Sunday, 25 August 2013

Let's wok...

Once we'd moved into our new apartment, our next step was to kit it out. Back in London, furnished rentals usually came with pretty much everything - generally the landlord's old stuff that they couldn't be bothered to remove - but here you just seem to get the furniture. So where do you go for all those bits and pieces that are essential to modern life? The same place people go to the world over. Ikea. A bit of a trek out to the epic mall that is Mega Bangna, and a slightly surreal experience, as apart from the prices being in baht we could have been back in North London. The Swedes sorted us out with most things we required, apart from a few electrical items from Powerbuy, and a big TV bought in Tesco Lotus and lugged home in the back of one of those dinky little pickup trucks you see around the place.

So most of our needs were now met, but one item still remained elusive - a decent wok. Not one of those non-stick things you see in the fancy stores, or the aluminium or stainless steel ones available in Tesco Lotus or Big C, but a proper, traditional, cheap carbon steel wok that you can lovingly coat with a patina of burnt oil and never ever wash. I'd assumed such an item would be easy to find, but like many of my assumptions, this proved somewhat wide of the mark.

The solution seemed obvious. Chinatown. Surely there would be woks everywhere? I jumped on the MRT and headed down to Hualamphong. My rather cursory research suggested that Sampeng Lane market would be the first place to try, and so I found myself negotiating this long and surprisingly narrow thoroughfare crowded with shops of all kinds that seem to somehow meet in the middle, creating a kind of tunnel of commerce.

I was glad I'd gone fairly early in the morning, as even with comparatively few people around progress was rather slow. All manner of goods were on offer - handbags, wigs, lanterns, endless brightly coloured paraphernalia. The hectic, claustrophobic atmosphere was enhanced by the fact that I'd arrived the day of the Ghost Festival, when the Chinese lay out offerings of food to the spirits of their departed ancestors, and burn paper representations of valuable goods and money for them with scant regard for health and safety.

All rather fascinating, but kitchenware was apparently one of the few categories of goods this alleyway didn't offer. Undeterred, I found my way to Soi Issaranuphap, another narrow alley that runs perpendicular to Sampeng Lane, which I was reliably informed was some sort of foodie's paradise. And so it proved to be. Store after store piled high with pretty much everything a Chinese person might conceivably want to put in their mouth, seemingly arranged in categories. One stretch would be nothing but fruit, then ten metres or so entirely consisting of dried items I didn't recognise. The hardest section to negotiate was the duck district - the sheer amount of grease on the floor made this part more like skating than walking.

Amongst all this, I was pleased to see, were a number of shops selling kitchen equipment. However, on closer inspection they seemed to sell everything but woks. I began to wonder if maybe woks just weren't an item anyone bought - after all, who wants a brand-new one when you can have one with decades of deliciousness baked into its surface? Perhaps the same ones had been handed down through Thai families for generations. My quest was beginning to feel fruitless. Even meeting a couple of cute cats only lifted my spirits a little.

I had pretty much given up. A quick search of the internet offered little help - the only lead I could find suggested some obscure store near Soi 77, a long way across town. So I did what I often do when in a strange part of a same town and out of ideas. I decided to get lost.

After wandering down several streets at random, witnessing some fairly impressive roadside fires and narrowly avoiding getting blown up with firecrackers, I found myself in what appeared to be the metal district. In the back of a small store, sandwiched between a place full of impressive lengths of steel piping on one side and one that sold nothing but turbochargers on the other, I spotted a tell-tale bunch of handles poking out from a metallic stack. My hopes rising at last, I ventured in. Here they were at last! Woks. Dozens of woks. Stacked high in various sizes. No fancy packaging. No non-stick coating. Just plain old steel beaten into shape with a handle attached. 250 baht? Thank you very much.

In case anyone has stumbled across this post on a similar quest to mine, I've done my best to retrace my steps. As far as I could tell, I was just down the road from the impressively named Wat Pathum Khongkha Ratchaworawihan. Make your way there and look around a little, you should find the place. I'm happy to recommend them - I'm pleased with my purchase. It makes a mean Pad See Ew.

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