JUMA Kitchen, the latest newcomer to Borough Market, adds authentic Iraqi cuisine to the diverse specialty foods offered at one of the largest and oldest food markets in London.
Founded by British-Iraqi chef Philip Juma, the food stall’s main specialty is Iraqi kubba, a savoury treat made of bulgur, minced onions and finely ground lean beef, lamb, goat or camel meat mixed with Middle Eastern spices.
Juma gave up a career in finance to start his journey as a chef embracing Iraqi cuisine after realising that a 9-to-5 job in the hectic bustle of London did not make him happy.
“Growing up, I would always eat amazing street food in London. Iraqi food, however, was nowhere to be seen. I have been eating Iraqi food for all my life and so when I began a new journey, I really wanted to put the cuisine out there,” Juma said.
He started organising pop-up events in 2013 to “give it a go” by experimenting with ingredients and flavours. Once satisfied with the experimental dishes, he targeted venues across London with tasting menus, usually consisting of five courses.
“Of course, there was always kubba and dolma (meat and spiced rice wrapped in vine or cabbage leaves), involved in the menu,” he said. Kubba is shaped into balls or patties and baked, cooked in broth or served raw.
Juma’s pop-ups attracted a Western crowd mainly, rather than Iraqis. He said he was wary of criticism of his cooking by the Iraqi community because it came with a contemporary twist but the innovations to traditional meals were largely welcomed.
“The appreciation I received from the Iraqi community has pushed me to work even harder. I’ve received gifts from the community, which is just unbelievable. One customer, for example, bought me an olive tree,” Juma said.
“I never thought that my work would have such a positive effect on people. It’s extremely moving.”
The big break for JUMA Kitchen came when an employee from the Evening Standard newspaper expressed appreciation for the food.
“The food is so real and it truly did touch me,” Juma quoted the man as telling him.
Attention from media outlets followed. During one of Juma’s catering events, another journalist from the Evening Standard approached him and asked if he’d like to write recipes for the newspaper.
Juma felt he had the opportunity to move on from hosting pop-ups and supper clubs to getting involved in catering, a more stable source of income.
Since its opening, JUMA Kitchen has attracted a wide range of international customers but, despite the relative success, Juma said he has a lot to do to promote Iraqi cuisine and make it as familiar as Thai and Indian cuisines.
“Not everyone is familiar with kubba and so, sometimes, people will walk past our stall. While there are some who will be intrigued and willing to try something new, there will also be those who are not willing to spend 8-10 pounds on lunch that they’re not familiar with,” he said.
Notable chefs and cookbook authors have been supportive of JUMA Kitchen, including Nawal Nasrallah, author of “Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine” and Lamees Ibrahim, author of “The Iraqi Cookbook.”
“There have been times when I’ve reached out to Nawal to ask whether if the saffron chicken will go well on the tasting menu with kubba. She’ll then guide me from there,” Juma said.
Juma’s cooking experience has been largely inspired by international cooks, including Michelin-starred chefs Andrew Wong and Phil Howard.
Kubba is a work of art for Juma. Each piece has its own signature name and distinct taste. Types available at JUMA Kitchen include Potato Chap, Mushroom Chap and Kubba Hamuth.
Juma said he hopes to open a full-fledged restaurant but, in the meantime, he wants people to realise how amazing Iraqi cuisine is.
“Forget me and forget JUMA Kitchen. Iraqi cuisine is just as amazing as Iraq’s culture, music, civilisation and people,” he said.
JUMA Kitchen’s aim is quite clear. It is to shed light on the positive attributes that Iraq has to offer — in this case cuisine — rather than the negative attributes that have dominated international media.