“IT IS A BEAUTIFUL THING TO SEE THE BEGINNINGS OF A CONNECTION WITH THE IRAQI PEOPLE”
Interview: Viel Richardson / Image: Adrian Pope
1. There is a definite mix in my family, with Iraqi, English and Irish in my background. Food was always a big part of growing up. I was always passionate about it, but definitely from the perspective of eating rather than making. I was not sat on my grandmother’s knee, soaking in her culinary knowledge.
2. The food that was cooked by my father, aunties and rest of the family was nowhere to be found outside our homes. I worked in the Square Mile before doing this, and when I took leftover dolma and biryani to work, my workmates loved it. I knew that the cuisine was incredible, but to get that kind of recognition from people who were so new to it was exciting. At the time, London was going through a street food explosion and while I was out there enjoying the food, the thought that Iraqi food must have a place here was always at the back of my mind. I decided to do something about it and hosted my first supper club in 2012.
3. It was my father, who was born in Mosul, northern Iraq, who taught me to cook Iraqi food. He gave me the family recipes for dolma, stuffed onions, stuffed vine leaves and stuffed vegetables. When I tried them and they turned out really well, something just clicked. From that point on, I drove my dad mad pestering him for knowledge and recipes. He is a real “Stay out of the kitchen when I’m cooking!” cook and can have a short fuse, so having me constantly in the kitchen asking questions drove him crazy. But I needed to know. He came to realise that he could either give in or keep on shouting. He taught me the spice blends and the cooking techniques – the baharat blend I use is unique to our family.
4. Kubba is a real staple of Maslawi food – the food of my father’s region. It can best be described as like a filled dumpling or a croquette. They come in a variety of tastes and textures and can be boiled, fried or baked.
5. I chose kubba to be a theme of Juma Kitchen because it is such an undeniably Iraqi food. You mention kubba to someone from Iraq and they instantly know what you are talking about. The challenge is to introduce this to people who do not know about the cuisine. I get a lot of joy and pride from explaining the dishes to new people.
6. If you say to an Iraqi someone is Maslawi, they will say, “Okay, they know how to cook.” Mosul is known within the country as a place where the food is excellent, using very delicate and intricate spicing.
7. If I were to describe the flavours of this cuisine, I would say: “Think Turkish or Persian but with Indian spices.” We use things like black pepper, cloves, rose, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, coriander. These are familiar spices, but it is the way they are combined and the techniques we use that give the food its unique style.
8. Juma Kitchen is quite meat-heavy, as is the custom with this food. Beef is predominant and lamb is very popular, but on the stall we have innovation as well as tradition, so I designed a mushroom kubba. It has turned out to be wonderful – even the meat lovers are asking for it sometimes.
9. Making kubba is a labour of love. Everything is handmade. There is a lot of craftsmanship and technique involved, and I want to honour that. I tell all my staff about the amount of respect we must give to each one as we make them.
10. Getting the phone call to say that I had been accepted here in the Borough Market Kitchen was wonderful. I’ll never forget that moment. It was very emotional. It is a validation not just of me but of Iraq as a country. It is a beautiful thing to watch people walk away after trying our food and to see, in a very real sense, the beginnings of a connection with the Iraqi people.