Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Lantern Festival

One of the best things about Auckland is the incredible melting pot culture it has fostered. A walk down Queen St almost guarantee that you'll see people from at least 3 or 4 different cultural backgrounds and it's impossible to go a year in Auckland without attending at least 3 or 4 cultural festivals. 

New Zealand does not lack sheep. Even in lantern form. Sometimes even people think they're farm animals.
 Tonight we visit the annual Lantern Festival held in Albert park over three days which celebrates the 15th day after Chinese New Year. The 15th night of the new year is also the first full moon and thousands of lanterns are lit up to accompany nature's own. Traditionally, people would eat Tang Yuan, solve lantern riddles and generally have a swell time with their families.

Under the sea *do do do do*
Having been to the lantern festival every year for as long as I can remember, I fasted the whole day (Jason too) in preparation for the countless food stalls that would be awaiting us along Princes St. I know I should be in the park appreciating the lanterns but, I have to be honest with you, I'm here for the food. Besides, there will be plenty of time for lanterns when it gets dark!

Uhh.. There's a dragon in my fountain..
 After finding a park in the very crowded CBD (we only managed to get one because we were early) we headed up to Albert Park and immediately honed in on the food. Our friend, Francesca, was probably about 4 steps ahead of us and had arrived hours ago to take advantage of the short lines. She had already had her fill of delicious morsels and was still eager to take us through all the stalls giving advice on what she thought was best..

Malaysian Stall lady constructing my deep fried tofu. Unfortunately I was too hungry at the time to remember to take a photo of their sign.
Deep fried tofu covered in a plum sauce, blanched bean sprouts, shredded carrot, and peanut crumble
 Even with her expertise, I wanted to start at the beginning and walk all the way to the end (and maybe back again but there wasn't enough time). The first thing that caught my eye was this middle aged lady eating a bowl of deep fried tofu. I'm a total sucker for these and simply had to retrace her steps back to a little Malaysian stall where a little Malaysian (I think?) lady was hurriedly making bowls of delicious tofu salad behind a mountain of deep fried tofu. To tell the truth, I would have been satisfied if I was given the tofu by themselves but the plum sauce really gave it that extra kick. The bean sprouts and carrot added a different texture while the peanuts gave it a whole new depth of flavour -I could have bowls and bowls of this, but more stalls await me!

King of Sausages!

A real guilty pleasure of mine is secretly eating Chinese sausages, or Lap Chong, in my room. These babies are not like your ordinary sausages -they are at least 70% fat which is why, I suppose, they are so delicious. I call them a guilty pleasure because, when I was much younger, I could never stop at one. Yes, I was one of those chubby kids. Years later, my parents only purchase them on rare occasions such as Chinese New Year a few weeks ago. I have to confess -I snuck one or two into my room when my mother wasn't around which cost me a helping of her delicious Kai Yun Fried Rice.

Trying to look nonchalant as he squirts sausage fat onto his shirt..
I could barely contain my excitement when I saw The Sausage King. I immediately ran (as fast as one could through a massive crowd) towards the stall so I could stand in line. Sausage-on-a-stick stalls are everywhere in China and it is not uncommon to see 3 or 4 stalls right next to one another! Sadly, they are very rare in Auckland.
..But I saw
Chinese sausages are dried pork sausages that look quite similar to pepperoni, but are much much sweeter -and have more pockets of fat. They are flavoured with salt, red pepper and wild pepper and are cured by smoking and air drying. Francesca was less than impressed with the more-fat-than-actual-sausage sausage, but Jason seemed to like it. He even saved some on his shirt for the ride home.
Fluffy BBQ Pork Bun from The Sausage King
Feeling like a 5 minute wait in line was too long to get just one sausage, I felt the need to purchase some BBQ pork buns to make my wait worthwhile. I probably could have done without. Though I could deal with the average BBQ pork filling, I was quite disappointed with the overall look and texture of the bun itself. It was dry, crumbly and made me feel as if I was eating polystyrene. Oh well, it can only go up from here!
樂素食 -Happy Vegetarian Food (excuse my translation)
Deep fried custard filled bun from "Happy Vegetarian Food"
And up it went. It is unusual when Jason gets more excited about food than me, but on rare occasions (like when desserts are involved) he is the first there. So there I was casually taking photos of some people making Japanese pancakes when I noticed Jason wildly gesturing behind me and imagine my surprise when I see deep fried buns as big as my head! "We must get some" he says and immediately heads for the line.

I was quite taken by the crunchy exterior but that was about it. After I got through its outer shell, I was quite disappointed with the very gloopy centre. Jason was ecstatic with it so I left him with his treat while I went in search for food more suited to my taste.

Monthien -Thai Stall
Fish cake skewer and steamed money bags
Upon our arrival, Francesca would not shut up about fish cakes and money bags from a certain Thai stall so it was only natural that we pay them a visit. Sadly, they were out of deep fried money bags and we weren't patient enough to wait the 10 minutes for a new batch. Yet another regret. Instead of the crunchy savoury treats we had looked forward to, we were met with a great filling wrapped in dry pastry that had been cooked too long. The fish cakes were another matter -hot and juicy, they were soft and packed full of flavour. I find that I prefer these to your average battered fish cakes as they allow for more of the fresh taste of the fish, spices, and herbs to come through.

Mini Siu Mai from HKESA Stall -I can never help myself from these delicious morsels
One of the great things about events in Auckland is that anyone can take part, whether it be as a guest or even part of the event itself. When I say anyone, I mean anyone -even student clubs from the surrounding universities! It was pretty hard to ignore the giant HKESA banner (Hong Kong Engineering Students' Association) and even harder to ignore the delicious smell of Siu Mai slowly wafting my way. I was told that there was a 1 minute waiting time for them and, being the patient person I am, I cheered along with them as they came out of the steamer. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when I saw these sad little things but, when I actually tasted one, I was blown away. The pastry is a much thinner version of it's regular sized counterpart so your taste buds are able to focus on its flavoursome pork filling. 

Small children dragon waving
While exploring, we were mildly aware of being politely shoved to make way for some loud banging noises. Being quite small, I was able to push to the front of the kerfuffle just in time to see some dragon waving! Excellent.

IS2 Snow Ice
Francesca and I with our "Shakespeare in Love" Snow Ice
With our tummies satisfied and our entertainment needs fulfilled, we headed towards iS2 to make our dessert tummies happy. I was introduced to the miracle of Snow Ice when I first joined the University of Auckland Dessert Club as a fresh faced first year and have fallen in love. Snow Ice is kind of like a creamy, milky, icy, thingy.. Agh, it's just yummy ok?

I admit it. I'm still not entirely sure what it is. Even they can't tell me! "It’s a bit hard to describe what exactly IS Snow Ice since there is nothing currently similar to it in New Zealand. It’s not ice cream, not sorbet, not gelato and not your ordinary shaved ice." See? You'll just have to head over to iS2 in Atrium on Elliot and try it for yourselves. 

Lantern Riddles (they would traditionally be on lanterns)

6 stamps for 6 correct riddle answers
And what would a lantern festival be without some good ol' fashioned lantern riddles? Since guessing the riddles can be as hard as shooting a tiger, these brain-teasers have been nicknamed "lantern tigers." As a kid, I would always look to my father to solve these difficult riddles and redeem the prize for myself but it looks like I don't need his help anymore =)

The Grand Prize -Tang Yuan!
Once we had received our 6 stamps, we were off to the Tang Yuan stall to collect our prize.  These Tang Yuan were quite different to the ones I made a few days ago mainly because they are unfilled. To add flavour to these glutinous rice balls, they are cooked in some Chinese rice wine (not to be confused with Chinese cooking wine) and then sweetened. I cannot think of a more fitting prize.

By this time, hours had passed and we still hadn't gone to all the food stalls but the sun had set and it was getting pretty dark. Perfect for admiring lanterns.

The lantern festival is held over 3 days (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) in Albert Park each year and never fails to attract thousands of people. Check it out here and mark it on your calendar for next year so you don't miss out on yummy food and pretty lights!

Don't be worried if you think you've missed out on delicious snow ice though. iS2 can be found on level 1, Atrium on Elliot in Auckland's CBD.

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All recipes are on Petitchef


  1. Lovely reportage, thank you, and thank you also for your message :-)


  2. What a wonderful festival! Local events like this are always the best! Really enjoyed your pictures - it felt like I was there!!! (Thanks for your visit - hope to see you again!) Happy weekend!

  3. What a busy looking day! At least not all the food was disappointing, it's hard to get it just right in market stall conditions. The lanterns look beautiful.

  4. Oooh I got all excited when you mentioned Lup Cheong! I love it with just plain steamed rice. And yes I could just eat sticks and sticks of it too :P

  5. Oh dear... boys and their sausage fat. Looks like a lot of fun :)