Flavours from the Past
Macanese food is becoming increasingly recognised as an important aspect of the city’s heritage
For all its many tourist attractions, two things Macau is known for more than anything else are its glamorous casinos and equally colourful mix of East and West cultures. For visitors walking down the street, this mix is perhaps best represented by the various street names and architecture of famous buildings. But for the local Macanese community, there is arguably nothing more definitive of their unique culture than the tantalising flavours and aromas of Macanese food.
The result of generations of intermarriage between the Portuguese and Chinese communities, as well as the global travels of those who arrived here from afar, Macanese cuisine has become one of the few remaining links to the deeply family traditions of this city’s past.
In recognition of the cultural significance of its local cuisine, and also of the extensive food offerings in the city, in November last year, Macau was officially designated as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, becoming only the third Chinese city to receive such a title, alongside Chengdu and Shunde.
And this year, the Macau Government Tourist Office launched the 2018 Macao Year of Gastronomy promotion, to highlight the city’s increasingly varied food and dining options.
However, despite an increasing interest in this special part of the city’s past, the future of Macanese cuisine is still uncertain, with knowledge of recipes and cooking techniques not always being passed on to the next generation, and family traditions of home cooking waning.
Some experts also argue that the style of cooking is not ideally suited for more commercial application, making it difficult to be successfully included on restaurant menus.
So, will the Macanese community, and the city more broadly, be able to keep the flavours and appreciation of this cuisine alive?
“Everything needs to begin at home,” suggests Chef Florita Alves, a member of the Macau Gastronomy Association, and a well known ‘ambassador’ of the local cuisine. “Promoting it widely is important, but if everybody, especially the Macanese community, can do a little bit at home, I think it’s enough to preserve our culture.”
“Cooking at home has to be part of daily life. But we need to push a little bit because nowadays, take away is much easier and everyone is too busy,” she adds.
Luís Machado, President of the Macau Gastronomy Association agrees: “Macanese cuisine is a family cuisine, it depended on the transition from mother to daughter, or grandmother to grand-daughter, and this is becoming rare, and difficult to continue this kind of transmission, because once the old ladies pass away, they take the recipes with them.”
However, Mr Machado is still hopeful: “There’s a new generation in Macau who are very interested in Patuá and traditional Macanese food. There’s an association of young Macanese who want to have workshops and learn more.”
The Association was formed in 2007, and “We went to Portugal invited by the association of Algarve, and we really understood that this kind of movement was very important for Macau to save our gastronomy from disappearing,” explains the president.
Today the group has around 250 members, although active members are fewer. They hold parties two or three times a year for people to show off their dishes, and the group receives some subsidies from the government to help cover costs.
They also played an active role in pushing for Macau to be listed as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy.
“It was really one of our aims since 2007. We were part of the committee and we had a lot of meetings, so I suppose we had a little part in the success,” notes Machado. “I’m sure that Macanese food is one of the most representative foods in this city of gastronomy, the most important one”.
With the listing achieved, the Association’s work is still ongoing. Later this year, they will join MGTO at a trade fair in Fuzhou for the first time. In November they plan to travel to Greece with two or three chefs for a congress, organised by the European Congress of Oenogastronomiques Brotherhoods. And in May, they will run a stall at Broadway Macau’s Food Street to present Macanese food directly to tourists, a new experience for the Association according to Machado.
Unlike many national cuisines and delicacies which are strongly representative of specific local ingredients, Macanese food is a fascinating mixture of flavours and spices, not necessarily indigenous to the territory itself.
“Our cuisine is most probably one of the first fusion cuisines in the world because it is the fusion of the traditional Portuguese gastronomy that came with the navigators and was enriched on their way to the East and Far East with all the spices, vegetables and fruits that were introduced to their meals. It became one the main features of our Macanese identity,” explains Graça Pacheco Jorge, a member of one of the oldest Macanese families and author of a book on Macanese cooking, A Cozinha de Macau de Casa do Meu Avô.
“Chinese cuisine had a big influence [on their cooking] once the Portuguese settled in Macau, with their knowledge already acquired during the voyages and permanence in other countries, mainly India and Malaya,” she adds.
Another researcher of Macanese culture, Fernando Sales Lopes explains that the people and the food that arrived in Macau some five hundred years ago, were already a mixture of ethnicities and cultures.
“The first Portuguese to arrive in Macau were not all Europeans as we might imagine. Many were from Africa and other countries along the way. What arrived in Macau is what the men and women brought with them, a mixture from along the way, Africa, Goa, Malacca,” he notes.
And the Chinese culinary elements did not only enter the cuisine upon their arrival in Macau.
“Their cooking had already picked up some Chinese influence because of the Chinese diaspora that had already spread throughout the region. Local cuisines along the way had already been influenced by Chinese food,” explains Sales Lopes.
From there on, the dishes continuously evolved, with each family creating their own variant of particular dishes to satisfy specific tastes and preferences.
“The Portuguese started marrying the Chinese, and the Chinese wives and servants would try to make food as close as possible to please their husbands,” notes Sonia Palmer, owner of one of the most famous Macanese restaurants in Macau, Riquexó (Rickshaw).
“The ingredients and recipes were also related to the ethnic and cultural mix of the family. If the mother was Chinese and the father Portuguese, you have a balance between the cultures, and the food reflects this,” notes Sales Lopes.
“The Macanese have a special way of being. They lived between two very different worlds - western and eastern - that could not be further apart,” explains Cecília Jorge, another member of the Macanese community, researcher and author.
Cecília was born in Macau and left in the 1960’s to live in Portugal, before returning to work here as a journalist. She can trace her earliest Macanese ancestors back to 1720, and has dedicated much time to researching and discovering more about the Macanese community. In 2004 she published the book Macanese Cooking: A Journey Across Generations.
“There’s not one type of Macanese, it’s like a traditional fan. You open the fan; this side is Macanese and this side is also Macanese, in the middle is Macanese - they are all different colours, all cultures, lots of different roots. Every Macanese is a real Macanese, one is not more Macanese than another, and our food is also like this.
Yet this creates a challenge when trying to learn how to cook Macanese food: As it was always a cuisine strongly rooted in home cooking, different families had different recipes for the same dish, and there is not always agreement on what is the most authentic.
“The family recipes were designed to please the tastes of the people in the family. If the father is allergic to onions, then this family recipe won’t include onions,” notes Cecília. “And in discussions about recipes it’s always like ‘my mother’s is better than yours.’”
In her book Taste of Macau (2003), author Annabel Jackson tells a similar story: “There is no single way in the Macanese cooking lexicon to cook a dish like, say, sarrabulho – but the childhood memories of every Macanese are framed with the unique aromas of their own grandmother’s sarrabulho. So there is only one way to cook it, and that is her way!”
At special gatherings like weddings, baptisms and graduations, families would customarily bring a lot of dishes to be shared – a meal sometimes referred to as Chá Gordo (literally ‘fat tea’). And while recipes were discussed and compared at these occassions, usually they were not completely disclosed.
“It was a big competition between families, they always wanted to produce the best recipe and they never revealed the entire recipe, some things were kept secret in the family,” says Luís Machado.
Graça Pacheco Jorge recounts a similar story of secrecy: “One of my aunts was an excellent cook. When I was growing up I became fascinated with the cuisine and I tried to get her to teach me the family recipes. As it happens in most families, they do not easily share their secrets, so I used to be her shadow when she went to the kitchen. Sometimes she would close the door, and if I tried to come in, she would say in our Macanese dialect “Cusa Querê?” meaning “What do you want?” and close the door immediately. But anyway I am lucky; I got to learn most of them!”
Even if recipes were handed on or written down, many of the old ones use instructions that are nowadays a little vague or hard to follow.
“I have recipes from a long time ago, that say 5 cents of this ingredient, 10 cents of this, but what is the quantity?” comments Sonia Palmer.
“Sometimes the measures were ‘a hand of this, a hand of that’ but what kind of hand?” adds Luís Machado.
And when talking about whether Macanese cuisine could be promoted in a more commercial sense, other limitations seem to arise.
“Macanese cuisine is a slow cooking process. Some food needs to be prepared one or two days in advance. This is one of the reasons that its not a commercial food for restaurants nowadays,” suggests Luís Machado.
“It’s not really well suited for restaurants, it’s more for homes, as it’s very fatty,” agrees Fernando Sales Lopes.
“Macanese cooking until very recently was never found in restaurants, first because of how it looks,” opines Cecília Jorge. “Macanese food is food at home, at clubs, at associations and banquets.”
A LOCAL INSTITUTION
Of course there are a few examples of successful Macanese restaurants in the city, the most well known being Riquexó (Rickshaw), run by Sonia Palmer and her mother, ‘the queen’ of Macanese cooking, 102-year-old Dona Aida Jesus, who despite her age continues to be at the restaurant every night, to eat and chat with the customers.
“We used to have gatherings at Clube Macau, near Dom Pedro V Theatre, and there were three popular ladies that cooked for parties,” reminisces Luís Machado. “One of the ladies was Dona Aida from Rickshaw, one was Dona Vitoria Baptista who is now at APOMAC, and Manuela Ferreira from Litoral Restaurant.
“All of them started in Clube Macau, then went to Hotel Lisboa in Portas do Sol, which used to have a Saturday Macanese lunch back in the 70s and 80s. But after that the social clubs closed, the rents for restaurants went up so they closed, and nowadays there are just a few left.”
Sonia and her mother have been running Rickshaw for 40 years and are considered an institution in town when it comes to Macanese food.
“We can’t afford a big place, and we don’t want to do a really high class place. We just want to please our customers, we’re not here to make big bucks,” laughs Sonia.
Although her main focus is on serving local customers, over the years the restaurant has a received quite a lot of international media coverage, making it something of a tourist attraction.
And unlike some, Dona Aida is more than happy to share her recipes with those who are interested in keeping the food alive.
“There was one Macanese restaurant that wanted to open and sent their son here to learn. We don’t mind the competition, the more the merrier, we don’t want Macanese food to finish. We are getting older so we have to let the young people continue,” explains Sonia.
“There are few people who have written cook books. I gave Anabel Jackson a few recipes for her book (Tastes of Macau). And an American couple in Chicago, came here to eat one day and were very impressed with the food. They asked my mother if she would be willing to give him the recipes. My mother said sure, gave him the recipes, and taught him how to cook the dishes.”
That couple, Chefs Abraham Conlon and Adrienee Lo then went on to open the only Macanese restaurant in the US, Fat Rice, and published a recipe book of the same name.
In 1994, Dona Aida’s cousin Manuela Ferreira opened one of the other most recognised Macanese restaurants in town, Litoral, after having gained experience working as an assistant chef at Hotel Lisboa in the 1970’s, at just 17 years of age.
“I served under a chef, who by coincidence, used to work with my grandmother at the old Pousada de Macau: Américo Angelo,” she recalls in the trilingual publication on Portuguese and Macanese cuisine Saboroso (2015).
“My mother was Chinese and my father was Portuguese. His mother worked at the Pousada de Macau, so my father was always making suggestions to include a bit of this and a little of that whenever I cooked,” she explains in the book.
According to David Wong from the Institute for Tourism Studies Culinary Arts Management degree programme, Chef Américo was rumoured to have been responsible for inventing the now famous African Chicken dish: “Chef Raimund Pichlmaier, past President of the Macau Culinary Association, tells the story that that dish was started off by the Portuguese soldiers who were based in Macau, then it was evolved by Chef Américo Angelo who created the dish in the 1940’s, working at Pousada de Macau and then eventually Lisboa Hotel.”
Nowadays, IFT is one of the few places in town working to train young chefs in the traditions of Macanese food.
“It can be very difficult but through the Macau Culinary Association, we organise a Macanese cooking competition every year for students and professionals, and this year will be our 9th event,” notes David.
Despite the challenges of keeping the culinary traditions of the early Macanese community alive, one thing everyone agrees on is that it is important to try.
“Patuá is a dead language so we don’t want Macanese gastronomy to be dead. We have to do more keep it alive, we don’t want the flavours of Macanese cuisine to be only in the past, we want to take a more active role,” says Florita Alves of the Macau Gastronomy Association.
Many speak of the three pillars of Macanese culture: the language (Patua), the food and the religion (Catholicism). But most feel that only one of these pillars truly remains standing.
“The young people don’t go to church and don’t speak the language. Food is different, they still like to eat it, but they don’t cook it at home,” points out Fernando Sales Lopes. “When you ask Macanese people, even those from the diaspora in Australia, Canada or Brazil ‘What is your relationship to Macau?’ they always answer, ‘The food, the food from my mother, and grandmother’. It’s almost a kind of mythical relationship.”
“We have many dishes from our childhood that link us to this food and that’s the best heritage we can have. The food might be the last remnant of the traditions and identity,” notes Cecília Jorge. “We can’t make the new generation speak the language, however we can maybe hold on to the cooking because it’s easier to pass on than a language.”
Author Graça Pacheco Jorge also believes that Macanese food is perhaps the last and most important link to the community’s past, and stresses the necessity to preserve it: “I think that most important of all is to pass on our recipes and traditions to the young generations, take all the family notes and stories from the drawers and the old recipe books forgotten in the cupboards and reproduce them in books, because they will last and be consulted, once this generation of mine is gone,” she says.
“So many important and traditional stories, recipes and tales of our gastronomy and identity are already lost that, if nothing is done now, it will be only left as a memory of our ancestors and my beloved Macau.”
Key spices and ingredients for Macanese cuisine
Balichao (fermented shrimp paste)
Lap Cheong (sweet dried sausage)
10 Must-try Macanese Dishes
Fat Rice combining a rich variety of meat and cured sausage, with distinctive influences from Goa and Malacca
The Macanese version of sweet sticky rice with sugar and coconut juice (santan)
Sweet potato pudding made with brown cane sugar and coconut juice (santan)
A Macanese sponge cake with lots of eggs, coconut, and roasted bean flour, topped off with a layer of icing sugar
A type of pork meatloaf with black olives and soaked bread, coated with egg and bread crumbs
A dish from the ‘devil’ due to its spicy flavours and red and yellow colours, made from the leftovers of a family banquet
– every type of meat you can find.
Perhaps the most famous and popular dish, because it’s so tasty and so easy to cook. The name is derived from the word ‘mince’, a combination of minced beef and pork, fried up with dark soy sauce, and served with crispy deep fried potato and an egg, sunny side up
Pato a Cabidela
Duck cooked in its own blood with potatoes, spiced with saffron, turmeric, coriander, cumin and bay leaves
Two simple ingredients: pork loin and potatoes. This dish gets its name from abafar which means ‘smothered’ in Macanese Patuá,
as it is braised in a covered saucepan
A hearty stew of chicken, pork, duck, pig’s trotter, yams, snow peas and white cabbage, and the magic ingredient, lap-cheong
*Recipes adapted from Macanese Cooking: A Journey Across Generations by Cecília Jorge
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