[The best of the bunch in west Auckland]
Steamed Pork Bun Misery
- A Day at Avondale Markets
“To market, to market, to buy a penny bun, home again, home again, market is done.”
- Songs for the Nursery, 1805
Under normal circumstances it is unreasonable to get out of bed at 6.30am on a Sunday morning. But every so often I become a slave to some ridiculous memory of a food that I just cannot find in the overpriced, spray-free, town of Warkworth.
The particular food that had been driving me to the edge of sanity all week was a steamed pork bun. In my mind I could see it. I could feel its warmth, I could taste its delicious sweet but savoury, spongy and sticky texture. I know that my fixation makes me seem like a lunatic, but as I have not been officially certified as one (a lunatic), I decided that a journey to the Avondale markets would be the only way that I could achieve freedom from this steamed pork bun torture.
After a less than average instant coffee I set off with images of pork buns at the front of my mind. I have to say that the drive from Warkworth to Avondale is not particularly challenging, but it did became slightly problematic in that I did not realise that somebody had redesigned the North-western motorway.
Unable to work out whether or not I had taken the correct off-ramp, I drove around like a lab rat stuck in a bad experiment. The problem was I could catch glimpses of the market from afar but I couldn’t quite work out how to actually get to it. For a brief moment I considered getting out of my car and climbing one of the many pylons that grace the Avondale landscape in the hope I could get my bearings. In the end, though, I decided to take a punt and follow a convey of old and brisk Asian ladies dragging empty two-wheeled trolleys behind them.
It turned out to be a good decision, as the market carpark came into view not too long after. The biggest problem with the Avondale market carpark is that someone has neglected to inform the people arriving on foot (or bicycle, for that matter) that the carpark and its adjoining roads are actually for cars. It is largely impossible to drive any faster than one kilometre per hour through the slow-moving crowds of people trudging toward the market.
Most people, once they realise a car is behind them, will courteously move aside to let you pass. However, as I got closer to the entrance I found myself stuck behind a very large, slow-moving man who would not make way for my car. Eventually, and I am talking eventually, he made a mandatory gesture of shifting sideways.
The unfortunate truth was that he needn’t have bothered, as there was simply not enough room for the both of us to squeeze through the entrance at the same time. If I had tried to get past him I would ended up with a very large Pacific Island man on the bonnet of my car, and I just was not ready for that kind of awkward at this hour of the morning.
From the moment I arrived in the carpark I become aware of the great diversity that exists at the markets. I am not simply talking about different nationalities (although there is a variety), but of the diversity of characters, busy-ness and wares.
Being at the markets reminds of buying a big boombox of fireworks from the Warehouse. There are all sorts inside a small and confined space - some tall and thin, some wide and short. Some you can stand close to without endangering your life, and some that have longer fuses than others.
At the entrance I come across a fellow lunatic. She sits strumming her guitar and singing a terrible, out of tune song. It is the sign beside her, though, that gives me second thoughts about crossing the threshold from the carpark into the market. Sprawled across the top of the sign, in large hand painted letters, are the words “expect a miracle”.
I hadn’t been to Avondale markets in a very long time and I suddenly felt apprehensive. I wondered what now went on in the market place, that they needed someone at the entrance telling people to expect a miracle? All of a sudden, though, I spotted my miracle: it was a stall that said three pairs of socks for five dollars.
I had completely forgotten about the enticing bargains that are on offer in the land of three for five. If you think you have any control over your impulse shopping urges I can guarantee you that Avondale markets three for five deals will leave you a quivering mess. You can get just about three of anything for five dollars, strawberries, socks, jewellery and - as one short and stocky man yells at me - thin Lizzy miracle bras.
“Hurry, hurry get your bras, three for five dollars bras, bras, bras. Thin Lizzy bras from T.V. They are usually very expensive!” I know he’s not yelling at me specifically but once you make eye contact with a stall vendor it’s pretty much all over.
At this stage I start to become a little self-conscious. After all, I have had two children, and my boobs could probably do with a miracle, but in a moment of rational thinking I realise that if I don’t make it out from the three for five aisle I’ll have no money left for a pork bun. I smile apologetically and start to explain that I will have to forgo his magnificent offer but he was already yelling at some other lady, “Bras! Hurry get your bras!”
I turned left after passing by the stinky fresh seafood stall and found myself in a somewhat less busy area of the markets. This part of the markets contains an interesting mix of people selling a variety of second hand goods like cracked bicycle helmets and homemade crafts. The stalls in this part of the market tend to display their goods directly on the ground and the vendors seem to be less concerned with actually selling anything.
I looked around in hope that I could locate the steam pork bun caravan, but it definitely wasn’t there. I did see something that I would like to buy though, poi. I picked up a pink coloured poi and swung it around to give the impression that I had some kind of sound knowledge about what to look for in a poi. The stall was run by a very large Maori man who seemed to be falling asleep while sitting in the back of his van. He didn’t seem to bat an eyelid at my uncoordinated poi swinging, but his wife, a small Asian lady, ran up to me and smiled.
“Sorry, sorry. I saw you want to buy something, I could see you.” It was me who should have been apologising for publicly butchering the art of swinging a poi.
“That’s OK. I want to buy two sets of these, but I wondered if you had any smaller ones? I want to get them for my kids.”
She nodded in agreement, “Smaller ones, yes, yes, come with me.” She led me to the back of the van and rummaged around in a plastic bag until she pulled out two sets of poi that were exactly the same size as the ones I had in my hand.
“Thanks. Can I get two sets of purple ones?” I asked her. “I need to get them the same so that they won’t fight.”
The large Maori man woke up, “Good idea, Good idea,” he said.
“I have to or they’ll kill each other,” I wasn’t joking
He chuckled and spoke slowly, “Yes. Yes. I know all too well. I have granddaughters - they fight. You know what I do?”
"No, what?” I’ll take any help I can get.
“You want to know what I do?” he repeated, this was some build-up.
“Go on then. Tell me,” I said.
“This is what I do ...” As he began to tell me the compressor from the Vietnamese food truck beside him kicked in, drowning out his words. He continued, though, placing one of his hands on the stall table in front of him while making a hammering motion with the other one. I decided he was either telling me to hammer my children’s hands to a table when they fight, or give them a stamp. The compressor switched off again allowing his final words to be audible. “That’s what I do.”
I smiled: “Thanks for the poi and the advice.”
“Grandkids, grandkids,” he looked as though he was starting to nod off again.
I walk around another corner where I come across a large concrete stand of steps that face onto the enormous green flat racecourse. Beside the stand in a covered off area I come across two of the most intriguing people I have ever seen in my life.
These two people operate completely surrounded by large tables of hardware. It’s the equivalent of Mitre 10 Mega, but with much better bargains and loads more personality. On their heads the vendors are wearing black and gold Egyptian Nemes, the woman is standing on something that looks like a vibrating exercise machine. As market goers mill around their goods, the Egyptians take turns yelling out to the crowd on microphone. For the most part what they say is completely indecipherable.
One customer makes an enquiry about nuts. This sends the pleasantly chubby, Nemes wearing, woman into a frenzy of laughter, “Nuts, nuts, nuts,” she yells and laughs into the microphone. “Nuts, nuts, nuts,” I could have stood there for hours watching her, but I was starving by that stage and really needed to find a pork bun.
At this point, as much as I have been trying to avoid it, I realise that if I’m ever going to find my pork bun I am going to have to brave the fresh produce area. I had been purposely avoiding going there because although the bargains got better, (I’m talking ten for five or five for three good) I quite enjoyed being able to move my limbs freely.
Despite my poor attitude, I made my way down the small slope and entered into the first aisle of produce bargains. The produce area is probably the most densely populated area of the markets. I am supposing that if you were any kind of cook this would be equivalent to culinary heaven. It would also be the most cost effective way to feed a large amount people, if you lived in Avondale you’d be mad to get your produce at the supermarket.
As well as your standard fruit and vege at extremely low prices there are all sorts of strange and exotic foods on offer. Vendors hand out plastic bags and take money like well-oiled machines, their helpers move quickly, loading and unloading plastic bins of produce. There is absolutely no hint of customer service in the fruit and veggie aisles, and to be honest it’s not really needed. If you get a bee in your bonnet and threaten not to buy from a vendor the truth is there are another two thousand less precious people either side of you who will.
Halfway down the second aisle the flow of people completely stalled. There is not a whole lot you can do when this happens except look at what is directly beside you. I find myself enticed by an enormous bag of oranges priced at two dollars. I grabbed the bag and find a coin to hand over to a lady who sits behind a cash register at the stall.
“These are a good price,” I tell the lady.
“Two dollars,” I can see she’s not into idle chitchat.
“Thank-you,” I say handing her my gold coin. She looks me up down and looks at the big bag of oranges. I guessed that she was sizing up by physical ability and as it turned out I was right.
“You’ll need a bag. I’ll give you another plastic bag,” she motioned to a young boy who trotted over with another plastic bag. “You’ll drop them. People push into you. Especially the Chinese they’re really pushy and they’re rude,” in truth I didn’t find them to be any more pushy than anyone else here, they just were not very apologetic about it.
I made my way out of the aisle carrying my oranges, socks and poi. It was an odd combination of items, considering I had only come to Avondale to find a steamed pork bun. That’s the thing about the markets, though, there's such a crazy unexpected mix of things for sale.
Polynesian ladies sell homemade duvets, pillows, and island food, an old European man sells scented coconut oil in between reading his paper. Stall after stall offers affordable styles of street wear in a range of colours and sizes. The toy stalls are awash with small children mesmerised by toys that sing and talk in a disturbing mix of English and another language that I couldn’t recognise.
I came across a stall selling an upbeat remix of island tunes. The music blares from the speakers while the depressed stall holder watches his colleague try to drum up business with a non-stop dancing display. It seems a shame that all his effort goes largely unnoticed by the crowd, but more than anything I guess it’s a sign of the times, people would rather download their music from the internet than buy C.D’s.
I pass by another man who rather than wait behind a stall table walks amongst the crowd trying to sell a game of trivial pursuit. “Trivial pursuit! Get your trivial pursuit! Genius edition!” I laughed. There were a lot of used board games on offer at the markets. Earlier on another lady had tried to sell me a game of Cranium insisting that it was “hard out.” I supposed it would be hard out, considering it looked like it was missing some pieces.
Suddenly I see it. The steamed pork bun caravan. I must have walked right by it when I had gone to check out another sock stall that had claimed to have the “world’s best socks”. I lined up between two or three others and watched the tall thin man at the stall next door make fresh kettle corn in a huge steel kettle drum. He swished it around periodically and then tipped it out onto a large table where another lady shovelled it into clear plastic bags. Although it smelt fantastic, I wasn’t quite prepared to sell out on my pork bun dreams just yet.
“One pork bun please,” I felt like a kid standing at a Mr Whippy Van.
“Two fifty,” the man smiled down from his pork bun caravan window. I gave him my money and he turned, took the lid off one of the large steaming pots and placed a white hot bun into a paper bag.
“You want now or take away?” I had no idea what he meant. There was nowhere to sit so I opted for take away. I managed to walk about two steps from the caravan before I it all became too much for me and I just had to bite into the bun.
After my grand scale Sunday effort to locate this bun I end up disappointed. This was not the bun I remembered. The ratio of pork to bun was all wrong the whole thing tasted like dough. I end spitting it back into the bag and tossing it into a nearby bin.
Disillusioned with life and completely starving, I decide to head back to the area of the markets that has two or three hot food stalls. At times like this I know that there is nothing than can console me more than a bag of ten doughnuts for four dollars. It seems all wrong to be eating takeaway food at what would usually equate to breakfast time. But that’s what’s so great about the markets - you don’t have to uphold the usual laws of society.
You don’t have to sit around your breakfast table at 8am with a dull old bowl of cornflakes and milk. If you want you can eat doughnuts for breakfast. If you want you can eat hot chips, you can eat Chinese takeaways, you can eat fudge. Actually you don’t even really have to brush your hair and get out of your pyjamas.
At the Avondale markets you get a sense of people just as everyday folk. There is none of the up-market grandeur that you might come across in the heart of Auckland city. There are no super yachts, corporate suits, or high priced small portion servings of food. If you ever felt you were getting too big for your boots, you’d want to come to a place like this just because it’s good for you.
In this moment I realise that even if my steamed pork bun venture was a complete failure, I still felt O.K. There something kind of grounding about being at the Avondale markets. I guess it’s because I live in such an affluent area where everybody and everything (except for me) is quite flash.
After my soul searching moment alone with doughnuts I decided that I had better head home. The whole venture had only cost me about forty dollars, twenty for the gas and twenty to fulfil my consumer desires. The markets are cheap I don’t think anyone can possibly leave without having bought something. I made my way back to the car unsure of whether I would be able to navigate my way onto the motorway and home. By now I was too tired to think about climbing a pylon, but I could always offer strangers oranges or a pair of socks for directions.
© Arney Bingham
[Steamed Pork Buns]