Philip Juma's newly opened food stall in London's prestigious Borough Market is aiming to change perceptions of Iraq in the western world through its rich and authentic cuisine. He opened Juma Kitchen, his first permanent site in Borough, in late November, serving the small and carefully crafted selection of handmade kubba, otherwise known as Iraqi dumplings, which are an essential part of the country's food culture. "It is a huge step and a milestone for Iraqi cuisine to be visible to a western audience," says the British-Iraqi chef.
Juma hopes his signature dishes portray a different side of Iraq to the world, one that moves away from what the country has endured over the years. “You cannot say Iraq these days without something else being included with what the country has gone through. It’s so sad,” he said.
Juma, who attended the University of Leeds and is a former equity broker, grew up eating the food of his father's homeland, remembering hours spent in the kitchen watching his relatives prepare numerous dishes for gatherings. For Juma, having a place in Borough is more than about simply serving food, but a portrayal of what Iraq is truly about, something he describes as "magical". "Iraqis love their community, having a connection, identity and, most importantly, the cuisine. It's heart-warming," he says.
Even though it’s only been open for less than a month, Juma says his new stall has given a boost to London’s Iraqi community. “What I felt and witnessed from the Iraqi community has been beyond beautiful. The support and how proud everyone is of this project means so much to me.”
Many Iraqis feel a sense of nostalgia and begin to reminisce about the “good old days” after taking a bite of Juma’s delicious food. “There’s something that gets triggered in them about their identity and nostalgia of how Iraq was and how it should be.”
One bite of his kubba and their "faces light up", he adds. It is one of the country's most quintessential dishes. It comes in a variety of textures and shapes and usually has a shell of rice and is stuffed with minced lamb or beef. There are three main types – kubba haleb, potato chap and kubba hamuth – which Juma serves in his unit. Kubba haleb is a fried croquette of yellow rice stuffed with beef. It is crunchy and chewy, and leaves people wanting more.
Potato chap, on the other hand, has a shell of mashed potatoes, which is stuffed with minced meat – either beef or lamb. It is shallow-fried until golden and crispy. Finally, kubba hamuth is made up of a mix of ground rice and minced beef, while the inside is stuffed with minced lamb and beef that's blended with onions and spices. A thick tomato sauce is added to it, along with turnips, and it's served hot. All the meat he uses is halal.
For Juma, making kubba is an art form. “They are so unique, labour intensive and intricate,” he admits. “It’s quite amusing when you serve them to people, as they are scoffed down in two seconds.” But, he says, you can’t get more Iraqi than the trio he serves, adding that he could eat a thousand of them in one go. “There are so many stories associated with the various kinds of kubba in Iraq. Each family does it differently and conversations are usually sparked between families on the techniques of how they are made.”
Juma’s own recipes reflect the region’s rich heritage and strong culinary traditions. “It’s that moment when Iraqis are eating my food, and where I take them, which is always to a happy place. That really is something special … My heart is so full.”
Despite the strong start, the road ahead for Juma Kitchen remains tough, as awareness of what Iraqi food consists of is low in London. "The competition will be fierce in Borough, but the real challenge will be to get through to people, as the majority of visitors, let's say around 95 per cent, may have never tried the cuisine before," he says. Even though Borough Market is a touristic spot, it's not always busy, and convincing customers to try something new can be difficult.
“There is Thai, Mexican, Indian food, then you get me with the Iraqi cuisine… I have to win their hearts and present Iraqi food on a global scale.”
Still, Juma believes there’s plenty of potential for the cuisine on the world’s culinary stage. “So many people try kubba and come back straight away for more. This is proof that it can work and it can happen.”