“By the time I’m done, everyone will know Iraqi cuisine.”
A Borough market trader who went from finance to food talks about bringing Iraqi cuisine and identity to the mainstream.
Phil Juma, 38, founder of Juma Kitchen, was born and raised in Wimbledon to an Iraqi father and an English-Irish mother. On leaving university, he started a career in finance in the city.
“I was young, I was chasing money,” Phil Juma explained. But he said it wasn’t fulfilling. “The 2008 financial crash was the tip of the iceberg – after that, I resigned.”
With no plan, Phil said he ended up working for a small energy consultancy, where he was able to think about his real purpose. “I used to bring in Iraqi leftovers to the office – and they’d all tell me, you’re obsessed – they’d say: ‘I don’t know anyone whose more obsessed with food than you.’
What was a passion and part of his culture, quickly turned into an idea.
“At the time, Iraqi cuisine had no representation in the UK,” he said, “because of what was going on in the country, there was huge stigma around it.”
“I knew restaurants with Iraqi owners who were calling their food ‘Lebanese’ or simply ‘Middle-Eastern’ because they didn’t want the shame of what they thought calling themselves Iraqi would bring.”
“I wanted to change that.”
After working a string of jobs in kitchens, whilst still at his 9 to 5, he finally hosted a pop-up in 2013. “It was filled with friends and family – all biased, but it didn’t matter. I was hooked on how my food made people feel.”
“I used all my holiday from my job to work in high-end kitchens to get the most experience I could.”
When Phil had built up enough experience, in 2019 he opened Juma Kitchen at Borough Market, just before the pandemic.
“It was hard but I just carried on working.”
Phil actually went viral with his ‘Dish of the Day’ for the NHS and his famous hummus and bread he hand-delivered across London. “I had to keep it going,” he told the News. “By the time I’m done here, everyone will know Iraqi food.”
Now he’s well known across the world for shining a light on Iraqi cuisine. “It’s mad how far we’ve come,” Phil added. Last year, he appeared on BBC One’s ‘Saturday Kitchen.’
“The whole Iraqi community tuned in,” he said. “These parents of an eight year old Iraqi girl told me they forced her to watch me on TV so she could grow up with representation.
“It’s always been more than food – but that was when it really hit home.
“I’ve done all of this independently, so it can be done.”
Phil is one of the many traders at Borough who have contributed to their new recipe book ‘Borough Market: The Knowledge.’ His addition was the three-cheese bourek which he said are “salty cheese wrapped in crispy filo pastry drizzled with honey.” These aren’t on the menu at his stall, but Phil explained he wanted to add something accessible: “a lot of Iraqi cuisine is labour-intensive, so I wanted to add something anyone can make!”