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Q&A: Philip Juma

Philip Juma, owner and founder of KUBBA, on family feasts, the misrepresentation of Iraq, and the glorious intricacy of the nation’s cuisine 


Interview: Clare Finney / Portrait: Adrian Pope

Though your dad is from Mosul and you grew up surrounded by Iraqi relatives, you were born and bred in London. Did you enjoy Iraqi cuisine growing up, or did you ever set out to rebel against it?

I ate western fare for the majority of my childhoood. My mum was western – English-Irish – and so were my friends. But on special occasions, I’d walk into the kitchen to find my dad and my aunties there cooking and I knew that guests were coming, and it was going to be big. That is when we would have the big show-stopping platters, the mountains of food prepared days in advance. I didn’t appreciate the time, love and flavour that went into it then – I just wanted to eat as much as I could and go and play football – but the seed was planted by those big family meals. 

You working in finance for years before turning to cooking. What stopped you from pursuing food from the off – and what was your family’s response to you leaving the security of banking behind?

Food just wasn’t a consideration when I left university. I always cooked as a student, and that was great – but finance and money were the big boxes my family wanted me to tick. To be fair, that is what I wanted to be able to do as well. I left to pursue my passion, and I left with great drive – but that decision was met with a lot of concern from my family, and understandably so. As any parent will tell you, passion alone isn’t going to cut it – particularly in an industry and a cuisine that is extremely hard, which I had no formal training in. 

Yet you believed you could do it?

I never believed I could achieve all I have; I just wanted to put Iraqi cuisine on the map because, as we say at KUBBA, it’s the best cuisine you’ve never tasted. Though Lebanese and Middle Eastern cuisine is on everyone’s lips, and even Iranian and Syrian are having a surge in interest, no one is really flying the flag for Iraqi food in Britain, and no one knows what it is. The problem is that if you are not Iraqi and someone says the word ‘Iraq’, your head automatically go to war, terrorism, refugees – everything the media has been feeding people in this country for years. In fact, when I first started people told me to avoid the word Iraq in my branding. They said, “Cook the food, but just say it’s Middle Eastern.” I said, “No way: I am going to champion this, and be proud, and bring Iraqi food into the mainstream.” I knew it would be tough because of those negative associations, but I honestly believe persistence, love, and love through food, always wins.

How has growing up both a part of and slightly separate from Iraqi cuisine informed your approach?

It’s been hugely formative. I have had the best of both worlds. When I was at secondary school, I would bring in leftovers for friends to try – biriyani, date and cardamom cookies, bourek – and I was so struck by their reactions, because of course they had never had food like that before. I got so much kudos for bringing those dishes in and sharing them with love and generosity; it made me realise just how special they are, and appreciate the layering of spicing and the complexity and intricacy of flavour and texture compared to most western fare.

You’ve been shortlisted in the Best Street Food or Takeaway category of the BBC Food & Farming Awards 2021. What is the significance of that to you?

It is really moving to be recognised on that platform – not just for my food, but for what I was doing through the pandemic, helping to feed people in the NHS, pivoting my business. I didn’t realise anyone was watching, really. I just wanted to bring love and generosity to a terrible situation. For those efforts to be recognised is a beautiful thing. 

Why was establishing KUBBA in Borough Market so important?

I was on a journey, doing pop-ups, supper clubs, catering events and so on, then Borough Market came on the radar and it just ticked everything I wanted for my brand – for my cuisine, really. It’s an iconic destination for tourists and Londoners. It’s the platform this cuisine needed and deserved. I knew that from the reaction of Iraqis in London when we opened: all that first week people were coming with gifts, coming to say how much it meant to them. The diaspora are so proud of me; I am so proud, as well as grateful and honoured, because what I’ve created is more than just tasty morsels: it’s a positive representation of a country that has not been represented in a positive way at all.

Cooking the cuisine from another country in a city with a large diaspora seems bound to invite questions of authenticity. Has it?

Oh absolutely! The mamas are always coming and saying, this is not proper dolma, this is not proper biriyani. I used to take offence, but now I laugh. It is about pride, passion, education – and it’s a reflection of just how many versions of a dish there are across Iraq; how much it varies from region to region, city to city, family to family. The more we acknowledge that there is more than one way of doing a dish, the more space there is for more people, more ideas, and I want to promote and encourage that. I’ve been trying to represent a whole country through my cooking, and now other people are coming up behind me: it’s a beautiful feeling.