See Woo

Horn Lane, SE10

Yes, it’s a supermarket, yes, it’s a chain – but at least it’s interesting.

First things first – don’t bother with the ‘proper’ car park. Like all car parks round here it gets stupidly full. I’ve never seen fisticuffs at this one (whereas I absolutely have witnessed all sorts of displays of human rage at the Asda and Sainsburys car parks and always try to walk or take the bus if at all possible) but it’s never going to be an easy park. Go right into the overflow bit and walk a few metres. It’ll be good for your mental as much as your physical health.

Inside, the wholesale bit is to the left. I don’t know the rules on this – it’s supposed to be a cash & carry, but I’ve never had any trouble buying anything without ‘business’ credentials. Great sacks and boxes of things are piled high on pallets – you can get normal-sized packs of things in the right-hand section. Fruit and veg at the front, cold stuff behind, dried and tinned goods to one side and live stuff, mainly fish and sea food, to the very right.

It’s great fun to browse, less easy if you have a shopping list and don’t know quite what you’re looking for – does yellow bean paste come in a tin, a tube or a jar, for example? I’ve found the best way to find out is to ask – either the staff or other shoppers. Both have been equally helpful to me in the past. I’ve even been warned off buying a very cute tin of cookies by one customer as “they’re more expensive today because tomorrow’s a festival – come back next week and they’ll be half price…”

Spices are particularly good value. You might pay £ 1.50 for a tiny jar of Schwartz sesame seeds in Sainsbury’s – here you’ll get a veritable pillowcaseful for the same money.

My favourite bit is the cookware and fancy goods at the back to the left. Amazing giant pans, woks and racks jostle with great chinaware and cutlery. Paper lanterns and party favours, bunting and garlands, decorative tableware and children’s gifts are stacked in a manner guaranteed to keep my mother in there for a good hour and a half.

The great thing about See Woo is that holiday periods are different – they get busy at different times to most shops. It’s worth knowing which these are as trying to shop immediately before Chinese New Year is just as crazy as trying to buy a brussels sprout on Christmas Eve. On the other hand, purchasing vegetables in See Woo on Christmas Eve is relatively (only relatively, mind) quiet.

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