For many years, Iraq has been synonymous with war, bloodshed and devastation. The negative media coverage over the past few decades has overshadowed the rich cultural heritage of the home of some of the oldest, most advanced civilisations in the world.
In order to help people understand and appreciate Iraq's rich culture and the true essence of the people, Philip Juma is hoping to connect Londoners with the country's rich and varied cuisine.
An economics for business graduate turned pop-up chef, Philip has always enjoyed cooking and was greatly influenced by his Iraqi father and aunties' dishes. While pursuing a career in economics, Philip spent his weekends and spare time in and out of London kitchens. After six years of working in the financial district, he decided to replace his suit with chef whites and embrace his passion full-time in 2012 when he established JUMA Kitchen.
JUMA aims to celebrate Iraqi food and introduce Londoners to the best of Iraq's cuisine, offering services such as private catering and pop-up dinners. While JUMA does not have a stationary restaurant in London, it has been organising London's only Iraqi Supperclub by hiring a venue or a restaurant and organising ticketed pop-up dinners. I went to one of JUMA's supperclub pop-ups in March and, put simply, the experience was wonderful.
With an empty stomach, I arrived at the London Kitchen project, a social enterprise that serves as a catering site during the day and hires out the space at night – this time to JUMA Kitchen. This particular pop-up was unique as it was a fundraiser for the AMAR Foundation, a charity that provides health, education and emergency aid in Iraq. Twenty-five per cent of the proceeds were being donated to the AMAR mental health campaign that aims to provide psychological support for girls traumatised and affected by Daesh's presence in the war-torn country.
Maysa, a member of AMAR's fundraising team, told MEMO that Iraq has been suffering ever since she was born, but there is more to Iraq than the negativity the media portrays. "An event like this is a great opportunity to focus on the culture and heritage of Iraq, which is so rich." An event like the pop-up kitchen gives those affected by the conflict a chance to rebuild their lives, she said.
The meal's five courses were all designed and cooked by Philip, JUMA's founder and head chef. We were eased into the meal with some Middle Eastern mezze classics: falafel, lamb bourek (similar to spring rolls) and baba ganoush (aubergine paste) were served alongside incredible spicy dips.
The starter was served soon after, boneless crispy chicken thigh served on wafer-layered potato, swimming in a subtly spiced saffron sauce and garnished with caramelised onions. The presentation was nothing short of exquisite, and the taste was even more so.
Next up was the second course, my personal favourite, kubba hamuth. This distinctive Iraqi dish is made of spicy lamb dumplings served in a rich tomato sauce, with turnips, onions and garlic. The mint garnish lifted the richness of the dish and gave it a memorable taste.
For the main course, the Iraqi signature dish, dolma, was served. Staff cleared a large space before a huge plate with an upside down pan on it was presented. All eyes turned towards Philip as he lifted the pan and revealed a steamy and aromatic pile of stuffed vegetables. Dolma, Philip's favourite and most memorable dish growing up, is made of tender lamb mince marinated in Iraqi spices with rice wrapped in vine leaves, onion shells and red and yellow peppers, slow cooked in lemon, garlic and pomegranate seed. It was served with French trimmed lamb chops and fattoush salad. The salad was a perfect complement to the meat and stuffed vegetables.
Finally, knafa was served for dessert; a semi-sweet pastry made of soft cheese and cream, and topped with blossom water and pistachios. I am familiar with several varieties of knafa as it is a traditional dessert throughout the Levant. However, I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least, as this tasted like no other.
With his evident passion for Iraqi food, Philip brought the supperclub alive through his talent and friendly personality. His traditional Iraqi dishes were prepared with a modern twist, giving diners a unique experience.
Diners seemed to all have a genuine interest in the cuisine and the visionary behind it. Everyone was encouraged to sit at communal tables and almost every table had an Iraqi or two on it. The Iraqi diners I spoke to applauded Philip's food. Others were there to try Iraqi food for the first time, and said they loved it and the experience.
Having married into an Iraqi family, I am no stranger to Iraqi food myself. I found Philip's food to be both authentic and contemporary, as he added his unique touch to the cooking while maintaining the true flavours of the various dishes.
All in all, the experience was very delightful. The presentation was stunning, the flavours distinctively amazing, and the conversations enjoyable. The culinary world needs to be more aware of Iraqi cuisine.
There is an upcoming JUMA supperclub pop-up in April, and you can stay in the loop by following JUMA Kitchen on Grub Club.