Macao is a city of international fusion – and nowhere is that creativity more apparent than in its vibrant culinary culture.
This UNESCO-designated Creative City of Gastronomy is home to a number of internationally renowned chefs and some of the world’s finest, most imaginative restaurants.
Creativity in Macao, however, crosses all barriers. From the big players on the strip to smaller privately-run bistros down the many cobbled side-streets, every eatery is being inspired to live up to the city’s new accolade. After all, sustainable gastronomy doesn’t have to be boring, even when done on a budget.
When it comes to unparalleled creative dining experiences (and equally high customer expectations), Macao’s culinary scene is alive with inventiveness. Many of the region’s chefs are now using their artistry to promote healthy eating in a surprising, upscale way that appeals to both locals and visitors alike.
At ROOT, Chef Anthony Sousa Tam sources local seafood and grows many of his own ingredients in order to underscore the importance of organic, healthy food. To keep the restaurant competitive in Macao’s impressive food scene, ROOT focuses on the seasonality and freshness of each ingredient. The restaurant even has its own in-house hydroponic system for growing greens.
“Our menus are planned in a way that use every part possible of whatever food we are cooking. If we make passion fruit, after taking out the fruit itself we use the shell as part of the same dish too. When using local seafood, we make use of the skin to make a crisp and the fish bones or shell to create a visual aspect on the plate. We also use our vegetables waste to create straws,” explained Tam.
“It’s incredible how many cuisines are here, offering their best to a well-traveled, deeply informed and forever-demanding customer base. People have gone beyond the usual parameters of taste and the place of origin. They demand healthy food that’s holistically sustainable,” explained chef Justin Paul who runs The Golden Peacock, Asia’s only Michelin-starred Indian restaurant.
The style, which he calls “Artisan Indian Cuisine”, is to identify brand new ways to use familiar ingredients so that guests are constantly surprised. This requires team effort where his staff is encouraged to think outside the box and re-imagine everything – from ingredients to cooking methods to plating – until each dish is thoroughly original.
For Paul, creativity is not only a necessity, it’s a skill that involves plenty of discipline and practice. “Creating healthy, vegetarian dishes starts with a core objective: This shouldn’t be something the customer would have seen elsewhere. Our work starts not in the kitchen, but on a piece of paper. I strongly believe that great creative work doesn’t happen through lucky accidents. We look at what’s common and see what we can do to make it uncommon. We finalize our ideas and then experiment until we get something that delights us,” he said.
The new dish Southern Roots, for example, prepares vegetables found specifically in South India in unexpected ways. Then, in a very Macanese twist, the chef works in subtle surprise elements from other cuisines.
At Sands Cotai Central, executive chef Alex Gasper allows the quality of the ingredients to drive his creative process. After taste testing, his culinary team evaluates different flavor combinations and experiments with creative techniques to see what works.
The secret, according to Gasper, is to focus on obtaining only the highest quality foods. That often means sourcing sustainable and organic ingredients. He compiles his menu selections from a variety of sustainable seafoods, regional meats and organic vegetables from a farm within a few hours’ drive.
“It’s easy to create healthy menus when the products are good. We keep our style light but still full of bright flavors,” he said.
Of all of his current creative initiatives, one of Gasper’s favorites is an imaginative vegan interpretation of the pork chop bun, Macao’s most famous snack.
“It is respectful of Macao’s culture and traditions while also being modern, healthy, delicious and better for the environment,” he said.
Macao’s own cuisine is the very definition of creative thanks to its unique European-Asian origins. Macanese food was created shortly after Macao was established as a Portuguese colony in the mid-16th century, when the two cultures intertwined.
Future chefs studying at Macao’s multinational Institute for Tourism Studies learn traditional Macanese staples, which marry elements from both Portuguese and Cantonese cuisines.
“Cantonese cuisine is, in its essence, letting the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. This is then combined with healthy and simple cooking techniques (especially steaming),” explained Hans Lee Rasmussen, the Chef de Cuisine at IFT.
IFT has its own rooftop garden and aquaponics system. The herbs rotate, but currently IFT is growing a variety of basil, bay leaves, thyme, mint, chives, rosemary and oregano. Each herb plant grows from a seed in an aquaponic system, which combines aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (growing plants without soil). Fish waste is recycled to provide the plants with nutrients. Once the plants are seedling-sized, they are then transferred to soil in the rooftop garden. The herb garden serves two main purposes. First, it provides fresh herbs for the Educational Restaurant’s menu, a culinary teaching facility that is open to the public. Having herbs on hand means they don’t have to be ordered from overseas, thus reducing both pollution and food waste. Second, appreciating the life cycle of plants and where food comes from provides student chefs with a deeper understanding of food and why sustainability matters.
To celebrate and promote the diversity of Macanese food, the on-site Educational Restaurant offers daily cultural dishes and a weekly Macanese buffet.
In an effort to encourage creativity and showcase burgeoning talent, IFT holds an annual cooking competition for students and food industry colleagues. Competitors are, perhaps unsurprisingly, encouraged to put their own creative twists on the city’s traditional dishes.
Chef Anthony Sousa Tam showcases the culinary inspiration gained from his years of traveling the world. The menu focuses on presenting top-notch ingredients in unique, stylish ways.
ROOT’s sophisticated, contemporary tasting menu changes seasonally. A recent favorite on the winter menu offered clams in hollandaise sauce with dehydrated tomato, served in a tree bark bowl topped with a salt-sprinkled rice sheet and a chrysanthemum.
THE GOLDEN PEACOCK
Kerala-born chef Justin Paul is known for his creative approach to traditional Indian cuisine and his innovative-yet-intuitive use of spices.
The organic chicken used in chef Justin Paul’s Ellu Kozhi (an Indian dish) is cooked with extra virgin coconut oil, black sesame, white sesame, organic wayanad black peppercorn, curry leaf and mustard seed.
Celebrity chef Henrique Sa Pessoa is often said to have revolutionised the dining scene back in his native Portugal. At Chiado, he creates elegant meals by adding a little something special to simple, flavorful ingredients.
Try Chef Gasper’s favorite dish: The sustainably certified Lobster Cataplana with sweet potato. “It’s a classic technique with a delicious modern flavor combination of the Portuguese spicy sauce with lemongrass,” he said.
Whimsical Cha Bei (which means “teacup”) is a colorful teahouse and café. The menu puts a creative spin on comfort food by reimagining Western favorites using Chinese ingredients. Cha Bei strikes a good balance between healthy dishes and guilty pleasure treats, ensuring a little something for everyone.
The afternoon tea menu decadently blends sweet and savory alongside traditional and contemporary. Sample a variety of creative finger sandwiches, indulgent petit fours, scones and of course, a selection of loose-leaf teas in decorative cups.
Discover more about what makes Macao a UNESCO City of Gastronomy and a culinary destination on The Great Green Food Journey: Macao.