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.

View Larger Map

All recipes are on Petitchef

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Day Dedicated to Making Samosas

It's a grand day when your friends realise that, for all the years you've known them, you actually really love cooking. It's an even grander day when they invite you over to cook with them. Today, Laura and I are tackling Samosas. Why? Just because.

Half a batch of Giant Samosas
Samosas are a real favourite of mine -I can't remember ever going to a local market without being led by the nose to a man with his Samosa cart. The combination of spices is just amazing and, being packed to the brim with veggies, no one can tell me it's unhealthy! *blocks ears to the fact that it's deep fried*

Prep: Finely diced onion, potato, carrot and garlic
Out of all the Samosa recipes presented to us by Google, it is of no surprise that we picked one from a site completely dedicated to making Samosas -if someone is that serious about Samosas, they must be serious about getting the recipe right for these yummy Indian pastries.

Step 3: Add the vegetables, seasoning and stir well until coated

4. Simmer for 30 minutes until cooked and reduced
It never fails to amaze me how a finished food product always makes it seem as if it would take years at a cooking school to develop the right technique, hours of prep and cooking time to come up with something yummy. The only time consuming part of this recipe is preparing the vegetables -but if you're a pro with a knife, it should be a breeze.
Step 6: Make a well into the centre and add the oil and enough water to make a firm dough
Step 7: Knead the dough on a floured surface until smooth and roll into a ball
The dough is amazingly easy to make and surprisingly stretchy -a little ball goes a long way!

Step 10: Roll each piece into a ball and roll out into a circle of 15 cm. We were really hungus so we didn't bother cutting them in half

Step 13: Fill the cases with a tblpns of your chosen mixture

Dumpling/Pastie Style!

Waiting for the oil to heat up: the cooking equivalent of watching paint dry

Yields 24 normal Samosas or this many big hungus people ones

As I'm writing this, I have my eyes glued to the news and my ears listening intently to the horrible news of the earthquake that hit Christchurch yesterday (while we were making these Samosas actually). I'm sure most of you have noticed. Hardly any time was allowed for these Cantabrians to rebuild after a massive 7.1 earthquake last year before this even more devastating one occured.

Please, if you have the means, help in any way you can. For those in New Zealand with a spare room or even a spare couch go here to offer it to a Cantabrian and, for those who are unable, please donate to the Christchurch quake appeal -these brave New Zealanders need your help.

Vegetable Samosas (makes 24 or 12 large)

Open up to reveal the goodness

Filling Ingredients:

1 Potato finely diced (5 to 10 mill cubes)
1 carrot finely diced - as above
2 cloves of crushed garlic.
1 Onion finely chopped
1 Cup of frozen peas
1 tblspn vegetable oil
2 tspn curry powder or your own spices according to taste
Salt, Pepper to taste.
100ml of vegetable stock.

Pastry Ingredients:

225gm. plain flour
2 tspn. salt
2tblspb. vegetable oil
80 ml warm water.


1. Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the onion and garlic
2. Mix in  the spices and fry until soft
3. Add the vegetables, seasoning and stir well until coated
4. Add the stock, cover and simmer for 30 minutes until cooked and reduced

While the filling is simmering, we will make the dough.

5. Mix flour and salt into a bowl
6. Make a well into the centre and add the oil and enough water to make a firm dough
7. Knead the dough on a floured surface until smooth and roll into a ball
8. Cover in plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes
9. Divide the pastry into 12 equal pieces
10. Roll each piece into a ball and roll out into a circle of 15 cm
11. Divide this circle into two equal pieces with a knife
12. Brush each edge with a little water and form a cone shape around your fingers, sealing the dampened edge
13. Fill the cases with a tblpns of your chosen mixture and press the two dampened edges together to seal the top of the cone (alternatively, be lazy and make them dumpling style like we did)
14. Deep fry the samosas in hot oil until crisp and brown take out and drain on a paper towel
15. EAT THEM!!
16. Donate

All recipes are on Petitchef

Monday, February 21, 2011

La Bocca -Parnell

The fact that we were told La Bocca was booked out three weeks in advance for Valentines Day shows just how popular this Italian restaurant really is. We had to settle for two days after.

The centerpieces still give off the Valentines Day feel
We were the first people to arrive that night and I was slightly nervous about being the only ones in a small, quiet restaurant and that we would be forced to make hushed conversation lest it echo. Luckily, La Bocca's popularity was not limited to Valentines Day -guests started streaming in before we had even ordered and, before long, it was completely filled.

The very outgoing manager -Nenad
We spend at least 10 minutes ogling our surroundings and the pretty centerpieces before we even thought about looking at the menu -the furniture, art and music make us feel as if we're in a little Italy of our own. A traditional Italian menu usually has 7 courses followed by coffee and digestives and an apéritif to start but, because we're not awesome eating machines, Jason and I only have room for a pasta course and a main course between the two of us. 

"No dessert?" asks the manager, Nenad.

I only wish I had a bigger stomach.

Bruschetta al Pomodoro -$8.50
Everything about La Bocca demands attention. Especially its menu. I had glanced at the online menu before arriving but, even then, I could not decide what I wanted to order -everything just looked too good! Between trying to limit the dishes we wanted and trying to pronounce their names in funny accents, we finally settled on Bruschetta as our starter. 

The portion sizes are so big that it barely fits on my plate
 Everything about this dish, from the portion size to its taste, wowed me. The thick Italian bread was crunchy on the outside, soft in the center and topped with tomato, garlic, basil and olive oil. The combination of the warm bread and the cool tomato salad was very refreshing and quite satisfying.

Tortellini al Gorgonzola -$25.00

For our "Primo" (first course)we settled on chicken tortellini covered in a creamy blue cheese and brandy sauce. The pasta was cooked to perfection and the sauce was full of cheesy goodness without overpowering the pasta.

Saltimbocca di Pollo -$34.00
We had so much fun trying to pronounce the name of this dish which is probably one of the main reasons we ordered it. Pan fried chicken breast with Pancetta and Brie on pumpkin flan and creamy mushroom sauce. What's not to like?

To get a better look at the deconstructed Salt-um-bo-kka-di-po-llo
The sweetness of the pumpkin flan compliments the chicken and savoury sauce while the brie satisfied my cheese obsession without overpowering everything else. Our pumpkin flan was a little burnt around the edges but we found that it actually added a smokiness which just worked to highlight its sweetness. Awesome.

We did have a little trouble trying to halve the piece of broccoli that came with our dish but Jason, being the gentleman that he is, let me have it. Double awesome.

Very cosy atmosphere
 Anyone who has watched Jersey Shore will know that even the super skinny cast has a full on 7 course meal when their family comes over to visit. I once put it down to tiny portion sizes leaving everyone wanting more but, after tonight, I am floored -both by the portion sizes and by the fact I am too full to move.

7 courses of an Italian meal
7 courses of an Italian meal:

Antipasi: hot or cold appetizers
Primi: "first course", usually consists of a hot dish like pasta, risotto, gnocchi, polenta or soup
Secondi: "second course", the main dish, usually fish or meat
Contorti: "side dish", may be a salad or cooked vegetables.
Formaggi e frutta: the first dessert consisting of "cheese and fruits" (this is separated on the photo above)
Dolci: "sweet" dessert such as cakes and cookies

How do those Italians stay so skinny and pretty? We have decided that we need to do some serious eating training before attempting such a meal -but we are definitely going to take one on soon.

With its menu filled with amazingly tasting food and authentic atmosphere, La Bocca is definitely somewhere to go for a catch up with friends or just to pig out. The manager, Nenad, is amazingly friendly, attentive and is always ready to give his recommendation. 

"Everything tastes good here! But the risotto is my favourite"

I can't wait to come back.

La Bocca can be found at 251 Parnell Rd, Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand

View Larger Map

All recipes are on Petitchef