From Kilburn to Calais: Refugee chefs feed thousands in migrant ‘Jungle’ camp

Kurdish food

Kurdish food - Credit: Archant

Last bank holiday, Kerstin travelled from Kilburn to the Calais and Dunkirk refugee camps to volunteer in the community kitchens. She writes about making mass meals out of donated food and features two recipes inspired by the things she ate there.

Cooking in the Calais refugee camp

Cooking in the Calais refugee camp - Credit: Archant

The community kitchen in the refugee camp has eight low burners lining one wall upon which squat 100-litre steaming stewpots.

Alongside several stainless steel counters, an industrial mixer, a robo-coupe, hot water and a slightly dodgy oven, the stores are well organised with sections for dry goods, tins, spices, fresh vegetables, herbs, and an area for bagging up family packs so some refugees can cook for themselves.

Further along the vast warehouse, the clothes and bedding are stored. First they are cleaned then sorted into types - hoodies, men’s trousers, womens tee shirts long-sleeved, etc. There is a large area for sorting shoes into sizes; one woman volunteer checks their laces - are they matched? Are they in good condition?

The kitchen caters for around 1,500 people a day. Usually three pots (300 litres) are for stew, all made with the same aromatics – 1 part ginger, 1 part garlic to 2 parts onion.

A refreshing dip from Kerstin Rodgers

A refreshing dip from Kerstin Rodgers - Credit: Archant

Paul, the Scottish head chef, has perfected the art of making perfectly fluffy rice in bulk.

This requires know-how. His technique is to ‘dress’ the rice with oil then parboil it, scoop it into gastros (the metal rectangular pans used in catering) and let it continue to steam, adding nuts, sultanas, spices, fresh coriander, to boost flavour and nutrition.

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“This is basically Ready Steady Cook en masse,” explains Paul. “We use one tonne of food per day.”

Always there is a curry or stew, rice and salad. The refugees LOVE salad. I can see why: when you are camping for months on end without running water, you end up craving raw vegetables.

At the moment there is a surfeit of swedes. The trouble is the refugees don’t like swedes, finding them too sweet. The idea of sweet vegetables in curry is anathema to them.

A chef tells me: “The Africans don’t like salt, other nationalities love salt. Some of them love spicy food, others don’t. Surprisingly they don’t really like Indian food...”

It’s difficult to cater for everyone.

Many companies are providing supplies: I took with me 100 kilos of flour, donated by Shipton Mill. Riverford Organics sends vegetables by the tonne. Welsh vegetarian organisation The Parsnipship regularly bring over produce. Sometimes individuals drive up with a few items. The day I was there, dozens of five litre glass jars of red pepper sauce and babaghanoush from Ottolenghi were being added to a curry.

“This week Ottolenghi saved our arse, we’ve so few donations,” says Paul

Lush cosmetics gave £53k to build the warehouse.

“We have the best smelling refugees in the world,” he joked.

Before visiting the infamous Calais ‘Jungle’, I’m given instructions: Don’t go at night. Wear baggy clothes. Don’t give any personal details. Don’t ask their stories, you might trigger bad memories.

Walking down the ‘high street’ I see two tandoori naan bakeries, flames flickering around perfect disks of flat bread, a barbers, a bookshop, several grocers standing in front of neatly filled shelves, a few chai shops, some restaurants.

The chai cafe is attended by men slouching on cushions, smoking. It is prettily decorated with rose blotched billowing fabric, the chai is warming and sweet, toots of fruit tobacco are offered. Photos of ‘successful’ migrants are pinned under the bar with the date of their ingress to the UK.

I eat at the ‘3 idiots’ restaurant, sitting cross-legged on a platform where I am served delicious food; spinach curry, lentils, rice by the Pakistani ‘owner’. It costs 8 Euro for two people.

In this camp there are 5,000 souls some sleeping 12 to a tarped-up hut.

The men try every night to get on lorries, to make it to England. Some have got through and manage a couple of years before getting deported back to their countries. Then they go through the whole process again, repeating the gruelling journey to Calais. Sometimes, those who do reach the UK miss The Jungle community.

As you drive from the ferry port you can see patched up areas in the white metal grilles, topped with rolling coils of barbed wire, where it has been cut. The camp is very near to the port, a tall fence, a sandbar, tufts of long grass and then the tented shacks, strapped like badly wrapped presents, tarp blowing in the beach winds.

“Why the UK?” I ask a volunteer “They are in a safe country here”.

“They’ve been treated horribly by the French. And we speak English, plus there are already Afghani, Pakistani, Syrian communities in the UK.”

In Dunkirk, a camp with mostly Syrians and Kurds, the kitchen is organised differently: the refugees are the chefs. Despite their difficulties, they produce delicious food - the kind the camp likes.

Two hundred queue for lunch, The Kurdish chefs laugh and joke as they serve rice and salad, with a tasty Shlai Patata, a tomato and potato stew with mysterious objects floating which turn out to be sour black dried lime or ‘loomi’ softened in the soup.

Kurdish and Syrian food isn’t well known in the UK, but perhaps with the arrival of some refugees, in around 10 years we will have some fantastic Syrian and Kurdish restaurants.

Shlai Patata

Serves 4-6

4 tbsp olive oil

4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 5 cm pieces

3 tbsp tomato purée

250ml tomato passata

3 dried limes

1 tsp salt

200ml hot water

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and add the potatoes, frying gently for a few minutes. Add the tomato puree, the passata, the dried limes and the salt. Simmer for five to ten minutes then add the hot water to thin it out. Continue to cook on a medium to low heat until the potatoes are tender. Serve with rice.

Yoghurt and poppy seed dip

Drizzle this over the shlai patata stew and rice.

300ml Greek natural yoghurt or kefir

3 to 4 tbsp of good olive oil

Juice of half a lemon

1 tsp of good salt

Simply mix the ingredients together and use as a side or a dip or a salad dressing.