A journey through London’s Iraqi food culture

From lamb quzi in Kingsbury to a Kensington restaurant specialising in expertly barbecued fish, flavours from Baghdad and beyond have found a welcoming home across the capital

A busy food vendor hosts guests on a rectangular table.
Kubba — a stuffed fried dumping — is a speciality at Juma Kitchen, in Borough Market. Photo courtesy of Juma Kitchen

A few months ago I took a trip that I had waited my entire life for. Dictatorships, civil wars and conflicts waged by foreign powers meant that I had never visited the country my parents left before I was born. But, on a humid October day, I finally arrived in Iraq for a 10-day whistle-stop tour with my family. Basing ourselves in Baghdad, we ventured to the site of ancient Babylon as well as Samarra in the north and Najaf to the south. 

As someone keen to explore unfamiliar cuisines and visit innovative restaurants, reappraising the culinary culture of my country of origin was an exciting proposition. In preparation, I spent hours scouring Instagram posts and following Iraqi bloggers. Once there, we questioned taxi drivers and family members, exploring decades-old street food stalls, restaurants specialising in one dish that inevitably sold out by 2pm and newer places serving classic Iraqi dishes in ornate settings. Under date palms, we ate barbecued fish freshly plucked from the River Tigris and falafel, hot from the fryer and expertly stuffed into diamond-shaped samoon bread by nimble-fingered servers.

People rarely talk about the reverse culture shock of finding yourself in a place where you blend in, where your accent is understood, where the national sense of humour is a common bond and where the foods of your childhood are available in abundance, but the feeling is powerful. 

Once back in the UK, I was eager to delve into the Iraqi culinary scene in my hometown of London. Although not as well known as Lebanese or Syrian food, Iraqi cuisine is a unique mix of Persian, Turkish and Levantine flavours, complete with its own distinct takes on kebabs, kibbeh — kubba for Iraqis — and shawarma. Today, up to 400,000 Iraqis live in Britain, brought to the country by geopolitical crises, work and education. In the capital, the community is centred in the north-west, around the Wembley area. 

In Zone 4, on the Jubilee Line tube, Kingsbury Road is a buzzing thoroughfare that bucks the trend of the declining suburban high street. Even early on a Sunday, its grocery shops and cafes are packed. Filled with South Asian and Middle Eastern businesses, several Iraqi names also pepper its storefronts. SimSim Bakery is particularly popular on Sundays, when it offers an Iraqi breakfast buffet — a great introduction to the country’s numerous morning favourites. 

Highlights include the bagila bil dihin — whole fava beans and caramelised onions, served with moist marinated pitta bread and topped with a paper-thin omelette — and makhlama, an egg hash with peppers and spiced minced lamb that also comes in a vegetarian mushroom version. Other regional staples include hummus, fuul and various manaeesh — flatbreads fired in a wood oven, topped with minced lamb, Akkawi cheese or za’atar and olive oil. 

Diners should also save space for fresh-baked samoon and kahi — slices of flaky homemade pastry drizzled with sugar syrup and topped with a type of clotted cream known as geymar. In Iraq geymar is usually made from water buffalo milk, which gives a unique silky richness, but the cow’s milk version here comes close. Accompanied by complimentary Iraqi chai, traditionally served black, strong and sweet, this spread is a steal at £14.50 a head.

Kubba by Juma Kitchen serves a variety of popular Iraqi desserts. Photo courtesy of Juma Kitchen

Later in the day, the nearby Ya Hela restaurant dishes up traditional Iraqi meals with a warm welcome. As is common in Iraqi restaurants, complimentary bowls of lentil soup, just-baked tanoor bread, pickles, salad, hummus and a yoghurt dip arrive almost immediately. And the hospitality doesn’t stop there. 

Every grill and main course is accompanied by two types of rice and two vegetable stews. At £18.50, my lamb quzi — a slow-cooked shank flavoured with cardamom, bharat, cinnamon and cloves — came with white rice and broad bean and dill rice, as well as meltingly cooked aubergine and tender white beans. The portions are generous, so prepare to share one dish with a friend or to have half of it boxed up, especially if you want to leave room for the complimentary tea and baklava.

Another favourite among the Iraqi community can be found on the Park Royal industrial estate, near Acton. Surrounded by an array of Middle Eastern eateries, the family-run Al Enam restaurant attracts people from across the UK and further afield, judging by the photographs on its walls of famous Iraqi musicians enjoying meals. Although renowned for grills and shawarma, the Iraqi biryani is the real standout, blending Turkish, Persian and Indian flavours into one aromatic rice dish, topped with fried potatoes, vermicelli, nuts, raisins and yieldingly soft lamb.

A barbecue pit at Samad al Iraqi
Masgouf — barbecued fish — is cooked on Samad Al Iraqi’s house charcoal pit. Photo courtesy of Samad Al Iraqi

For special occasions, masgouf is the go-to dish in Iraq. Often considered the country’s national food, this barbecued whole fish is seasoned with turmeric, tomatoes and olive oil and liberally topped with pomegranate molasses. Samad Al Iraqi on High Street Kensington has a special charcoal pit, where huge carp are grilled until their skin blisters crisp. They are then served with a variety of rice, lemon slices and a tangy amba, a fermented mango condiment. Pre-ordering is required and, depending on the size of the fish, one sitting will generously cater for a group of three to five people, with prices from around £35 per person. 

Although many of the UK’s Iraqi cooks concentrate on traditional restaurant dishes, Kubba by Juma Kitchen is a street food stall at Borough Market. Kubba, its speciality, is a fried dumpling found all over the Middle East and usually made from bulgur wheat, wrapped around a delicately spiced minced meat filling. Iraqi kubba differs by coming in numerous varieties. 

Kubba haleb features a crisp, pounded rice coating and a centre of rice and mince with sweet onions. Potato chap kubba swaps rice or bulgur for a mashed potato casing, around either a meat or mushroom filling. Kubba hamuth, meanwhile, is a comforting tomato broth with boiled lamb dumplings and turnips. All are served with accompanying amba or date syrup dips.  

Kubba’s focus on a single dish is common among contemporary street food vendors, but it also reminds me of the many stalls and restaurants in Iraq that carve out reputations by serving spectacular versions of one thing only, be it falafel, qeema — a mashed chickpea and lamb stew with rice — or dolma, consisting of mince-stuffed vine leaves and onions in a sour broth. 

Exploring London’s Iraqi stalls, cafes and restaurants, it’s clear that Iraqi food can stand up against any other cuisine in the world. Now, I look forward to the day when debates about where to get the best masgouf or kubba are not restricted to the Iraqi diaspora, but involve people who love to eat, no matter where they are from.

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