There’s a pretty limited menu when Iraq comes up in conversation these days. Perceptions of the country and its people are marred by the headlines, so much so that I now expect a routinely curious reaction when I reveal that I myself am Iraqi. Thankfully, London-based Iraqi chef Philip Juma has arrived on the scene to start shaking that all up, armed (sorry) with a refreshingly positive newsflash: there is so much more to Iraq than war.
Eager to attend one of his supper clubs, I jumped on board as soon as I heard he was collaborating with the AMAR foundation at the London Cooking Project recently to raise money for Iraq through their Escaping Darkness appeal. He has also joined forces with them again this month for their 'My Baghdad Kitchen' campaign, providing recipes for you to host your very own Iraqi Supper Club.
I first heard about Juma last summer, and got a chance to try out his delicious food at ‘An Arm And A Leg’, an incredible evening of food, cocktails, and music organized by the Hands Up Foundation in aid of Syria. Juma has been heading up pop-up events like this all over London since 2012, when he traded in a career in the City for a life of foodie goodness by setting up JUMA Kitchen. He’s now on a mission to introduce Londoners to the wonderful and often forgotten world of Iraqi cuisine.
Here's a little taster of what he had in store for us at his AMAR Supper Club.
With an open-plan kitchen and dining area, and Juma cooking his dolma as the guests arrived, the warm, friendly, and communal atmosphere was there from the start – just the right setting for a very homely cuisine that hasn’t often been exposed to the restaurant sphere.
We were in for an entire five course meal, so portion sizes were fitting. In traditional Arab style, we started off with mezza: smokey aubergine Moutabal dip (or babaganouj), a staple Falafel with a drizzle of tahini, and Juma’s take on Lamb Sambousek (pastry filled with spiced minced lamb).
For those of you who know me, you’ll be aware that lamb is my foodie downfall. I just don’t like the stuff, hence why Iraqi food has never been my first choice (Iraqis seriously love their lamb). Nevertheless, I went in with an open mind and gave Juma a chance to win me over - and the Sambousek managed to do just that. Not greasy at all, and with just the right amount of tender spiced meat enveloped in crumbly pastry, I could’ve had another.
Next up, we had Djaj Bilnarinj, crispy chicken thigh on a bed of potato served with a rich saffron sauce and caramelised onions, perhaps the less traditional but most beautiful dish of the night. This was followed by Kubbat Hamouth, an Iraqi household favourite: homemade dumplings filled with minced lamb, served in a rich tomato soup. If I showed you what this looks like at home, you would understand when I say that kubbat hamouth never looked this good.
Then came Juma’s star of the show, the Dolma – vegetables stuffed with spiced and marinated lamb mince and rice, which he served alongside a lamb chop and a more traditionally Lebanese Fattoush salad. An Iraqi dinner party would just not be complete without Dolma. It's also notoriously labour intensive to make, so hats off to Phil.
Of course, I was most looking forward to dessert, which could be none other than Knafa, a dessert popular all over the Middle East and usually made in one giant cake-like portion. Juma made his with shredded filo to top the traditional melted cheese filling, drenched it in blossom water syrup and topped it with pistachios. He also went for individual servings, which were right on trend - the Iraqi cupcake, perhaps?
Clearly, Juma is aiming to use his experience of working in Michelin-starred restaurants to refine Iraqi food and rightfully bring it into the twenty-first century. It’s without doubt a great way to ease those unfamiliar with the cuisine into it. For the Iraqi audience, however, who will forever compare it to mama and bibi’s home cooking, stepping into Juma’s kitchen requires being open to something new. For me, he gives these traditional dishes the modern kick that they need to appeal to the outside world, with impeccable contemporary presentation and without straying too far from the original taste.
Whilst it’s easy to get caught up in all of the food, it’s also important not to forget why we were really there: to raise money for the AMAR Foundation. AMAR is a charity working out in the Middle East, particularly at the moment with those affected by ISIS violence. Their Escaping Darkness Appeal, which Juma’s supper club was raising money for, aims to provide women in Northern Iraq with the psychological support they desperately need after fleeing ISIS. A leaflet at our table revealed the shocking facts they are working to change: there are only 17 psychiatrists in Northern Iraq, 80% of clinics are no longer functioning, and Daesh’s sex slaves can be as young as 9 years old.
Having grown up in London, and having never been to Iraq, it’s surreal to say that these statistics apply to the country my parents grew up in. It’s hard not to feel so far removed from the situation and so helpless, which is why it’s important that we recognise our responsibility to give back. By sharing Iraqi culture through food, we are raising awareness of and humanizing a nation and a people that have been reduced to statistics and stereotypes.
Juma’s food comes with a message, a reminder that Iraq was once a great nation, the home of civilization itself. Whilst our country might now be in ruins, our culture, our heritage, our warmth, and perhaps what best sums up all of the above, our food, will endure that greatness for generations.
To learn more about Juma and his delicious supper clubs, click here: www.jumakitchen.com
To find out more about the AMAR Foundation and how you can help, click here: www.amarfoundation.org
To host your own 'Baghdad Kitchen' and raise money using Juma's delicious recipes, click here: http://www.amarfoundation.org/my-baghdad-kitchen/