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Siddiqa Juma tells Zéna Butt the story of her culinary life and explains how her chopping board inspired one of her most successful works of art.
I was born on a small island called Pemba which is just on the outskirts of Zanzibar, East Africa. My earliest food memories embody typical East African cuisine; Cassava for example and plenty of coconut based dishes – though the dishes that I remember so well from my childhood are East African by origin, my mother ‘Indianised’ them by putting garam masala into everything!
Food memories that resonate within me from my childhood include my mother’s samosas, curries and rice dishes. Typical ‘mum’ food, it provides a comfort like no other. The majority of my mother’s dishes were coconut based, such a versatile ingredient that can be used in umpteen ways – most definitely a staple ingredient in our household. I vividly remember a dish we regularly had at home in Pemba – Kuku Paka. My mother would cover pieces of chicken in coconut paste and grill it with a variety of different masalas. She sometimes substituted the chicken for a whole fish and it just created the most fantastic fusion of flavours.
It is a long-running joke in my household that I make ‘designer foods’ as you only ever get a dish once!
Though I have made Kuku Paka on numerous occasions, it is different each time. It is a long-running joke in my household that I make ‘designer foods’ as you only ever get a dish once! I am very experimental in my cooking. Back home in Africa, there was plenty of help in the household. As a young girl it was not seen as a ‘duty’ for me to learn to cook. I moved to the UK at the age of thirteen; as with many individuals from the diaspora, we were just finding our feet. My parents were very busy and as the eldest of four children I had to learn how to cook quickly. I had to be a second pair of hands for my mother. There was no household help in London… culture shock indeed!
My mother taught me the dishes that you ‘need to know’ – rice based dishes, chapattis and (insert generic Asian food here) – but I have always been very experimental. I enjoy throwing things into the mix just to see what happens! Today I have several, unusual specialties that I am asked to bring to various family gatherings. They are slightly different each time (I stick to being known for my ‘designer foods’!). After trying it at a Persian restaurant I learnt to create a dish called Zereshk Polo – an Iranian dish made up of saffron rice, caramelised chicken (I use chillies and honey), dried fruits, fried carrots, onions, nuts and barberries. I had no idea how to make it but by deconstructing the flavours and ingredients and just throwing them together, voila I had created my own version of Zereshk and it has been a hit with my friends and family ever since!
I separate the art of cooking into two distinct categories: everyday, mundane cooking (where I cook because I have to and not because I want to) and then cooking for pleasure – making it a family affair. I have four daughters, three of whom have now flown the nest. Two to three times a month we all get together on a weekend and cook roasts together. It is just such a lovely feeling, creating something together as a unit. I do tend to be a bit bossy and wear the trousers in the kitchen though – I think of it as my domain!
Thinking about it, my cooking style mirrors the way I approach my art. Just like my food, I sometimes like to throw unusual things into the mix with my art. Adding variation excites the senses, be this visually or through your taste buds. I have definitely passed on ‘the art of throwing things in’ to my daughters – they too have become experts in making things that you wouldn’t expect to work – work!
When I cook or when I work, I am not one of those people that get ‘into the zone’; I fuse everything together. I cook, paint, pop out, go back to the painting etc. I often leave a piece for a few hours – sometimes even days – and go about my daily routine. I draw inspiration from everywhere. In fact, my most successful and most reproduced painting, Diversity, was inspired by a chopping board type contraption that my daughter bought me.
Painting for me is like living. It is a fundamental tenet of who I am as a person and it gives me sanity in the craziness of everyday life. None of my pieces are perfect and my cooking is far from perfect too. The way I look at it is like this: nothing in this life is perfect except Allah. We should strive to make things as good as we can. We need to be experimental to realise what we’re capable of. This is the ethos that I apply to my art… and my cooking.
Guided by the Qur’an and Islamic tradition, Siddiqa Juma creates art that celebrates a rich religious and cultural heritage.
Siddiqa has throughout her life been seeking some form of expression for her faith. Starting her career in graphic design, she has gone on to write, illustrate and produce Islamic children’s books and produce a slate of animated series that teach a particularly Muslim morality. It is in painting however where Siddiqa has found the conduit for her devotion.
To read more about Siddiqa and to see her work, see www.siddiqajuma.com