By Jonathan Evans
Macanese food might not be one of Asia’s best-known cuisines – aside from Portuguese egg tarts, it’s unusual to find Macanese dishes in cities outside the territory – but it’s surely one of the most idiosyncratic. Renowned for its mix-and-match approach, the style was born when Portuguese settlers and sailors arrived in the territory in the early imperial era of the mid-16th century, bringing with them European ingredients as well as foods from Portuguese colonies along the way such as Goa in India and the Malaysian city of Melaka. Marrying these exotic tastes with local Chinese ingredients, and adding seasonings that the European wives concocted to replicate the tastes of home, their experiments gave rise to a creole cuisine – commonly flavoured with spices (turmeric, cinnamon) and coconut milk – that’s regarded by some chefs as the world’s first fusion food.
It’s easy to get a feel for Macau’s distinctive flavours by venturing down the alleyways off the main thoroughfare Avienda de Almeida Ribeiro, or around Taipa Village, where stallholders sell all kinds of local favourites. The only thing more impressive than the taste of a pork chop bun – a variant of Portugal’s bifana – is its simplicity: literally, a marinated, tender pork chop in a warm bun. Other unpretentious, old-school fare found on these “food streets” includes pork offal congee and pork knuckles ginger stew (trotters simmered in ginger, black vinegar, rice wine, sesame oil and brown sugar). On some streets in peninsular Macau, you can mix contrasting flavours – such as tofu and fish balls – into a bowl before they are cooked and presented to you on a skewer served with spicy curry sauce.
Pork Ball Congee and Pork Chop Bun (Right)
African-style chicken (galinha à Africana) is a fine example of the widespread influences of Macanese food. Colonialists would often stop at Cape of Good Hope in South Africa on the way to the Far East, and their voyages were reflected in this hearty dish of chicken smothered in a thick peanut, tomato and chilli sauce. There are variants on Portuguese dishes such as rabbit rice (arroz de cabidela), which in Macau is re-imagined as duck rice (pato de cabidela); while tapas, a food style more commonly associated with Spain, is another staple in this former colony. Capella is a meat loaf-style concoction made from cheese, black olives and bread crumbs, and topped with bacon, while dishes emblematic of Macau’s seafaring tradition include Macanese chilli shrimps and stir-fried curry crab.
Macanese Baked Duck Rice and African Chicken (Right)
Macanese Fried Rice and Curry Crab (Right)
Macau’s desserts are arguably more celebrated than its savoury dishes. The Portuguese egg tart (pastel de nata) is the iconic example, with its flaky shell of pastry, egg custard filling and caramelised top layer. Lord Stow’s Bakery – opened, ironically, by an Englishman – has become synonymous with the dish, having gained a reputation well beyond Macau with franchise outlets in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan. Other much-loved sweets include serradura (“sawdust” in Portuguese), a layered, somewhat sinful mixture of finely crushed biscuits, cream, vanilla and condensed milk; almond cookies, biscuits made with mung-bean flour and a smidgen of salt; and black garlic chocolate – known for its healthy qualities – which can be found wrapped around a rich ganache (chocolate and cream mixture) or as an ice cream flavouring.
Portuguese Egg Tart and Serradura (Right)
In recognition of its culinary singularity, Macau was last November designated a Unesco Creative City of Gastronomy – only the third Chinese city to receive the accolade – while 19 of its fine-dining establishments have been awarded stars in the latest Michelin Guide. The territory’s high-end hotels can also yield ample gourmet rewards: The St. Regis Macau serves updated versions of Macanese home-style classics like apabicos (pork and salted radish rice-flour dumplings), pudim molotof (Portuguese egg white cake) and minchi (minced beef or pork with molasses and soy sauce on rice, topped with a fried egg). Yet visitors can find classic local food simply by venturing into any modest cha chaan teng ("tea restaurant" in direct translation / local deli) off Senado Square. It all adds up to a heady immersion into a unique cuisine.
Cha chaan teng ("tea restaurant" in direct translation / local deli)
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