By Jason Burgess
If there are two words that characterise the dining scene in Macau, they are fusion and tradition. Be it a glitzy casino on the Cotai strip or a street stall in the UNESCO Heritage Listed old town – nouvelle or customary – cuisine here moves forward while constantly doffing its toque to the past. Gourmand travellers will rest assured knowing that all budgets are accounted for and every palette can be sated.
Macau is Hong Kong’s diminutive little brother. It occupies just 28 square kilometres along the shores of China’s Pearl River Delta, yet it boasts some 2,400 restaurants and eateries. That’s around 86 food outlets per square kilometre. Since the launch of the Michelin Guide Hong Kong/Macau, the heat has been turned up the kitchens right across this Chinese “Special Administrative Region” (SAR.)
While the country’s roots may lie in China, 400 plus years of Portuguese influence has added an extra flavour to everything from the architecture to the indigenous Macanese cuisine. This hybrid cooking style developed centuries ago when, through necessity, wives of Portuguese soldiers began combining their provincial Portuguese recipes with South Chinese fare, supplemented by spices and ingredients from other Portuguese outposts in Africa, India and Malaya.
As Mrs. Wong, the proprietor of the Macanese Escada café, says, “There are obvious cultural parallels between Portuguese and Chinese dining, both catering to big families with big food and an emphasis on texture and fresh natural ingredients.”
Macanese starters typically, although not exclusively, include codfish cakes, tuna salad on black-eyed beans, prawns either curried or fried in their shells, sometimes served on rice but also presented as a salad with red onion, coriander, shallot and chilli. A dynamic duo of main courses, almost always included on any menu, are spicy African chicken and the paella-like baked duck rice.??The real theatre of an eight to ten-course meal is the dessert, where a range of mousses including the delicious “seradura,” a Portuguese biscuit mousse, coconut milk custard, egg custard tarts and a pavlova-like soufflé, often dripped in a sweet yolk are presented at the table.
What makes Macanese cooking special is that the recipes have been passed down through families for hundreds of years. “Each family has their own secrets to creating great dishes,” says Mrs Wong.
Australian Mathew Helm is the Executive Chef at the “six-star” Crown Macau. He defines and oversees the culinary direction of the hotel’s four signature restaurants including the Michelin Star, Chinese fine dining, Ying. While the Crown’s restaurants veer away from Portuguese influences, they do remain true to each menu’s country of origin.
“The emphasis is on freshness in all our kitchens,” he says. “We have two Japanese restaurants so we fly ingredients in from Japan four times a week, and meats from all over the world arrive daily for our Italian restaurant, Aurora.”
According to Mathew, being a chef in this part of world requires an holistic outlook. “It is a continual learning curve. To cook a dish you must get to know its history, meanings and origins. Who created it? Was it an Emperor or an Opera singer? At Ying, Chef Tam seeks only organic ingredients and cooks to the precepts of ancient Taoists traditions that hold that a meal must serve to preserve the body’s natural balance.”
Each course compliments the last, detoxifying the effects of spicy, deep-fried dishes and alcohol.
On top of his quest for gastronomic wisdom, Helm is undertaking a crash course in Cantonese while already proficient in Thai, German, Arabic and French. It’s a mission that serves him well in the actual dining area. After 14 years at some of the planet’s finer establishments, like The Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland, Raffles in Singapore and The Oberoi in Egypt, he reckons: “The unique thing about Macau is it’s all about face and presenting a personal touch.”
Macau has gone from fishing village to a showcase of mega-casinos in less than 50 years. There are so many denim-clad billionaire high rollers in town it’s hard to discern who exactly is a VIP, and it’s most important that you can.
One of Macau’s best-known culinary ambassadors and front of house showmen, famed for slicing the tops off of champagne bottles and flambéing dishes in the centre of his tiny Michelin star Antonio Portuguese restaurant is, Antonio Neves Coelho. He first came to Macau in the seventies as a Sergeant in the Portuguese army, then worked as a food hygienist in Portugal until 1985 before being encouraged into the kitchen by friends and family. ??After cooking stints in Lisbon, Africa and Hong Kong, he finally returned to Macau in 1997. Antonio is his third restaurant here. It is about to expand to larger premises in Taipa’s historic quarter, near the landmark food alley of Rua de Cunha.
“I am not a man of nouvelle cuisine, I’m a traditionalist,” he says emphatically, in an accent as thick as the walls of the city’s 17th Century Fortaleza do Monte. “I cannot change. To change my cooking is to change my personality and my feelings.” In an effort to preserve his cooking heritage, Antonio makes regular trips back his native Portugal, swapping recipes with regional villagers. “It’s something I’ve done for the past 25 years. I teach them and they teach me.”
Antonio is famed across South East Asia for his rustic dishes, like gratin goats-cheese dripped with olive oil and acacia honey served on homemade cornbread, chourico caseiro assado na canoa au flambé (homemade Portuguese sausage flambé) and his Portuguese filet mignon cooked in garlic, bay leaf and olive oil served with a slice of smoked ham, and Portuguese condiments.
“I don’t like to say signature dish because we make to the market. The Chinese particularly don’t like too much sugar, salt or spice, chilli sauce on the side only. I cook with patience; I don’t want to cook like a factory. I don’t have a set menu. I ask what the customer likes and then match dishes to their taste.”
Over eighty percent of Antonio’s ingredients are imported from Portugal. He serves only Portuguese sausage, cheese, sardines, monkfish, wines, beers, even salt and water. Many such things he could source in Macau cheaper through producers in China. “In Portugal these ingredients have another taste. The flavour is different, more intense. The land and the traditions they affect everything.”