Food is an integral part of culture. But what happens when cultures change, and change rapidly, as is the case with Macau?
The Macau Peninsula has long been influenced by the Portuguese, who established a trading port there in the mid-16th century. In fact, it was a proper colony from 1887 up until 1999, when the Europeans transferred sovereignty back to China—but the region’s unique blend of Portuguese and Chinese roots rarely comes up when people talk about traveling to Macau.
These days, most people know Macau as the “Vegas of the East,” owing to the fact that it’s currently one of two places under Chinese rule where gambling is legal (the second being neighboring Hong Kong, China’s other special administrative region).
“[People] don’t even know what Macau used to be,” says Carrie Costa, who grew up in Macau well before a James Bond movie plot line involved a Macanese casino and world-class boxing matches were held at The Venetian Macao. “That’s sad.”
Nowadays, well under a tenth of Macau residents are ethnically Macanese, i.e. native-born Portuguese.
For Carrie and others like her, the collection of small Mediterranean villages they once knew is quickly disappearing as construction cranes, often funded by the Chinese government and foreign business interests, continue to transform the peninsula.
There are more than 40 casinos, and counting, in Macau—most of which were built after the region reverted to China in 1999, though gambling has been legal there since the 1850s.
New restaurants cater to foreign tourists’ palates. The tradesmen shops of the old old town have been repurposed as souvenir depots and jewelry stores. And where there was once water between Macau’s two main islands, Coloane and Taipa, is now the “Cotai Strip,” an area of reclaimed land that looks more and more like mainland Macau each year that passes.
Despite the preponderance of slot machines and baccarat tables, traces of Old Macau remain: the Portuguese influences evident in the iconic ruins of St. Paul’s, the ancient Chinese A-Ma Temple. Macanese cuisine, too, endures—if you seek it out.
It’s easy to find Portuguese restaurants in the region—António and Miramar are amongst the noteworthy ones—but only a handful of places are dedicated to preserving true Macanese fare. Carrie and other locals I encountered were careful to stress the importance of not conflating the two.
“There is a very big difference,” says Sonia Palmer, whose family runs the acclaimed Macanese restaurant Riquexó (and whose anglicized surname was obtained via marriage). Macanese cuisine often features Chinese ingredients like soy sauce, belachan, and tamarind, she explains. Plus, she says, “[the Portuguese] use much more olive oil.”
Though Sonia manages the restaurant with her husband, her knowledge of Macanese cooking comes from the true soul of Riquexó: her mother, Aida de Jesus, who has been hailed as the “Godmother of Macanese cuisine.”
It’s Aida’s tried-and-true recipes that have made Riquexó a veritable institution on the peninsula—so much so that when the Palmer-de Jesus family announced plans to retire a few years ago, public outcry against the move convinced them to continue the business, albeit on a smaller, homier scale.
“Everybody knows everybody when they come here to eat,” Sonia told me as we sat at a table in the unassuming alley where the cafe resides. “We want to keep it a neighborhood restaurant.”
Many patrons come almost daily—if not twice a day—to take away food or dine alongside their neighbors and the occasional foreign foodie who has veered from the tourist track in search of an authentic home-cooked Macanese meal.
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In addition to Aida’s take on Macanese classics—like galinha de caril, a yellow-curry-based chicken stew; repolho recheado, stuffed cabbage stuffed with ground pork and spicy sausage; and minchi, a hash of minced beef and pork, potatoes, soy sauce, and spices—a few Portuguese dishes have made their way onto Riquexó’s menu, including feijoada, a stew of beans flavored with beef and pork.
While Riquexó may be the local favorite when it comes to traditional Macanese comfort food, it’s not the only place to sample the region’s unique multicultural cuisine.
For a more upscale experience located closer to popular points of interest on the peninsula, head to Restaurante Litoral. Try the galinha à Africana—baked chicken smothered with a savory sauce combining chili peppers, peanuts, coconut, and spices—and a bowl of caldo verde, a classic Portuguese soup spiced up with kale and Chinese sausage.
When it comes to Macanese desserts, the egg tart is king. In fact, the pastry, flakier and less sweet than the Portuguese variety, is such a culinary icon of Macau that its image has found its way onto souvenir T-shirts and keychains.
The shop that made them famous—not only in Macau, but across Asia—is the humble, original Lord Stow’s Bakery on the island of Coloane. While some say the tarts are better at Margaret’s Cafe e Nata back on the peninsula, no matter where you sample these small but mighty treats, make sure you eat them while they’re still warm from the oven.