open next month, she will continue selling her buns infused with Palestinian ingredients and flavours.

She will be selling the Baklava bun, the customers’ favourite, alongside others made with tahini and grape molasses, orange and cardamom, white chocolate and pistachio, and her novelty salty bun featuring Palestinian za-atar, feta and chilli, Assad-Mannings professed favourite.

While buns will be the sole focus, her bakery cum deli will also sell other Palestinian dishes including hummus, sumac, bread, hand-made dips, mezze plates and desserts – her precious and lifelong favourite Knafeh will also be on offer.

There will be a coffee bar, run by her business partner and best friend from university Georgia Wickremeratne – also from south London.

Sara Assad-Mannings, right, and Georgia Wickremeratne
Credit: Sara Assad-Mannings

As well as an incredibly delicious experience, she sees her buns as a “form of resistance” and a way of advocating for Palestine alongside protesters, charities, and those on social media.

Instead of focusing the conversation around tragedy, her business is here to showcase a different side, one through tastes, smells and new ingredients.

“Anyone can come and be introduced to Palestinian culture, as in not pertaining to the conflict, important as it is. It is worth showcasing Palestinian joy for what it is, outside of its trauma,” she says.

Despite her strong ethos she is hesitant to call herself an activist, she admits she has lost hope that any form of protest, including pro-Palestine marches which she has attended since October, will instigate change.

While the UN Security Council has since voted for a ceasefire in Gaza during Ramadan in March, little has changed on the ground.

Instead, she thinks resistance is a way to show Palestinians they are not alone. “I think it is more for people in Palestine, in Gaza, to see the solidarity.

“It is more of an act of love and solidarity than it is affecting change.” She adds: “This is not to say marches aren’t important, the world should know we will not stop fighting.”

Tahini and grape molasses bun and the customers’ favourite, the Baklava bun
Credit: Sara Assad-Mannings

Assad-Mannings hopes to foster a community around her bakery where everyone will feel welcome.

A supportive network has already taken shape, with hundreds of loyal customers donating to the Bunhead Bakery crowdfunder which has raised £12,673.

The business duo are currently busy at work, and are designing the shop to match the open and inclusive atmosphere they hope to promote.

On entering Assad-Mannings will be visible making the buns and goodies on a big table behind the coffee counter. “I want it to feel like you are coming into my home,” she says.

And south London is home. Assad-Mannings would prefer to identify as being from south London and Palestine – having been born in Camberwell and raised in Streatham Hill, she now lives in Gypsy Hill.

She says: “This is where my people are, and in my experience we want to support Palestine.”

Having such deep roots in a country she has only visited – albeit regularly – is testament to her sense of belonging, but landing in her identity is not something that came easy to Assad-Mannings growing up.

“I didn’t always attach myself fully to being Palestinian because it felt like quite a heavy thing. When I tell people I am Palestinian you get all kinds of responses to that.”

She tells me that when she was younger and on nights out, drunk people would say “don’t you mean you’re Israeli, that doesn’t exist does it?” when she revealed her heritage.

She says in response, she would make an offhand remark, without revealing how it made her question who she was.

When I asked her how she would react now if someone was to confront her about her stance on the conflict, she said she would stand up for what she believes in.

“I’m constantly thinking if I feel like this, how do my family in the West Bank feel, how do people in Gaza feel? All it takes is for me to be a bit brave. It is nothing compared to what people in Palestine are experiencing.” 

However, Assad-Mannings is the first to admit there are two sides to the war.

Referring to the Hamas attack on Israel she says: “What happened on October 7 was horrendous, obviously. What has happened since has exposed to the world what Palestinians have lived through for decades.”

Assad-Mannings has since lost followers over her pro-Gaza content on Instagram – where she shares pictures of pro-Palestine marches, content from people living in Gaza and resources on how to support Palestine on @bunheadbakes, her account with over 5.6k followers.

However, indicated she would rather lose them than be silent. “You can’t scare me and you can’t make my integrity or my identity waiver.”

Assad-Mannings sells out at markets in hours
Credit: Sara Assad-Mannings

Assad-Mannings up to this point, had been running her brand as a one-woman show.

During lockdown she was delivering buns to homes from Twickenham to Greenwich twice a week, and has since been a regular at weekend markets across the south, including Crystal Palace Park Market, Salad Days, Peckham car boot sale and Catfood Food Market.

She admits she can no longer attend friend’s birthdays on weekends and it’s rare to spend time with her boyfriend Dom.

Her one-bedroom flat has been turned into a home bakery, and her wardrobe is lined with shelves of cooking ingredients, flour bins and two extra fridges.

The line between her as a person and her business is blurred with her bunhead logo also taking form from Assad-Mannings herself.

On the two occasions we have met, her thick curls are always secured in a bun on the top of her head. She says: “Bunhead isn’t the entirety of me but I am bunhead and it is my personality. That is the thing that people respond so well to, and that is a very affirming feeling.”

She admits the close affiliation between the two can also be a curse.

“I get imposter syndrome all the time. I often feel like my buns aren’t that good. People eat them and say they are amazing, but I’m like you’re lying. Then I eat them and think they are quite nice actually.” Her solution? A work phone.

But it hasn’t been a straight-forward career. Unlike many successful bakers, Assad-Mannings has no formal culinary training – she graduated from Leeds Met University with a film degree before embarking on a career in TV production management, later deciding it wasn’t her calling.

But cooking and baking have always been an undercurrent throughout her life.

At 11, she made muffins for her dad’s meetings and from then on would cook for the family most nights. It was at the age of 15 working in a patisserie in Clapham that her vision of being a baker took shape.

At 16 she pleaded to go to culinary school in France, but was persuaded to stay and do her A-levels, something she doesn’t regret. 

Bunhead came almost ten years later, and seemed like an almost spur of the moment decision.

Trying out a new way to use sourdough during lockdown, Assad-Mannings found a recipe online and took her far-from-perfected buns to her sister’s house.

In turn her sister thought they were delicious and gave her the idea to sell them. “She said, ‘You should call it Bunhead,’ that was literally it.”

It was only through a recent trip to Dijon, France, when she visited many patisseries that Assad-Mannings had a full-circle moment. “I was like I could have been doing this my whole life. I don’t have regrets about it because I liked the trajectory that my life took, but I always knew this was what I wanted to do.”

And it is like all of life’s wonders, that good things come when you are least expecting it.

For Assad-Mannings who has built her livelihood on this business, showcased her identity and is able to use it as a platform to advocate for Palestine, it is funny it comes down to buns.

It is even funnier when she tells me: “I’d never even particularly liked buns. Not that I didn’t like buns, but it was never something I felt especially passionate about.”

Where her true passion lies is evident and in her final words, which encompass all of what she stands for, she says: “Free Palestine.”

Feature image credit: Jasmine Charles

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