The Best Freakin' Food I've Ever Had (bonus: fell in love)

written by Lindsay Tennant

My favorite food experience was in France. Normally when a person thinks about food experiences in France, visions of crusty baguettes, decadent pastries, gooey cheese, and rows of colourful macarons come to mind. My food experience was slightly different: it took place in a refugee camp just outside the northern port town of Calais.

From October 2015 until the end of August 2016, I spent nearly every weekend in the refugee camp notoriously known as “the Jungle.” The Jungle was at one point home to over 10,000 people from about 15 different countries. It was a mixture of even more cultures, who all had to exist simultaneously in some of the worst conditions imaginable. What made it even crazier was that it was located five minutes outside of Calais, France, and an hour from my house in Southern England. I could wake up in the comfort of my own bed, spend the day in the camp, and then go to sleep in the comfort of my own bed again. To say the experience was surreal is an understatement—but I digress. We are here to talk about food.

When I first started going to the camp, I would pack a lunch. To be honest, it didn’t occur to me that I would be able to get food in the camp. I was there passing out fresh fruit and milk to the women and children, and that was all I saw in my first visits. Eventually, as I got to explore the camp further, and as it grew, so did the amenities. The Jungle had everything! There was a school, a Christian church, lots of mosques, barber shops, bread shops, and most importantly: restaurants.

People wanted comfort, and the restaurants provided it for the residents and the volunteers alike. These restaurants were made out of tarpaulin and whatever wood these folks could get their hands on. Volunteers would often help the residents build the restaurants, and they were run on generators fueled by gas. They offered a place of refuge from the elements and the harsh realities of the camp outside. They were often filled with people, and they were also filled with the most amazing food I have ever eaten.

I ate in about 10 different restaurants in the Jungle. I will admit that I was petrified the first time I ate in one. I mean, the conditions weren’t exactly ideal and I knew there was a massive rat issue. But I was there every weekend and it would have been rude not to partake. Plus, the smell of the food was really starting to get to me!

After surviving that first culinary experience and thoroughly enjoying the food, I began to explore the different restaurants, until one day fate would have it that I finally stepped foot into the most popular restaurant in the Jungle, known as “The Three Idiots.”  The restaurant was run by three Pakistani men who thought it would be hilarious to name it after a Bollywood film.

Let me just tell you about the food. It was the best food I had ever eaten. Ali, the cook, made this chicken that was coated in a masala (delicious spices and gram flour) and then fried to heavenly perfection. It’s the best chicken I have ever had in my life. He also made rice, spinach, samosas, and other food that people just could not get enough of, but all I cared about was the chicken. I would think about the chicken all week until I could get back to the jungle and eat it. I had never eaten anything like it. I couldn’t find food in restaurants that could even begin to compare with the food I ate in The Three Idiots.  Oh, and the chai! I nearly forgot about the chai! When I was young I worked in many coffee chops and we would always sell “chai,” and I loved it. I had no idea what real chai was, though, until the Jungle; and of course Ali’s chai was the best. Of course.

It is safe to say that eating in the Jungle was definitely the best food experience of my life. Not only did I fall in love with Ali’s food—I fell in love with Ali. We got married in 2017, and now I get to eat my favorite food with my favorite man for the rest of my life. It’s a win-win situation!

Lindsay Tennant