Photo by Mark Parren Taylor
The 16th century Portuguese made an extraordinary job of exploring the Far East… although in those days it was the Exceedingly Far East. It took them about nine months to reach Macau, a little island at the southern tip of China on the Pearl River Delta – one of their most remote possessions.
Portuguese cargo ships bristling with cannons plied the risky route around the Cape of Good Hope and through the pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean. The canons were there to protect the gold, silk, ivory and spices being hauled back to Portugal – and the silver being carried back to pay for the next load. It was an epic voyage made easier by a chain of colonial ports en route.
When the sea-weary sailors finally arrived in Macau they were greeted by settlers who were hungry for a taste of home. But instead of the food they craved from home, the settlers were handed chilli peppers from Mozambique, coconuts from Goa and cinnamon from Melaka – to add to the Chinese ingredients already in their larders. Over decades of experimentation, this mix was cooked up to create a fusion cuisine long before the concept existed. In the process, it became the defining food of the city’s Eurasian – or Macanese – children. And future generations grew up on a broad diet of dim sum and grilled sardines, for example, alongside local fusion dishes such as codfish congee, minchee chow dan and bread and seafood stew.
Nowadays black pork and Azeitão cheese are flown in fresh from Portugal, and while most ends up in restaurant kitchens, some supermarkets stock these imports alongside packaged spices and tinned coconut milk. But sales to locals are dwindling. Younger generations appear to be forgetting their Macanese heritage – and losing a taste for both Portuguese and homegrown recipes.
Raimund Pichlmaier fears the cuisine could lose its roots in the community and become nothing more than restaurant specials for curious tourists or nostalgic residents. As head of the culinary school at Macau’s Institute for Tourism Studies, he has an insight into the plight of the local food… an insight made extra acute because his Macanese mother-in-law is an accomplished home cook. “She lets me in [to the kitchen] – when she’s sure I’m there without my chef ’s hat on,” he chuckles. “But like many of her peers, she’s reluctant to pass on recipes.” Despite this, he and his team at the institute continue offering some of the best cooking on the peninsula – and a chance for diners to sample “endangered” dishes.
His IFT Restaurant is recognised in the Michelin Guide Hong Kong Macau, and it – along with countless other eateries – is another reason why this city is increasingly seen as a gourmet destination. The largest number of the patrons at the IFT restaurant come from mainland China, and these more-and-more flush tourists select their dining tables as seriously as their gaming tables.
The casinos are home to many of Macau’s finedining restaurants, several of which are lauded by the critics. In the recent Michelin Guide, Wynn Casino earned stars for two of its restaurants, with Wing Lei’s Peter Chan looking to add to his tally for his exquisite Cantonese menu. Neighbouring Hotel Lisboa continues to amass accolades for Robuchon a Galera (the city’s only three-star establishment) and The Eight. And across the water on Taipa island, the Four Seasons Macao will surely be keen to retain the two stars its traditional Cantonese Zi Yat Heen has earned once more, especially with the arrival of master chef Ho Pui Yung.
But fine food isn’t restricted to fine-dining venues. In Taipa Village, a stone’s throw from the Four Seasons, Rua da Cunha is a gastronomic crossroads offering some of the best Cantonese, Portuguese and Macanese eateries in the city, alongside a selection of traditional pastelaria selling the ubiquitous Portuguese egg tart – but follow the advice of locals and try the nata at Lord Stow’s on Coloane island, or Margaret’s close to city centre. Both take a bit of beating!
We may try our luck at the roulette tables or with the one-armed bandits in Macau’s casinos, but when it comes to the local food scene we hit a winning row of cherries every time!