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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.
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.
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.
“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.