There’s a fast and ferocious clicking — the sound of bakelite mahjong tiles hitting a formica table top as a group of elders sit behind drawn shutters and thrash out their nightly game. This clack is overlaid with slow guitar notes and the voice of a man mournfully singing fado. This is Macau — a little bit Chinese, a little bit Portuguese and altogether Macanese.
A peninsula in China’s Pearl River Delta, Macau was a Portuguese colony until it was handed back to the Chinese in 1999. Yellow-painted buildings and streets laid with black-and-white calçadas (cobbled pavements) echo Lisbon, while A-Ma Temple, a Taoist edifice built in 1488, and many of the other structures, are ancient Chinese. Street signs mimic the blue and white azulejos (tiles) of the conquerors, but their names are in both Portuguese and Cantonese. This Sino-Luso mix also makes its mark in Macanese cuisine, which is heavily influenced by the places where the Portuguese navigators traded — there are tastes of Africa, Malacca, Goa and South America.
I follow the strains of fado into Restaurante Antonio and find purple-coiffed chef-patron Antonio Coelho working tables. He pours glasses of vinho verde and brings dishes of clams, salt cod and seafood rice. Many of the ingredients, including the specially bottled wine, are imported from his homeland.
When the Portuguese first came to Macau in the 16th century, local cooks embraced a kind of fusion style. Macanese cuisine is typically African chicken, where the bird is crispy after being barbecued then swathed in a chilli and peanut sauce; minchi, a fragrant mince stew, with Chinese seasonings topped with a fried egg; and porco tamarindo, a dense pork stew flavoured with balichao, a shrimp paste which originates from Malacca, plus sugar, Chinese seasonings and tamarind.
A row of colonial-style, green-fronted houses built in the 1930s for high-ranking families gives a tiny glimpse into Macanese life back in its heyday, and so do the black-and-white pictures hanging on the walls of Restaurante Litoral, home to another delicious Macanese speciality, ‘curry crab’, which comes with a thick, sweet, yellowish sauce.
The historic centre of Macao was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, not least because of the ethereal ruins of St Paul’s, Macau’s most famous landmark; Na Tcha Temple, built in 1888; and the artistically paved Senado Square. Here the streets are lined with stalls selling bakkwa, also known as rougan — a salty, sweet compressed meat ‘leather’ that’s so good, it’s some kind of addictive porky toffee jerky.
Step out of this colonial timewarp, though, and Macau’s utter bonkersness manifests in all its gilt-covered, ostentatious, gambling-focused glory (it’s bigger and takes in way more cash than Las Vegas). The three Lisboa hotels seem to me a perfect totem for the exponential expansion of the place — the oldest, the Hotel Lisboa, is a Bondesque structure built in 1970; the Grand Lisboa (2006), a golden lotus exploding up into the city sky; and the ginormous Lisboa Palace, set to open in 2017, is the very definition of excess.
Macau can draw in the world’s Michelin-starred chefs, mostly plating ‘international’ cuisine. I eschew this ego-puffing and seek out The Eight, which also has stars — three of them — but serves Cantonese and Huaiyang dishes in a dark, lacquered room where vast goldfish, a symbol of good luck along with the number eight, adorn the walls. Steamed dumplings with ‘cristal blue shrimp’ are in the shape of goldfish, and the best BBQ pork bun I’ve ever eaten comes as a hedgehog.
“We don’t grow anything here except gambling chips,” says my guide, Alorino Noruega, as he leads me round the city centre wet market. The fish, shellfish, frogs, turtles and eels that we see, along with the fruit and vegetables, are all imported from China. A Goanese Portuguese who, together with his wife, came for a visit to Macau more than 40 years ago and decided to stay, Alorino takes me to the famous balichao shop where the owner mashes dried shrimp with his ‘secret’ ingredients before decanting the mixture into glass jars (there’s definitely the taste of salt, water and possibly some lime). We walk down Rua da Cunha, known as ‘Food Street’ and home to Tai Lei Loi Kei, vendor of the city’s most famous pork chop bun, a twist on the Portuguese bifeana.
At the border crossing with China, we watch as thousands of people shuffle back and forth, the vast majority queuing for the shuttle buses that will deliver them to the casinos. This is a city made for China’s new rich, but these ordinary Joes clamour for it, too. I wander alone through some of the gambling halls (guides are forbidden), taking in the opulence, crazy shows and glaze-eyed one-arm-bandit players you’d find in Las Vegas. But there’s not so much joy and debauchery; it’s all high stakes but no hijinks. “The Chinese don’t come to the casino for entertainment,” explains Alorino. “They’re very serious. When they leave, you can’t tell whether they’ve won or lost.”
Through its building of bridges and the unprecedented landfill, Macau keeps on growing. The oyster beds around Taipa and Coloane have been drained and padded out to house the Cotai strip, accomodating resorts with such names as Galaxy and Venetian, each of them gargantuan geegaws. Soon enough a new bridge will link the area with Hong Kong, in a bid to make its mega-casino core a bit more ‘fun’.
Macau may be a peacock, with a dash of cuckoo thrown in, but away from the noise of the roulette tables, there’s another sound to fix your ears on. It’s a culinary cacophony and, to my mind, it hits the sweet spot.
Five Macau food finds
Bakkwa: A bit like jerky, this sweet, sticky, chewy leather made from all types of meat is seriously addictive.
Minchi: Macau’s national dish is a pork and beef mince-based stew, with subtle spices and seasoning including cumin, bay leaves and molasses, that often comes topped with an egg.
African chicken: Galinha à Africana is a Macanese speciality of barbecued chicken with a fiery peanut-based sauce.
Pork chop bun: Come to Tai Lei Loi Kei after 2pm for a deep-fried pork chop served hamburger-style in a bun, minus the salad trimmings.
A taste of Macau
A stunner, where a vast spherical chandelier reflects on lacquered surfaces to make a figure eight. The food matches the design, with exquisite dim sum skillfully made. With three Michelin stars, chef Au Kwok Keung combines Cantonese and Huaiyang cuisine — crispy barbecued pork buns with preserved vegetables, or the signature goldfish-shaped steamed ‘cristal’ blue shrimp dumplings.
How much: Dinner from £25 each for three courses without wine. A ‘signature dishes’ set menu is £89 per head.
Chef and owner Manuela Ferreira’s grandmother owned Pousada de Macau, where African chicken was invented. Portuguese petiscos (small plates) specialities include leitão assado (stuffed suckling pig) and arroz de pato (baked duck rice), Macanese curry crab, and tacho, a local stew.
How much: Three-course dinner from £15.50 each without wine.
Just by Hac Sa beach, the vibe here is ‘Portuguese seaside resort’. There are jugs of sangria, cold Super Bock beer and a vast menu including fish stews, stuffed crabs and cozido à Portuguesa, steamed mixed meats. A chiller cabinet displays the egg-based desserts for which the ‘mother country’ is famous, such as farofias (egg clouds) or serradura, a Macanese/Portuguese mix of whipped cream and crumbled biscuits.
How much: Three-course dinner from £23.50 each without wine.
Published in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)