THE EXOTIC FLAVORS OF MACAO
Visitors to Macao will be rewarded with a rustic, mouth-watering cuisine that encapsulates the territory’s unique history as a beacon of cultural exchange between East and West.
THERE’S A PORTUGUESE TERM
— saudade— that describes a deep, wistful longing; a sense of incompleteness; and a nostalgia for something that will never be the same. In the colonial outposts of Goa, Melaka, and Macao, 16th- and 17thcentury Portuguese residents must have experienced saudade for their homeland, their family members, and the women they left behind. The European settlers married local wives, a response to policies that barred Portuguese women from traveling overseas and settling in the colonies.
Long before fusion food became a popular phenomenon, Macanese home cooks were fusing the ingredients of China, India, and Southeast Asia with European cooking techniques. Initially this arose out of necessity, as an attempt to recreate Portuguese dishes with what was locally available: coconut milk was substituted for dairy products such as cream and butter, sweet Chinese sausage for Portuguese
chouriço. Over time this hybrid cuisine acquired its own identity and flair, with recipes passed down through generations of Macanese women.
But surprisingly few places in Macao today are dedicated to this centuries-old culinary tradition. Just a short stroll from the Maritime Museum and A-Ma Temple on Rua do Almirante Sérgio, there’s one such place whose name in Portuguese means “facing the sea,” a reminder of its proximity to the spot where the 16thcentury navigators first landed in Macao.
This restaurant is the brainchild of Manuela Silva Ferreira, an accomplished cook who set out to preserve her family recipes and showcase Macanese cuisine to the world with its launch in 1995. Such was the venue’s popularity that it had to expand upstairs and into the neighboring building less than six months later. The menu here opens with mouth-watering appetizers such as casquinha, crab meat mixed with mushrooms and cheese, liberally coated in breadcrumbs and then baked in the shell.
Many visitors come for Ferreira’s take on galinha à africana— better known as African chicken—a staple of restaurants all over Macao. Created in the 1940s by a hotel chef named Americo Angelo, it’s a relatively recent addition to the local cuisine and a nod to frango grelhado piri
piri, a spicy grilled chicken dish native to Angola and Mozambique. African chicken reflects the maritime trade routes once plied by the enterprising Portuguese, with flavors spanning three continents and both sides of the Indian Ocean. Angelo passed on without divulging his secret recipe, but it’s generally understood that African piri-piri (a.k.a. malagueta) chilies, smoked paprika, and Chinese five-spice powder
AFRICAN CHICKEN—A STAPLE OF RESTAURANTS IN MACAO—REFLECTS THE MARITIME TRADE ROUTES ONCE PLIED BY THE PORTUGUESE.
are essential ingredients, with some chefs adding ground peanuts and coconut milk to the mix.
On the menu, galinha à africana is clearly something to share: it comprises half a chicken, roasted with a richly textured sauce that yields diced onions and tomato, faint traces of coconut, and the taste of olive oil and white wine. Served alongside thick potato slices that are baked to perfection, the dish comes garnished with black olives, while sliced pickles add a touch of sweetness and extra crunch to the chicken. Each bite yields an enticing burst of flavors.
Baked duck rice, another crowdpleasing favorite, is topped with chouriço and bacon, which are first browned in duck fat before being cooked in duck broth. Beneath a golden-brown crust of rice sprinkled with parmesan, spoonfuls of sautéed, shredded duck emerge from the bottom of the earthenware baking dish.
Don’t leave without trying the stewed tamarind pork, a quintessential Macanese entrée cooked with shrimp paste known as balichão. The sauce is a riot of umami, sour, and spicy flavors laden with a sweet undertone, thanks to the addition of brown sugar that also gives it a gritty mouth feel. Macanese balichão takes its bold character from a blend of dried shrimp, brandy, salt and pepper, bay leaf, and chilies. Made well, the sauce can be stored for months without refrigeration, and would have survived the voyage from China to India— where it was adapted into Goan balchão.
A few doors down, another restaurant pays homage to Macao’s mercantile past with a nautical theme. The name refers to a hybrid sailing vessel that once plied the waters of the South China Sea and maritime Southeast Asia, combining the rig of a Chinese junk with a Portuguesestyle hull. Wooden elements in the decor recall its namesake trading vessel and the row of arcades are inspired by Avenida Almeida Ribeiro, the much-photographed pedestrian street leading from Largo do Senado, the peninsula’s old town square.
The beef samosas here are a revelation. Wrapped in a perfectly crisp outer layer of pastry, the filling is a balance of silken onion strands and minced meat, yielding a complex flavor that peaks with the lingering aftertaste of clove. Seafood enthusiasts should opt for the succulent and well-spiced king prawn curry, tinged with ground peppercorns and the unmistakable heat of chili.
Another standout is the hearty Portuguese-style fried rice or arroz chau
chau, with prawns, olives, unctuous pieces of chouriço, and diced capsicum peppers tossed in for good measure. The owner Adriano Neves prides himself on using fresh ingredients bought at local markets, providing a thoroughly Macanese take on Portuguese classics. Two popular items are the mixed seafood rice—a soupy ensemble stewed with crab, shelled prawns and mussels in a Cantonese-style clay pot—and pork knuckle feijoada.
Also of note is a specialty that has become a staple of informal eateries even in neighboring Hong Kong: the curiously named Portuguese chicken, though you’d be hard pressed to find such an entrée in the kitchens of Lisbon. Its thick gravy is made from a mild blend of coconut milk, turmeric, and curry powder, giving it a taste profile that is near-identical to the Goan dish caldinha.
If you’re aiming to go off the beaten
path, head to a no-frills canteen tucked down an alleyway in a largely residential area below the northwestern flanks of Guia Hill. At the age of 101, its founder Aida de Jesus still keeps a watchful eye at this local institution that’s now owned by daughter Sonia Palmer and her husband. Some patrons are loyal regulars who have come day after day for the past three decades, drawn by the true-blue Macanese food at its most unfussy form. Customers can expect to see deftly grilled sardines and
minchi, a medley of stir-fried minced pork and diced potatoes cooked in soy sauce and molasses, plated up with a generous heap of rice. Opt to dine alfresco or eat indoors, beside tiled walls adorned with old photos that recall a bygone era when Macao was not yet the flamboyant Vegas of the East.
For atmospheric surrounds, the dignified private club of a former military compound is hard to beat. Situated on the old waterfront of Praia Grande in a graceful, pastel pink structure from 1870, its high ceilings and louvered windows are a throwback to colonial times, while the airy restaurant is open to the general public for late lunch (from 1:45 p.m. to 3 p.m.) and dinner. Macao residents will tell you that this elegant venue serves up the best Portuguese food in town, with its various iterations of bacalhau (codfish) being the main draw. But even here, African chicken and baked duck rice make an appearance on the menu, as does curried Macanese prawns and other seafood.
Off the peninsula, visitors staying in Cotai need not venture far from their hotels for a taste of the Macanese kitchen. The ground floor of the Galaxy Macao complex is home to a modern yet nostalgic Portuguese restaurant with vaulted ceilings and rustic tableware that caters to families. The menu here offers a selection of Macanese delights, including African chicken in a mildly spicy peanut-based sauce, tamarind duck, and its signature curry crab. Patrons can share an assortment of Macanese-style tapas served on a wooden board, ranging from crumbed prawns with chili sauce to a salad featuring citrus fruit and lemongrass vinaigrette. These dishes were fine-tuned by culinary consultant Chan Yok Kong, a chef of Cantonese ancestry with more than 40 years’ experience preparing Macanese cuisine. Chan began his career at the tender age of 13, when he worked alongside his father at a former military base in Coloane.
And if a more intimate setting is what you’re after, the restaurants of Taipa Village are close at hand. Come the colder months, some places might even offer
tacho, the local version of the Portuguese winter casserole cozido. A veritable feast of cabbage, ham hocks, pork chop, trotters, Cantonese cured pork belly and lap cheong sausage, it’s served with steamed rice and that most Macanese of sauces, pungent and addictive balichão. Tacho may not be the prettiest of dishes, but it’s a microcosm of Macanese cuisine, blending an unlikely assortment of European and Asian elements into a deeply satisfying whole.
MACANESE BALICHÃO TAKES ITS CHARACTER FROM A HEADY BLEND OF DRIED SHRIMP, BRANDY, SALT AND PEPPER, BAY LEAF, AND CHILIES.