What I like about ticketed restaurants is that everyone there has a genuine interest in the food and visionary behind it. In the case of JUMA Kitchen, that’s the charismatic Phillip Juma, the half-Iraqi chef determined to single-handedly swing public opinion on the war-torn country by way of its cuisine, which features exotic spices, mountains of lamb and curiously cheesy desserts in jumbo portions.
I met Carla at the Jam Tree, Clapham, for our Iraqi supper club experience. It’s an enormous gastropub, but Philip had commandeered the Bookcase Bar for JUMA guests. (The Bookcase Bar is also the venue for The Jam Tree’s board game and pop-up painting nights. More about those here.)
We started with a fig, elderflower and gin cocktail, an interesting combination I’d order again if only anywhere would start giving figs the recognition they truly deserve. ( I spent years avoiding the things after a nasty experience with a Fig Roll, but since I had some on a pizza at Vapiano, I’m a convert.)
Our first course was a sample platter of meze. There was falafel and baba ganoush (and the only thing better that eating baba ganoush is saying baba ganoush. BABA GANOUSH), and a lamb borek, a slim cigar of spiced lamb wrapped in filo pastry. I quite fancy giving these a go at home, actually, I have visions of cheesy, spinach-y versions pinwheeling through my head.
The next course arrived and it turned out that the meze wasn’t a starter the all, more of a…preview? Amuse-bouche of gigantic proportions? Either way, the real starter had arrived and it was huge – a whole chicken thigh with rice swimming in a subtly spiced saffron sauce.
The ‘second course’ – I know, I know, so much food – was a pair of spicy lamb dumplings in a light tomato sauce, and a delicious turnip crisp that I’d happily buy by the bagful. (I may write to Tyrell’s and get them to add them to their veggie crisp mix…down with the beetroot, I say, long live the turnip!)
And now – finally – we were on to the main course. We were sitting at the main table, which meant we got the pièce de résistance dished up right in front of us – a huge pot of lamb-stuffed vegetables, upturned – sandcastle style – before our eyes.
sandfoodcastle quickly collapsed beneath the tide of diners digging in to it!
I have no idea if this is the traditional way to serve the dish, which is called dolma, but I loved the theatre of it all! The lamb inside the peppers, onion shells and vine leaves is slow-cooked in lemon, garlic and pomegranate, and was richly flavoured with Iraqi spices. It was served alongside lamb cutlets and fresh salad, just in case anyone was still hungry. (Hahaaa!)
The nice thing about Middle-Eastern food, I find, it that although it is spiced and the flavours are deep and rich, it isn’t spicy – sensitive palates have nothing to fear.
As you can imagine, we were truly stuffed by the time the dessert rolled around; God knows how many lambs died for our epic dinner that night. I was so full, in fact, that I would have turned down the pudding if it hadn’t been so…weird.
Knafa is a semi-sweet pastry made of soft cheese and cream, and topped with blossom water and pistachios. It doesn’t really sound like it should work – like a savouryish cheesecake made with filo pastry – but it does. I’ve eaten a lot of unusual things in London…zebra, crocodile, ants…but this has been the strangest. Iraq, I salute you; when it comes to weirdness, locusts have nothing on your knafa.
I had a chance to talk to Philip briefly after the meal, and what stood out for me was his passion for authentic food, i.e. dishes not watered down for Western palates. It’s definitely a good thing – there’s altogether too much fusion floating around at the moment, so it’s nice to taste something real. (I just got back from Sri Lanka, and the difference in food in local restaurants compared to tourist spots was…embarrassing. Who knew we were such wet blankets?)
If you fancy trying Philip’s Iraqi cuisine, tickets cost £35 and include all food and a welcome cocktail. Make sure you arrive hungry.
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in East London and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.