Fusing heritage one poké at a time in Durban

Fusing heritage one poké at a time in Durban
Hole-in-the-wall Poké Box honcho Thomas Wright serves it up. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Culinary roots and traditions preserved, cultivated, created as Hawaii meets Vietnam meets Korea out of a hole in the wall in Morningside. We are what we eat. And made richer by the variety of it.

Heritage. Custom. Culture. Tradition. Roots. Things one thinks about around now. So how about Hawaii meets Vietnam meets Korea meets China for a munch-and-slurp fest via Australia right here, right now, in Durban? That being a condensed version and the essence of the story behind Thomas Wright’s hot-pink strip-lit hole-in-the-wall find-it-if-you-can converted garage takeaway joint in a bougainvillea-meets-barbed wire single lane easement, if one can use this term for a narrow service alley that runs for a block parallel to Florida Road.

“I was 10 or 11 when I started cooking. My parents divorced. My father got hold of this lever arch file into which he stuck recipes. Things like roast chicken, beef olives, cottage pie, mac and cheese. He liked to go and spend time sitting in the pub at the Point Yacht Club. He also liked to come back to a nice home-cooked meal.”

There were three sons. They were assigned to follow the filed instructions; prepare the home-cooked meals. “My oldest brother, though, would drink the milk, eat the bread.” Breaking bad from “the method” of the filed instructions. “So dinner prep was left to my middle brother and me,” says Wright, who is candid, funny; with gravitas and at the same time, a lightness of being.

Child labour, you’re perhaps thinking? In fact, the foundation of what would grow into a passion for cooking, which in turn led not only to a fall-back career but now, a full-time calling.

In fact, a great deal more than full-time.

Tuna and salmon poké boxes await their toppings pending pick-up. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Wright is currently running a one-man show that sometimes sees Mr D, Uber Eats and several customers lined up waiting for him to chop, stir-fry, take a WhatsApp order, wash woks, assemble and serve: poké, hot boxes, ramen, his Korean bibimbap “rice mixed with stuff” boxes, which he tops with fried egg… Fish and fowl. Veggie and vegan. 

He got into making poké meals when he added them as a specialty item at a noodle joint, Komin, he opened in Kommetjie, which was doing pretty well for him pre-Covid. “I loved the poké. I felt I could eat it every day, every meal. I thought I’d love to have a poké bar.”

After being shut down by Covid lockdown, a friend said: “Come back to Durban where you have so many friends.” He loaded his wok, his steamers, his chopping knives and all he could fit into a trailer, attached it to his little old jalopy and hit the road.

He got to Durban the day before lockdown. “Spent most of my savings on just surviving. Then started the Poké Box,” initially out of a friend’s pantry near the Durban University of Technology. With, from kick-off, a strong social media presence.

As luck would have it, at some point a different friend suggested a group of other friends try the poké boxes, which group included architect-designer Richard Stretton, who lists among his projects the 2021 SAIA-KZN award-winning (for architecture) Dukkah Restaurant & Bar on Florida Road, which we wrote about in an article here.

“Richard was like, he’s got this place behind his house. And he had the idea to knock the hole in the wall. I had the idea to put the pink strip light around the hole. It’s quite iconic. I like it very much. Anyway, he’s been very good to me and very supportive in so many ways.”

Durban heritage veggie scene yields freshness. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Inside this hole in the wall is where I get to meet Wright, hang out with him and his service dog and companion, Mo, short for Giaco“mo” Puccini, as in the Italian composer. Service dog because Wright is deaf in one ear and can’t hear too well out the other and needs an extra pair of ears.

Back to near the beginning. How Wright graduated from cooking those kind-of Anglo-Saxon middle-of-the-road lever arch-filed meals to running his hot little gig that is making waves across Durban. A gig that also involves him running around for supplies to Pro Veg on Umgeni Road for his veggies; Sun Sun Supermarket in Durban North, his favourite Asian outlet for black rice, the seaweed that replaces rice for a banting option, bean sprouts when those he grows aren’t keeping up with demand; and Bartho Brothers for his fish, which we previously wrote about in TGIFood here.

Back after he finished school (Glenwood High), his dad, whose second wife had twice been hijacked, decided to emigrate to Australia. Did his youngest son want to go with him?

“I thought, why not?”

And so begins the story of his career as a cook.

“I was keen to study art. My dad thought I should study engineering first, to fall back on.” So he enrolled at a college in Brisbane, where they’d settled, to study laser engineering. Which he did until his dad was made redundant. At which point, “to make money to live in Brisbane, I started washing dishes”.

It was at a trendy café called Fatboys. “A 24-hour joint with a sort of military chef who had cooked for generals, would hide his beers behind the lettuces,” and who taught Wright – who worked the graveyard shift – his knife skills “chopping, chopping, chopping, among other things 50kg of mushrooms” before prepping 30 litres of scrambled eggs.

Within a couple of years the dishwasher, under the chef’s beady eye and attention to good kitchen practices in others, had learned to cook “everything” including steaks and many 3am breakfasts for the drunk and disorderly. But while Wright was doing all the cooking, he was still earning dishwasher wages.

So he left to work at a nearby Malaysian restaurant, where he learned the refinements of nasi goreng, chicken korma and the likes.

Then he decided to move closer to the sea and got a job at a Vietnamese restaurant in Wollongong south of Sydney, where he spent two years as sous-chef working at the wok and learning about authentic Vietnamese food and techniques from two elderly women who spoke little English, hated each other, but took delight in instructing him.

He subsequently spent time as head chef at a Sydney sports bar, also getting to know the city’s haute cuisine dining scene. The sports bar people he worked with, though, he found racist, bigoted, homophobic. “Ultimately, I was unhappy in Australia. I got psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. More from unhappiness than from stress.” His mom, who by then had returned to South Africa after a few years in England, suggested he come back. So he did.

Opened a restaurant called Vanille, in Kloof, with a friend. “Café food. I made my own sourdough bread and pasta. A salad called ‘frog in the hill’, with Parmesan and toasted pine nuts,” that some people still remember.

After two years there, Wright headed for the UK and spent 10 years in London, working with cameras in the film industry. Often thinking, he says, from around 10am what he would make for dinner and eating out a lot but not working with food.

Which he got back into, when having returned to South Africa – Cape Town, where he worked, again, in film, for a spell – he set up his Kommetjie noodle bar. Which took him about a year-and-a-half to “kind of find my groove and I was doing pretty well to keep myself alive. But then the virus came.” 

Quick stop at this Durban North Asian market for black rice. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

I had my first poké box at a First Thursday at the KZNSA gallery in Glenwood a couple of months ago. I asked for the salmon from among the three options (tuna and tofu were the others), which I would learn was Norwegian (the fish), which Wright includes with mixed feelings. Knows it is sashimi quality and people want it.

But also that it has come a long way. And he is committed to no plastic; biodegradable cardboard boxes; the best ingredients he can afford, where possible local. Sustainable meets pragmatic.

I had no clue at the time who was making the poké, which word I think most readers will know refers, in Hawaiian, to seafood (most often) cut into small chunks and marinated. Just loved the chewy black rice, the crunchiness of the pickled daikon, slivers of raw carrot and red cabbage, the tang of the marinated salmon, the plump green smoothness of the edamame, the smokiness of the leeks, the bite of the wasabi dressing. Textures and mouth feel. And I’m sure there was more.

The next First Thursday I chose the Underberg rainbow trout poké ceviched in lemon juice, which came, again, with the crunch, the textures, the trimmings.

Then independently, I heard about this little poké place near Florida Road. Put two-and-two together. And went to find it. Which was not so easy, until I requested help from a friend who lives nearby, who walked me there. True story.

It was last Saturday night that I ordered a “hot box”, as in Wright’s sechuan (sic) noodle and chicken stir-fried, which came overwhelmed (this said as a positive) by the crunch of bean sprouts, spinach, carrot and red cabbage. The whole lot drenched in his version of mild kung pao sauce.

Wright preps and steams fresh bao buns as needed throughout the day. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

It was only after this that, by googling, I got a name for the man who dispenses boxes from his box. Had my morning brightened, scanned his fun Instagram and Facebook posts. And his website, which thoughtfully suggests one might “Let the Poké Box craft your bespoke low-cost shotgun wedding, film shoot, or corporate team-building gig (not another pizza party, puke puke)… no-fuss, low carbon catering, no plates, no washing up. We can even supply DJs, bands and fire-breathers…”

Which is when I WhatsApped him via a number I found on Facebook and pitched a story on this quirky person and place to my esteemed TGIFood editor. Joined Wright in the informal pristine kitchen he’s set up, watched him make his bao buns and chop, chop, chop his veggies ahead of opening time.

My time there with him, his journey, got me thinking of our (all of our) food journeys. About heritage and legacy and roots and how many versions of these mingle, merge and meld for us. Heritage by our history. Heritage by our lifestyle. Heritage refined and reborn. Heritage blended and fused. Yours, mine and ours. Classic heritage, as in tradition and legacy. What we want to ensure is preserved. Not have become extinct. We are what we eat. And made richer by the variety of it. DM/TGIFood

Visit the Poké Box website, Durban Poké Box on Facebook and on Instagram

The author supports Food Forward SA, committed to a South Africa without hunger. Please support them here.


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