Middle Eastern

If You Don’t Know Much About Iraqi Cuisine, Start Here

February 28, 2017

When I ask Philip Juma about his childhood in London, he tells me about his father’s 'Muslawi’ food. It’s a term his father used to describe the food of his ancestral homeland in northern Iraq. Juma’s father came to London from Mosul in 1971 when he was just 20 years old. As he settled down, married a British woman, and raised a family far from his own home, he tried to keep the culinary spirit of his birthplace alive. And so when he cooked for his kids, he would make dolma, tenderized lamb mince wrapped in vine leaves; a meat pie made with bulgur dough called Kubba Mosul; and potfuls of biryani, soaking the family's home with scents of cardamom, rose, and allspice.

Philip Juma Photo by Philip Juma and JUMA Kitchen

These are the flavors Juma, now 33, identifies with so strongly that he opened up his own Iraqi pop-up, JUMA Kitchen, in 2012. Since opening JUMA Kitchen, he's also held a steady position as a food columnist for the Evening Standard in the United Kingdom, where he’s become something of the face of Iraqi cuisine. This has partially happened because, by his own admission, there isn't really an Iraqi food "scene" in London, where he operates. This has stressed the need for him to make his food more "accessible" to the Western palate through presentation and cooking technique.

“Most people don't know what Iraqi cuisine is,” Juma explains. “The number of people I invite to my pop-ups and supper clubs all say that they don't have a clue what they are about to eat.” When I ask him how he usually characterizes Iraqi food to those who've never had it, he says he tells them it's similar to Lebanese and Turkish cuisine, with a nod to India. These country's cuisines pivot around similar flavors, rich in cinnamon and black pepper.

Quozi Photo by Philip Juma and JUMA Kitchen

Drawing these parallels can only go so far in defining Iraqi cuisine, though. Juma describes dishes that are, to him, the essence of Iraqi food: He loves masgouf, a butterflied carp smoked on wooden ambers. For dessert, he gravitates towards kleicha, cardamom cookies filled with date or walnut paste. The greatest dish of all, though, is quozi, a whole lamb that is stuffed with a mix of nuts, currants, minced lamb, vegetables, and spices, all served on a bed of dressed rice. The dish may be quite an undertaking for the home cook, but it’s worth it. He calls it the “national treasure” of Iraq.

Five years after opening JUMA, he’s found that a certain misunderstanding around Iraqi food, informed heavily by prejudice, persists. It's heightened in recent months as the Western world has been faced with such directives that stoke this anxiety, such as the Trump administration’s Muslim ban. Make no mistake about the dominance of such a view: just last week, VICE’s food vertical, MUNCHIES, ran a profile of Juma slapped with the headline, “This Supper Club Might Change Your Mind About Iraq.” Its framing presupposes that a reader’s default positioning when it comes to Iraqi culture will inevitably be one of fear and suspicion.

Kleicha Photo by Dhiren Shingadia

“When I first started JUMA, many friends and family were telling me to keep it 'Middle Eastern' instead of 'Iraqi',” he tells me. “But I knew by doing that, I would be playing myself, and the food, down." He decided not to follow their orders. His food would be, first and foremost, Iraqi.

Juma sees an opportunity in this hostile climate: Perhaps it'll lead to more people finally paying attention to Iraqi cuisine and taking a moment to consider its beauty in a way they hadn't before. It's already been an unexpected boon for his business for this very reason. “A few days ago, I took a phone call from Paris Fashion Week asking if I would be interested in cooking for KENZO's fashion party,” he says. “They wanted to reach out to chefs from the countries affected by the Muslim ban, to show their support for all those affected. I was flabbergasted!”

If this adversity can result, even accidentally, in a richer, more sustained appreciation of Iraqi cuisine, he’s all for it. He hopes that the world will come to know Iraqi food as intimately as he does.

For the recipe for Philip Juma's kleicha, go here. His quozi can be found here. More of his traditional Iraqi recipes can be found on his website.

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13 Comments

Kokass A. March 7, 2017
Food can be a cultural bridge. Thanks for persevering and sticking with differentiating Iraqi vs Middle Eastern. I hope someday to try the cuisine because it sounds delicious!
 
Tantelory March 5, 2017
Isn't it amazing how angry people are? Thank you for sharing a beautiful story about a person who is choosing to share the lovely treasures of his family's culture. I look forward to trying Iraqi food.
 
Tantelory March 5, 2017
Isn't it amazing how angry people are? Thank you for sharing a beautiful story about a person who is choosing to share the lovely treasures of his family's culture. I look forward to trying Iraqi food.
 
Tantelory March 5, 2017
Isn't it amazing how angry people are? Thank you for sharing a beautiful story about a person who is choosing to share the lovely treasures of his family's culture. I look forward to trying Iraqi food.
 
Caro M. March 5, 2017
A great article, thank you, and as I'm in London I'm going to check out his supper club. There are some great Middle Eastern-inspired places in London, but this is the first I've heard of that's specifically Iraqi. And since the subject has been raised, entry to the US is a worrying issue for a great many Brits at the moment - if it's not a "Muslim ban", why have teachers and doctors from the UK been denied entry to the States?
 
Whiteantlers March 1, 2017
Thank you for another beautifully written and enlightening article! My motto has always been 'peace through food and music.' Don't ever stop introducing us to all the world's kitchens and spice cabinets.
 
E February 28, 2017
I was interested in thede foods until you showed your true colors. There is NO MUSLIM BAN! The bsn is on rsdicalIslamic Terrorists! Sorry you have such a bent and small hate filled mind.<br />
 
Jeffrey B. March 1, 2017
People always see what they want to see. The ban is on seven countries but there are over 50 countries where the population is mostly Muslim. So clearly it is not a "Muslim ban". E you are right and this is another example why Food52 needs to say out of politics.
 
schuylersister March 1, 2017
It's not Food52 talking about politics, it's a direct quote from the chef himself. Nobody is acting hateful except for you.
 
melissa March 1, 2017
returned to this article to check on what kind of nationalist vitriol would be on here -- as expected! food52 readers never fail to surprise me these days. <br /><br />it's bizarre to argue that the ban is on "rsdicalIslamic Terrorists" if it is a ban targeting citizens of nations, and especially nations that have not been as strongly tied to terrorist activity as others. it's awfully telling that there is no ban on countries that are top funders of ISIS but where trump has significant business dealings. people are grasping at straws in order to produce legitimacy around what is ultimately an arbitrary and ill-conceived order that was meant to show force and instill fear more than actually effect any change. <br /><br /> i can cite fact-based sources but i don't think they will be taken seriously. <br /><br />jeffrey's comment that it is not a "muslim ban" since it only targets 7 nations in a world with many muslim-majority countries misses the forest for the trees. he perfectly encapsulates his own comment, "people always see what they want to see."<br /><br />i've done my bit for the day here, and i leave it to the Nice White Ladies to pick up the rest of the slack. if you went to a Women's March and consider yourself invested in the Food52 community, consider stepping in and expressing what you want this community to look like, so that people like me aren't doing all the work.
 
Whiteantlers March 1, 2017
Gosh melissa. You are one to talk-looks like you are also full of vitriol and racism. Too bad you can't delete your comment.
 
Beau B. March 7, 2017
Whiteantlers, your racism is showing. Food is International, like America itself, and the topic of Trumpfs racist moves to separate and divide people is like saying "Keep YOUR Baklava away from MY coffee." which is stupid on it's face, like Trumpf. There are educated Americans, among others online here, and among us we need to speak out and use our tools and our voices to attack and suppress racists, whereever we find them.
 
Amandadp February 28, 2017
Thanks for the information on Iraqi food and for pointing me to Philip's website. I look forward to trying his recipes!