We celebrate the world’s best comfort food by asking chefs and food writers from diverse backgrounds to talk about the dishes they love.


Co-owner of Manchester’s Campanio, Baneta Yelda, shares her culinary journey and her favourite dish, maqlooba.

Make Yenta’s maqlooba recipe.

In 2014, Baneta Yelda became stranded in Britain. The advance of Isis in Iraq made returning home to Erbil impossible and Baneta’s visit became an asylum application.

Now a UK citizen and co-owner of Manchester bakery Companio, Iraqi food remains close to the 33-year-old’s heart. A scientist, Baneta used to work in the NHS, but in the evenings she would spend hours learning how to cook family recipes, guided by her mum’s video calls. “As a refugee, you feel homesick,” says Baneta, whose Assyrian Christian family remain in Iraq. “Being quiet in the kitchen and those cooking smells take me home. That’s how it all started.’

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Enthusiastic feedback from flatmates and colleagues confirmed Baneta’s flair for cooking which, over time, inspired her to find work in professional kitchens. When a refugee scholarship became available at Nottinghamshire’s School of Artisan Food [SOAF], she threw herself into six months of training as a baker: “I only had hours to think about it. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

At SOAF, Baneta met Neil Large, her business and baking partner at Companio, which they bought in 2019. Based in Ancoats, it is a seriously high-calibre local bakery, simultaneously keeping the neighbourhood in sourdough, croissants, soups and sandwiches, while supplying the Michelin- starred restaurant Mana.

Yenta and Neil outside Campanio

In items such as her kleicha-inspired date and cardamom buns, Baneta gets to flex Middle Eastern flavours and is embracing the adventurous direction life has taken: “I’m happy with this journey,” she says, “regardless of how it started.”

“Assyrians are Iraq’s indigenous people. We speak Aramaic and during the Assyrian Empire were scattered around Mesopotamia. Historically, Mum’s family are from Turkey and Dad’s from Iran.

“In recent decades [due to civil war and religious persecution], many Assyrians left Iraq. But Erbil, in the beautiful mountainous north, is somewhere different ethnicities – Kurdish, Assyrian, Arabs, Turkmen – have lived together peacefully.

“My dad worked in television and when my brothers and I were kids, Mum gave up work. She loved to cook. Her aunties gave her a good traditional education in cooking, but she’s creative and liked mixing flavours and reworking recipes. As a child, I didn’t pay much attention – I was outside playing or busy reading – but when Mum taught me to cook, I realised how hard she worked. She is very artisan, very particular about fresh ingredients, soaking pulses, picking herbs.

“I never thought I’d end up baking, but, interestingly, my paternal grandmother Abigail was a community baker. An Assyrian, she fled violence in Iran aged 16, settled in Iraq and worked door-to-door (then, every house had a tandoor oven), baking for families. She was an entrepreneur. I’d cut and shape dough for her at her mini-bakery and, later, baking did come quite naturally to me.

“At home, we ate broadly Middle Eastern-Iraqi food but – typical of the way people have migrated in the region, mixing food cultures – there was a Turkish influence from Mum’s family (lots of yogurt, red meat, bulgur), and Iranian flavours of fresh herbs, spices and saffron from Dad’s.

“A lot of Iraqis eat dinner, but because of the long hot summers, we often didn’t and, at night, would snack on fruits or watermelon with bread and cheese. Our main family meal was a late lunch around 3pm. Relatives might come, too. Dad’s family are great storytellers, and it felt like a feast every day. Every meal came with rice, condiments and pickles, breads, fresh herbs like chives and parsley, and afterwards – a big Iraqi thing – we’d eat dates and nuts with unsweetened tea.

“One dish I could never make like Mum is dolma. Dolma is various vegetables – onion, aubergine, courgette, peppers, tomatoes – and vine leaves, stuffed with spiced rice, meat and herbs. Often served on Fridays [in many majority Muslim countries, a day of rest], whole families make dolma together.

“Kleicha is another team effort. These are small date-filled rolls (sometimes, they look like British fig rolls), seasoned with cinnamon or cardamom, that people make for Eid or, in our Assyrian case, Easter and Christmas. Families come together and spend the day making huge batches, then take them to local bakeries to bake them. Making kleicha is a celebration in itself.

“I also love Mum’s kofta. In Iraq, shawarma and skewered ‘shish’ patties of very fatty minced lamb are a popular street food, served in kebab sandwiches with vegetables and sumac. At home, reflecting her Assyrian-Turkish heritage, Mum created a kofta mix with more herbs, lots of tomato, onion and garlic, using the meat spice mix baharat, which she’d serve with yogurt and more fresh herbs.


“My recipe, maqlooba, is huge in Iraq and the wider Middle East. Usually, the vegetables are fried and arranged in pretty layers, topped with spiced rice. Once cooked, you turn it out from the pan onto a big dish, like a savoury cake. It’s a great sharing dish and I adapted it by roasting the vegetables, which is healthier and easier if you’re busy. I also add turmeric and pomegranate molasses. That’s a very Middle Eastern flavour profile. We love slightly sweetened, tart, savoury foods.”

Five Key Iraqi Ingredients

“I like ancient history and there are artefacts depicting dates and date palms that show they’ve been native to Iraq for a very long time. They’re mainly used in sweet items like kleicha, but are also a staple with tea.”

“The lemony flavour of sumac is used a lot in street food. Adding sumac to kebab sandwiches to cut through the fat is a very Iraqi thing. At home, Mum would make a liquid from sumac berries to give dolma and stews that nice tart, sharpness.”

Sesame seeds
“Widely used on breads and on the Iraqi pitta, samoon, in snack bars. They’re famous for being made into tahini. Assyrians do a long Lent before Easter and vegan fast before Christmas – we eat a lot of tahini.”

“Erbil has the best (mainly sheep’s milk) yogurt in Iraq. We eat it for breakfast with bread, add its tanginess to savoury dishes and Assyrians eat a yogurt soup with bulgur dumplings, too.”

“Growing up, every household had citrus trees: lemons, limes, small, sweet oranges and, in April and May, I could always smell orange blossom. I remember eating oranges at night as a snack, making orange juice and Mum making lots of orange cakes.”


This feature originally appeared in BBC Good Food Magazine, February 2023.

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