Musings, Recipes

Cultural spotlight: Macau

Back home in Chicago, there is a wonderful restaurant called Fat Rice, which specializes in Macanese cuisine. After eating there this summer, I was inspired to purchase the cookbook, and explore the history of the unique little region. While today Macau may be better known for its Las Vegas-like culture, Fat Rice has brought to light its wonderful culinary history, exposing it as a potentially wonderful travel destination.

Macau is an autonomous corner of China in the southeast corner, right up against the South China Sea, and it is this coastal location that has molded its cuisine into something so unique. During the Qin Dynasty, the Chinese retreated to Macau from invading Mongolians, commingling with the native boat people living there. This was most likely the first contact between China and the Macanese, and began the long tradition of a shared cuisine.

During the Age of Discovery in the 16th century, Portugal was a major world power thanks to its vast maritime resources and easy ocean access. Prince Henry the Navigator, especially, helped strengthen Portugal’s maritime resolve by pouring money into sailing schools and encouraging maritime discoveries. In search of trade, spices, valuables, and slaves, the Portuguese capitalized on these resources and set out to explore the world, setting up trading outposts throughout their trade route. Established trading outposts included locations in West Africa such as Cape Verde, and the southern tip of the continent, the Cape of Good Hope, thanks to Bartolomeu Dias’s explorations. Vasco de Gama helped Portugal expand to southern India’s Goa, an important spice region, and Malaysia, before reaching China. Along the way, Portuguese sailors would pick up ingredients, recipes, and wives of the locals, perpetuating the movement of goods, especially culinary ones, as ingredients and cooking knowledge was able to pass from trading outpost to trading outpost.

Then, pivotally, Jorge Alvarez reached Macau in the early 1500s, but it wasn’t until mid-century that a permanent trading post was established there. Legend has it that the Chinese allowed the Portuguese to land thanks to them ousting a group of pirates off the coast, but what mattered was that Portugal now controlled much of the Western trade routes, from Africa, India, China, to the Asian island regions of Malaysia and even Japan. Macau, due to its easy access for China to the rest of the world, became a major trade hub, whether it wanted to or not.

Nonetheless, a vibrant culinary fusion began to emerge as a result of the convalescence of people, ideas, and ingredients from Portugal (such as the ubiquitous of the period bacalao), West Africa(spices like Grains of Paradise), Goa(chili peppers, coconut,..) and Malaysia with the already in place Chinese based cuisine. An ingredient so uncommon in Africa, such as the chicken, became standard Macanese fare:  African Chicken is a roasted and fried chicken rubbed with a piri-piri (African pepper) marinade. Classic-sounding Chinese dishes remained, such as potstickers, but were reimagined by incorporating the new ingredients. At the same time as incorporating new ingredients into Asian cuisine, Portuguese sailors pining for home would prepare traditional Portuguese food but would be forced to substitute in the ingredients they had, leading to an incorporation of “New Portuguese” food into Macanese cuisine as well. The dish Portuguese Barbecued Clams, for example, may have been made by a sailor trying to achieve the flavors of his homeland, but was forced to include the spices and flavors available to him: Indian tamarind, traditional Macanese balichaõ, or a sort of fermented dried shrimp paste, and soy sauce, none of which would have been available to him at home.

Fat Rice is named after a home feast-style dish, arroz gordo, which would have been prepared for special occasions and is the perfect example of Macanese cuisine. The base is a wonderfully fragrant rice mixed with Chinese style duck. Heaps of proteins demonstrating the milieu of cultures are piled on top: chili shrimp (an Asian take on  Spanish and Portuguese garlic prawn), turmeric baked chicken (with Indian spices), classical Portuguese linguiça sausage, coastal Macanese clams, hard boiled and tea (a Chinese influence) stained eggs, the Asian pork pork dish char siu. A steaming pot comes to the table topped with pickles and olives, and the wondrous smell of this mix of cultures pervades the table.

This summer I cooked several dishes from the cookbook, and I’ll discuss them briefly below.

Bacalao de Vóvó is very much rooted in Portuguese cuisine. This history of the world can be told through the history of food and how it has enabled us to travel and explore, and much of that history is tied up with cod. Cod was hugely common during the Age of Discovery and was eaten by nearly everyone, yet rest fish would quickly go rancid on long ocean voyages. The ingenious solution that became adopted throughout the world was salt-cod, cod that had been preserved in excess salt to remove all the moisture, such that eating it plain would taste like eating an extremely hard, salty, fishy, beef jerky. Portugal’s version was called bacalao or bacalá. Here, bacalao was emulsified in high quality extra virgin olive oil and accented by onions, olives, and chili pepper, evidence that some pure Portuguese influence remained.

Second, I cooked Po Kok Gai, or Portuguese Chicken curry, although nothing like it would ever have been found in Portugal. While there are Portuguese components (boiled potatoes, olives, chorizo, …) it incorporates Malaysian flavors such as coconut milk and shredded coconut, exotic spices such as turmeric, and classic Chinese ingredients such as Napa cabbage. 

Written by Xander Gottfried

Photos by Julian Gottfried