Meet Philip Juma: The London chef celebrating Iraqi culture through food
Reflecting on his mixed English-Irish-Iraqi background, Juma recalls fond memories of his childhood growing up in London, eating traditional Iraqi dishes on special occasions.
"Dolma, kubba, mezze, leg of lamb, rice with pine nuts and sultanas, I remember so many beautiful spreads," Juma told The New Arab.
"As I grew older I could see how labour intensive and intricate it was too. Having a mix of both Arab and Western culture made me realise just how special Iraqi cuisine was," he said.
However, it wasn't a straight path into the food business for Juma, who after studying Economics for Business at university went on to pursue a career in finance for several years.
Whilst he continued to cook at home during this time, it wasn't until he quit his career in finance that he realised that food was a consistent, prominent thread in his life, and decided to explore his passion further.
"I decided to work in kitchens for free and learn, and I loved it. That was the start of my journey," said Juma.
|Philip Juma is the founder and head chef of JUMA Kitchen, a restaurant business celebrating the best of Iraqi cuisine in a bid to highlight the country's rich, but often overlooked, cultural heritage|
In 2013, Juma carefully crafted a tasting menu of traditional Iraqi dishes including different variations of kubba and dolma and founded JUMA Kitchen as a supper club.
At the time, London's street food scene was exploding and Juma spotted a lack of representation of traditional Iraqi cuisine.
"There was Vietnamese, Korean, Sri Lankan, and Ethiopian cuisines getting a lot of love, but Iraqi food was nowhere to be seen. So I decided to host a supper club - I didn't know what I was doing, I just knew I wanted to cook and give people the food I grew up eating."
Word about the supper club spread fast, leading to a fortnightly food column for Juma in the London Evening Standard. From this, he went on to cook for The Financial Time's summer fair at Kenwood House and taught Iraqi cuisine at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu cookery school in Firenze, Italy.
Now almost seven years later, JUMA Kitchen has evolved into a catering and events business, and the first bricks and mortar site was opened in Borough Market in November of 2019.
Subverting stereotypes about Iraq
Juma's love for Iraqi food runs deeper than the tantalising tastes and flavours. His appreciation for the cuisine is delicately tied to a sense of intense pride for his cultural heritage, something that manifests in his vision for JUMA Kitchen.
"I want to highlight the beauty and richness of Iraq, to show that the country has more to offer than what we are shown on the news," he told The New Arab.
It is with an appreciation for the power of food to break down barriers that Juma strives to introduce the world to an Iraq that is more authentic and less limiting than what is seen in the mainstream media.
|I want to highlight the beauty and richness of Iraq, to show that the country has more to offer than what we are shown on the news|
One highlight for Juma has been the incredible response to his food from non-Iraqis who are trying the cuisine for the first time.
"They have never experienced anything like it before. The kubba has always been a consistent dish that has given the biggest wow factor. Whether its kubba haleb, potato chap, kubba Mosul, or kubba hamuth - they are loved by all!"
As well as building bridges and educating people about Iraqi culture, Juma also hopes that through food he can help to build a stronger community of Iraqis in London and bring the diaspora together through his cooking.
"They're a hard bunch to please," he says of his anxiety when cooking for other Iraqis, but goes on to say that JUMA Kitchen has received a huge amount of support and positive feedback from the Iraqi diaspora in London, who consider the venture a point of pride.
Response to Covid-19
As the UK's lockdown measures came into place in late March in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, JUMA Kitchen's Borough Market base was forced to shut down just 5 months after it opened.
"It is such a difficult situation for everyone. I couldn't believe it, my dream, like many other restaurateurs, was gone and there was nothing I could do about it," said Juma.
Juma and other vendors at Borough Market have been particularly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic as they don't pay business rates and as a result are not eligible for any grants from the government. Borough Market have been putting pressure on the UK government for help, but the process has been slow.
Despite this hardship, Juma has continued to push through and keep cooking, donating his food to the NHS heroes initiative to give back to the people on the frontline of the pandemic in the UK.
Every Friday Juma cooks a big batch of food and delivers it to front-line staff at hospitals in London. Meals have come in the form of traditional Iraqi dishes such as bamia, biriyani, and dolma.
The idea came about after lockdown was announced and Juma appealed for help by offering gift vouchers to people whereby they can buy now and redeem later when the restaurant opens again.
"So many people were so receptive for this which lead to me delivering little 'thank you' parcels of humous and kleicha for anyone who purchased a gift voucher. While I was doing those, I noticed I had quite a lot of leftover okra in the freezer, so I decided to cook a big batch of bamia and deliver that to the NHS," he told The New Arab.
The response was so strong from both NHS workers on the receiving end and the wider community that he has cooked a new batch of meals every Friday since, in a continued effort to build community and support others through food.
Sahar Esfandiari is a British-Iranian writer focused on the Middle East and its diaspora
Follow her on Twitter: @saharesfandiari