IN FOCUS Winter Special
Coconut, paprika & peanuts:
By Biju Sukumaran 2 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER INDIA | NOVEMBER 2013
The Portuguese arrived in Macau in the 16th century and stayed until 1999, when the island was handed back to China. The colonial influence is still discernible in Macau’s kitchens, its lively food scene, and the colourful, pastel bungalows that line the city’s streets. Facing page: Street-side cafes serve minchee (in the photograph), African curries, bacalhau, and shrimp dumplings in chilli oil.
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Macau’s food combines influences from China, Portugal, and Africa.
Macau’s fusion cuisine
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IN FOCUS Winter Special
o most tourists, Macau is the Las Vegas of the East, a town where baccarat is king. But I want to get beyond the town’s glitzy exterior. I wander for a while until I find myself in the back alleys of Taipa Island, where life has a slower pace. The old neighbourhood is a far cry from the city centre. On Rua do Cunha, I walk past a string of Portuguese restaurants, pausing outside a place called O Santos. Old Portuguese men sit on porch tables, sipping port wine and snacking on grilled sardines and sliced, fried chorizo. Occasionally, the chef comes out to chat with the customers, breaking into a flurry of Portuguese. A few metres away, Chinese tourists furiously snap pictures of vendors pounding meat for soy-flavoured pork jerky.The restaurants I pass reflect how many kinds of people— Chinese, African, Indian, and European—have left their mark on this former Portuguese colony over the centuries.
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norm in this Asian iteration. The next day in the neighbourhood of Coloane, I visit the original Lord Stow’s, the most famous bakery in Macau. Their specialty is egg tarts: sweet, and served hot or cold. The surface of the crumbly pastry is caramelised, like crème brulée encased in puff pastry. Andrew Stow opened the first outlet in the 1980s and based his recipe on the Portuguese pastel de nata. Though rival chains have since opened (including a shop owned by his ex-wife), Lord Stow’s is by far the most widespread, with franchises as far away as Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. The blend that characterises Macanese food is echoed in the architecture, a curious mix of Asian and European, as well in as the new casino buildings, with their fanciful recreations of world landmarks. As more cultures journey to Macau, they’re mingling with classic dishes and altering them just a little. Brushing away crumbs of pastry, I amble through the colonnaded streets of Coloane, where the buildings are painted pastel shades of green and yellow. The alleys are filled with locals laughing and chatting after Mass. Next to St. Francis Xavier Church, restaurants have set up tables that spill on to the square, and groups are sitting down to a late lunch. Macau has long been considered a gambling town, a glittery James Bond city that gives Las Vegas more than a run for its money. But as I look around at waiters bringing out seafood and wine, there’s not a casino in sight. From my point of view, it’s clear that Macau is also a foodie town.
Macau has a vibrant streetfood culture. Pork buns (left), pulled pork rolls, and fried fish are popular snacks; Macanese bakeries pride themselves on their custard tarts (middle), baked pastry cups filled with luscious egg custard; Coloane, Macau’s southernmost island, is known for its beaches and traditional cuisine. Portuguese favourites like codfish with garlic chips (right) are served in restaurants on the coast.
NOVEMBER 2013 | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER INDIA 5
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The surface of the crumbly pastry is caramelised, like crème brulée encased in puff pastry
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The best way to soak in Macau’s fusion food is to spend time trawling the markets. Street side stalls everywhere sell sweet and salty sheets of dried meat are found everywhere.
As is often the case, when cultures coexist, they produce delicious fusions. To sample Macanese food is to take a journey along the trade routes that Portugal dominated when it had a grand maritime empire. Macanese dishes use bacalhau, or salted cod, which was perfect for long sea voyages, along with spices from Portugal’s other Asian colony—Goa. Macanese cuisine also reflects the Portuguese fondness for wine and snacks. These influences are layered over older Chinese tastes, so although any given eatery may serve sangria, there’s always a place for a Cantonese dish or two. But Macanese food is difficult to track down. Though it’s sometimes present in the menus of predominantly Portuguese or Chinese restaurants, it’s mostly found in the homes of families who have passed down recipes from one generation to the next. Among the Macanese staples is minchee, a ground-meat dish made with beef or pork seasoned with soy sauce. It’s often served with rice flavoured with Worcestershire sauce, with cubed potato, and occasionally with an egg on top. I don’t have a Macanese family to cook me minchee, so I do the next best thing. I grab a seat in the spacious Dumbo Restaurant, that bills itself as an establishment for Portuguese and Macanese cuisine. I order the African Chicken, which turns out to be a blackened barbequed chicken in a spicy red sauce. It’s a relatively new dish, having been created only in the 1940s, but it’s a great symbol of Macanese multiculturalism. The coconut milk used in the dish is said to originate from Goa, the paprika from Portugal, while the peanuts are reminiscent of African cuisine. After wandering past churches and small Buddhist shrines, past the museums of Taipa, I stop for a snack at a hole-in-the-wall eatery. It’s nothing more than a few tables and a grizzled woman manning a vat of bubbling oil carrying the smell of fat and salt. Zhuba bao is the Macanese answer to fish and chips—it’s a whole, deep-fried pork chop on the bone, tucked in a bun. It’s similar to bifana, a pork cutlet sandwich served in Lisbon, flavoured with paprika and garlic. But five spice, soy, and ginger tend to be the
IN FOCUS Winter Special
Serving up local specialities Macau teems with unusual flavours. This dining guide will help make the most of your meals in the city. A Petisqueira has more locals than tourists—an instant stamp of approval. It is where Macau’s Portuguese descendants get their fix of steamed clams, sole with lemon-butter sauce, and Portuguese-style tenderloin steak (with garlic and white wine). All meals are better with a glass of full-bodied Portuguese wine and a plate of queijo frescal da casa (fresh, local cheese) within arm’s reach (Taipa Village).
Solmar was originally a private club where politicians and visiting dignitaries dined on bacalhau balls, crab curry, and lingered over glasses of tiered serradura, a pudding, made with condensed milk, cream, and crushed tea biscuits. A meal at Solmar can be on the pricey side (especially the seasonal seafood) but the restaurant’s classy, Portuguese-style interiors and old staff guarantee a memorable evening (Rua da Praia Grande; solmar-macau.com). Lou Kei features in the Michelin guide for its shrimp roe bamboo-rolled noodles. The once ramshackle eatery now has an airconditioned dining room, an English menu, and of course, higher prices. Oldies mourn the eatery’s gentrification but that doesn’t stop them from lining up for Lou Kei’s perfectly al dente egg noodles with shrimp roe and fresh shrimp dumplings (Travessa de Inacio Sarmento de Carvalho).
A number of eateries dot Rua do Cunha, a narrow, pedestrian street in Taipa Village. roast suckling pig that attracts patrons all the way from Hong Kong (Taipa Village). Lord Stow’s egg tarts are a more indulgent take on the Portuguese pastel de nata. The charming bakery has two branches: a café with a courtyard garden where customers can tuck into sandwiches, and a bakery known for its crusty bread and sunshineyellow egg tarts, fresh from the oven (Coloane; lordstow.com). Henri’s Galley is a restaurant with views of Sai Van Lake and Macau Tower. It has a nautical theme and serves Macanese fare like piri-piri chicken, chorizo potatoes, and spicy chicken curry that soldiers from Mozambique here in the 1940s liked (Avenida da Republica; henrisgalley.com).
Galo serves homely, Macanese fare with a heavy Portuguese influence. The kitchen cooks up traditional recipes like prawns in chilli oil, paella, and cozido, a hearty meat stew that is getting increasingly rare on restaurant menus. Galo has quirky, kitschy interiors and a
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Choi Heong Yuen and Koi Kei are two of Macau’s most popular bakeries. Both sell Portuguese egg tarts, almond cakes, and egg rolls, and are great stops to make for food souvenirs. The shelves are filled with bottles of ginger-sesame candy, moon cakes, pork jerky, and seaweed-flavoured preserved fruit (both bakeries have numerous branches; choi-heong-yuen.com; koikei.com). O Santos is a Portuguese restaurant housed in a three-storey Chinese-style bungalow. At lunch, there is a lavish Portuguese buffet spread. In the evening, pitchers of sangria raise spirits as the kitchen dishes up plates of oxtail stew, stuffed pork loin, and grilled lamb chops (Rua do Cunha; osantoscomidaportuguesa.com). Dumbo Restaurante does brisk service doling out crisp, fried sardines, large pork buns, steak and onions, and grilled pork. The Portuguese-leaning Macanese eatery is popular for its generous portions and quick, no-nonsense service (Taipa Village; macaudumbo.com). —Neha Sumitran
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Wong Chi Kei is a third-generation restaurant where silky, springy Cantonese noodles are still made by hand. It attracts diplomats, housewives, and hungry tourists hankering for pork fried rice and bowls of wonton noodles in oyster sauce. The cuttlefish congee with jellyfish and roasted peanuts is also very popular (Ruya Cinco de Outubro and Largo do Senado; wongchikei.com).