"When I first started, people were telling me, 'Go Middle Eastern. Don't go Iraqi,'" says chef Philip Juma, as he opens a bag of dried limes in a North London kitchen. "Friends, family—they were all telling me to play it down because of the sensitivity of the media and its depiction of Iraq."
Turning against the initial advice of his friends and family, Juma has spent the past four years cooking for JUMA Kitchen, his proudly Iraqi supper club. He hopes that by introducing London diners to creative, flavour-filled Iraqi cooking, he can show another side to the country—one that the news headlines don't always capture.
"Culture, art, music, history, heritage—that's not at the forefront of people's mind when we hear the word 'Iraq,'" Juma says, chopping a handful of pistachios. "It's a war, not a country. A concept of a people as opposed to a people themselves."
He hands me some freshly made kubba halab, a fried croquette of yellow rice, stuffed with lamb and dipped in mango puree.
"The most common thing people ask me is, 'What is Iraqi cuisine?'" Juma continues. "I'd describe it as Lebanese and Turkish meets Indian. You've got your lemony fresh salads, your grilled meats, your lamb. But on top of that, there's an injection of the spice trail from India—cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, rose."
Juma wasn't always a chef. He studied economics at Leeds University and worked for five years as an equity broker at various finance and wealth management companies in the City.
"At the time, the financial crisis was happening. A lot of the news was filled with rogue trading, things like that," he remembers. "I wasn't happy inside myself. I was in a place where I was thinking, 'What am I doing? What am I part of? What am I contributing?'"
So Juma quit, choosing to explore a fondness for cooking he developed while studying, inspired heavily by his Iraqi aunties.
"When my aunties would come, it'd be days in the kitchen. Rolling the vine leaves, stuffing the onion shells, doing the dolma. Honestly, days," he laughs. "When you're younger, you're so unappreciative. You just shovel it down you and go. As I got older, I got more connected with it. The food I grew up eating was nowhere to be seen. This was the motivation behind JUMA Kitchen—to fill that gap."
Juma usually cooks a five-course tasting menu at his supper clubs and brunch events, showcasing traditional Iraqi dishes with new flavour twists that draw on his British upbringing.
"The whole idea was targeting non-Iraqis. I wanted to bridge that cultural gap," he says.
JUMA Kitchen's first diners were mainly Brits intrigued by idea of trying a new cuisine. But when word got around, the Iraqi community came in increasing numbers.
"They were like, 'Hero, so proud, let's support him—even if Nanna does it better,'" Juma says.
Next, we try kubba yakhni: a steaming lamb dumpling broth with chickpea and kale. Juma tells me that his father, who emigrated to the UK from Mosul in 1971, wasn't immediately taken with the idea of an Iraqi super club.
"He started out asking, 'What are you doing? Iraq is finished. What do British people know about this cuisine?'" Juma remembers. "I wasn't having that. It gave me more impetus."
Three years later, his father visited a JUMA Kitchen dinner.
"He was just blown away. I think it was a pride thing, a memory from home. I also think it was nostalgia—and comfort."
Finally, we move onto dessert: baked kanafeh. Juma serves the traditional soft cheese and pastry dish topped with pistachio, rose petals, and blossom water. As I tuck into a gooey, fragrant mouthful, I realise that for Juma, the dinner table is not just a place to eat, but somewhere to discuss his heritage, away from the polemics of a fractured Iraq.
"My stand is just great food," he says. "And on that journey, if Iraqis can feel a new sense of life towards their own country and if non-Iraqis can see a whole new side to a country they know little about, then I am 100-percent for that."