A FOODIE'S GUIDE TO MACAO
Macao’s heritage as a former Portuguese outpost hasn’t just left it with beautiful cobbled streets and intriguing street names: it’s gifted the place with extraordinary cuisine.
With a myriad of cultures comes a myriad of foods. As Portuguese traders came to Macao from their ports in Southeast Asia, India, Africa, and Portugal itself, they brought with them tastes of home and the spices and flavors they found along the way: coconut milk, turmeric, cloves, and paprika. In Macao, these merged with Cantonese cooking to create a truly fusion cuisine.
And the continued development of Macao has only accelerated its gastronomic prowess, as shown by the number of restaurants serving up some of the world’s finest Chinese and international cuisine. Indeed, in 2017 the city was named as a UNESCO Creative City in the field of gastronomy.
Yet it’s not just the Michelin stars that glitter in Macao, although the compact city has them in abundance – 27 in total. In fact, it’s hard to have a bad meal in this crossroads of flavors and cultures. Here is a quick primer on 16 of Macao’s must-eat dishes.
MACANESE AFRICAN CHICKEN (GALINHA À AFRICANA)
Some might call African chicken Macao’s most emblematic dish – but for all that, it’s a relatively new invention. The story goes that African chicken was created in the 1940s by hotel chef Americo Angelo, who was inspired by a visit to a Portuguese colony in Africa where he tasted spicy, barbecued piri-piri chicken. He brought it back to Macao and made it his own. At heart, it’s a simple dish of grilled chicken, coated liberally in a rich, spicy peanut-and-tomato sauce. But the fascinating thing about this dish is that it tastes a little different at every establishment in Macao, each of which has its own take on what African chicken should be. Sometimes a fragrant note of coconut wins out; sometimes the acidity of the tomato shines through. But no matter where it’s made, it’s enduringly superb.
PORTUGUESE CHICKEN (GALINHA À PORTUGUESA)
Just as African chicken has never been prepared on the shores of Mozambique, Portuguese chicken has never been sold in the narrow cobbled streets of Portugal. But this sweet, chicken curry cooked in a mild coconut sauce is a true fusion dish, and there are few which better sum up the city’s multicultural ancestry. It’s redolent with spices and coconut derived from the former Portuguese colonies of India, all filtered through southern Chinese tastebuds and ingredients – and sometimes even a touch of chouriço for a truly Portuguese finish.
PORTUGUESE EGG TARTS
If there’s a single snack that sums up Macanese food, it’s this. The Portuguese egg tart may look like its ancestor, the pastel de nata you’d find on the streets of Lisbon, but these tarts are a uniquely Macanese creation: a smooth, sweet egg custard in a flawlessly flaky crisp case that retains a distinctly savory note, and a caramelized top to
MACANESE JERKY IS A REVELATION: TENDER, MOIST, SWEET SLABS OF PORK OR BEEF THAT VENDORS CUT INTO STRIPS IN FRONT OF YOU.
deliver an extra layer of flavor to raise it above and beyond. Many will swear by the dim sum–style egg tart, but that’s just because they’ve not yet had its Macanese cousin, pulled straight from the oven.
They’re possibly Macao’s favorite souvenir, and with good reason. One bite of these sweet, dense cookies and they crumble into powder in your mouth (don’t eat them without a drink at hand). Almond cookies are made from ground almonds, mung bean flour, and sugar, packed tightly into ornate wooden molds before being turned out and baked. They come in a wide range of varieties and flavors, but the traditional ones remain the best – and free tasters are widely available for those trying to find the best of the best.
PORK CHOP BUNS
When it comes to food, a simple thing done well always hits the spot. Enter the Macanese pork chop bun: a simple creation that’s a testament to its history, fusing a thin, marinated Asian-style pork chop with a crusty Portuguese loaf. That’s it: no more and no less, served up straight out of the pan in a paper bag. A pork chop bun is a test of the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the chef – with no sauce, no extras, and no fancy condiments, there’s no room to hide. Which means a great pork chop bun is truly out of this world.
Sometimes called phoenix egg rolls, these are more golden parcels than anything else. Made of a rich, sweet egg batter cooked paperthin on a round griddle, this pastry is then filled and folded while it’s still hot, cooling to an impossibly crisp bundle. The fillings run the gamut from sweet to savory: the wonderfully umami-dense seaweed and pork floss roll is a firm favorite, as is coconut and sesame for those with a more straightforwardly sweet tooth. Watch them being made in front of your eyes along the Rua de São Paulo.
Banish from your mind those dried-up strips you have to gnaw for hours before being able to swallow. Macanese jerky is a revelation: tender, moist, sweet slabs of pork or beef that vendors cut into strips in front of you, offering free tastes to one and all. There’s a myriad of cuts and marinades available, from beef fillet to spicy pork neck – so take the time to track down your favored flavor.
MACANESE CHILI SHRIMP
Given its long history as a trading port, Macao is an inherently maritime city. It’s little surprise, then, that the riches of the South China Sea find their way into the city’s cuisine. One of the best examples is Macanese chili shrimp, a winning mix of chili and garlic stuffed inside huge prawns – the bigger the better – before being flash-fried in a wok and then steamed with wine. This combination of Portuguese and Chinese cooking techniques results in beautiful shrimp served still in their shells, meaning there’s only one way to eat them – with your fingers. And remember to slurp those juices out of the head – they’re the very best bit.
There’s a saying in Portugal: there are 1,001 ways to prepare bacalhau. Dried, salted cod is the national ingredient and a testament to Portugal’s erstwhile maritime power: fished from the waters of Newfoundland and brought thousands of miles back to Portugal – and then thousands more to Macao. As in Lisbon or Porto, there are countless preparations of this flaky fish in Macao. One of the most ubiquitous (and most delicious) is pastéis de bacalhau: deepfried cod fritters, with crisp batter encasing tender fish and potato flecked with parsley.
This rich, fatty pork sausage flavored with paprika and wine, cousin to Spanish chorizo, is a must-eat in the city. For first timers, there’s one way you have to order it: assado, in which a whole sausage is flambéed tableside in an earthenware bowl. It’s not just great theater – this cooking method also lends the chouriço a stunning char. Washed down with a bottle of vinho verde, there are few better ways to while away an afternoon.
ARROZ DE PATO
Baked duck rice has long been a Macanese favorite, and it’s easy to see why. In this classic Portuguese recipe, chouriço and fall-apart tender duck are embedded inside spiced rice cooked in duck broth, and then baked in the oven for an extra layer of caramelized flavor. The fat from
the duck and chouriço seeps into the rice, delivering a phenomenal richness every mouthful. It might be a little much for the height of a humid Macanese summer, but in the colder months, this dish truly comes into its own.
Serradurra is Portuguese for “sawdust.” That may not be the most appealing name for a dessert, but this pudding rewards those who order it. It takes its name from the finely crumbled tea biscuits which form part of this layered construction, alongside a sweetened vanilla whipped cream. There are two varieties of this dish available: a softer pudding-style, or the more interesting semi-freddo variant, which is more like an ice cream.
CHINESE DOUBLE SKIN MILK
The name may be still less appealing than “sawdust pudding,” but double skin milk is a Macao favourite that far exceeds its moniker. It’s a flawless milk custard, sweet and smooth and delicate in the mouth, leaving behind a taste of rich, creamy milk. The name derives from a double cooking process, which leaves the skin of the milk intact on top of the custard for an intriguing textural contrast. It’s available both hot and cold – go with whatever suits the season.
SHRIMP ROE NOODLES
Macao contains some of the few restaurants left in the world that make their noodles the old-fashioned way, by kneading the dough with large bamboo poles. It’s backbreaking work which calls for early mornings and a lot of elbow grease, but the steady, even pressure of bamboo kneading is said to create perfectly springy noodles. They’re cooked for just a few seconds and dressed very simply, with soy sauce, spring onions, and a generous handful of dried shrimp roe. This stuff is a true magic ingredient, a crunchy umami bomb that perfectly sets off those al dente noodles and guarantees you’ll be back for more.
If you want to know how good a dim sum restaurant is, order the har gau. These deceptively simple looking shrimp dumplings are the biggest test of a chef’s skills: the delicate, translucent dumpling skin must be thick enough to constrain its contents, but not so thick as to be claggy; and the shrimp inside must be fresh, perfectly seasoned, and steamed to perfection. It’s no easy task, and once you’ve found the perfect parcel you’ll know you’re in good hands.
These steamed rice noodle rolls are like a great pair of jeans: they can be dressed up or down to suit any occasion. In the streets, the plain rolls are served doused in soy, hoisin, and sesame sauce, with a dose of chili for an extra hit of flavor. Restaurants use them to wrap everything from delicate shrimp to meaty roasted pork to crisp savory doughnuts. In Macao, a special preparation of cheung fun involves pouring beaten egg onto the rice sheets before they’re rolled up, creating a rich and hearty multi-layered treat.