Philip Juma, Iraqi Chef In London, Talks To Yalla
What was the first Iraqi dish you recall eating as a child? What can you remember about that experience?
Dolma!!! My first memory was of my aunties, who came over from Iraq, spending hours in the kitchen – soaking, marinating, stuffing, and rolling the onions, peppers and vine leaves. I remember my dad bringing out a huge, upside down saucepan and revealing it at the dinner table. WOW! Those memories have never left me – the steam, the smells and the taste was unforgettable.
How important to you is your Iraqi heritage?
It’s really important to me. As I’ve got older and witnessed what has happened to Iraq, I’ve grown more aware of my family’s heritage and history. It is through food that I want to keep that heritage alive.
Where and how did you learn to cook Iraqi food?
I learnt through watching my father and the rest of the Juma family. There are limited cookbooks and restaurants (in London) around Iraqi cuisine so I had to teach myself. I am a self-taught chef. It took me over a year to finally master making dolma, and I am still learning.
How would you describe your path to where you are today?
I studied Economics For Business and for 6 years I worked in the finance sector – stock broking and wealth management. While in finance, I could see that food and cooking was my true calling. 2012 is when I made the commitment to put Iraqi cuisine on the map in London (and the world!)
How do people outside of Iraq react to your cooking and to Iraqi food in general?
They love it. I really enjoy cooking Kubba Hamuth for guests. They absolutely love the smells, the texture, and the flavour. As a cuisine, people don’t really know what Iraqi cuisine is, but after they come to a JUMA event, they are pleasantly surprised that Iraqi cuisine has it’s own unique identity and fantastic flavour.
Are you inspired by any Iraqi chefs? Why?
There is one person who has been a great friend and mentor, Nawal Nasrallah. She is someone who I have learnt a lot from. It’s the elder generations responsibility to pass on their amazing secrets and recipes. Or more importantly, it’s the youngsters responsibility to ask and learn from their elders.
What advice would you give to an aspiring Iraqi chef?
Learn the fundamentals. Iraqi cuisine can be labour intensive. Be patient, and don’t take shortcuts. Use the best ingredients possible. When it comes to food, use the best possible ingredients.
What marks out Iraqi cuisine from any other? Why is it different?
Kubba, Quozi and Masgouf are all true Iraqi dishes. What makes them different? It’s the spice blends and textures that make them different from other cuisines. Not to mention that Iraqi food is the food of civilisation as it began!
What can you tell us about how exactly you take this cuisine to the people?
I founded JUMA Kitchen (@JumaKitchen) in 2012. I host ‘pop-ups’ in various venues across London, where I hold an Iraqi tasting menu and invite Londoners to come and try this little known cuisine.
What first motivated you to want to show Iraqi cuisine off to Londoners?
There was not a big presence of Iraqi chefs or restaurants in London. I grew up eating some amazing dishes and the fact that Londoners were not being educated with this amazing food, I wanted to change this.
How have Iraqis in the diaspora responded to your cooking?
They have welcomed it and been really supportive. Every Iraqi has their own way of doing things – bigger kubba, different spice, less salt, etc. But I’m very comfortable with my cooking style – I cook how I want to cook.
Can food and other aspects of culture contribute to mending Iraq’s recent tough history? How?
Food is a great place to start. Food is the universal language of the world and I know it can break cultural barriers. If Iraqi food can bring people together, (Iraqi, non-Iraqi, Christian, Muslim, Sunni, Shia) and connect people in a positive setting, then food can change the world.
How easily can Iraqis reading/being inspired by your recipes go out, get the ingredients and make the things you describe?
The ingredients are all readily available. If I use anything that is out of the ordinary, I will provide a substitute.
Iraqis know this cuisine … what do you hope to show them?
I hope to show them a modern, new, contemporary way of presenting and serving Iraqi food.
Make Philip’s amazing bourek with Yalla’s exclusive recipe here.