“Oh, you’re going to Macau! You have to bet 100 (HK) dollars on black 13 for me,” said a friend. “You must check out the realistic artificial sky at the Venetian,” said another. “There’s a fantastic Dragon of Fortune show at the Wynn,” said a third.
My response to them was, respectively — “what?”, “why?”, and “you mean like in Game of Thrones ?” I have played the odd round of poker with friends, but gambling is of little interest to me. And the gaudy, over-the-top casinos of Macau leave me cold. What warms the cockles of my heart is the food — a curious combination of Portuguese and Chinese influences, giving rise to an East-meets-West crossbreed.
Macau was under Portuguese rule for 400 years, until 1999 (when China assumed sovereignty of the region). The first Portuguese traders settled here in the mid-16th century. That country’s imprint on Macau’s cultural identity is indelible. The old parts of Macau, with cobbled streets and colonial-era buildings in soothing pastel hues, mirror the European influence. The peninsula’s historic centre is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Much like any European piazza, Senado Square (Macau’s paved town square) is the hub of local activity. Tiny alleys branch out in all directions, and it’s here that you will find the places where the locals shop and eat.
The one adjacent to McDonald’s is called Travessa de Sao Domingos. Its hole-in-the-wall restaurants is where I head for the best pork chop bun. Tai Lei Loi Kei has been around since 1968 and serves only pork chop buns in the afternoon. One of Macau’s popular street foods, what I look for is a seasoned pork chop stuffed inside a bun. At Tai Lei Loi Kei, the chop (on the bone) is so tender and flavourful, that I barely pause between bites. The bun is soft and pliable, with a slightly crunchy crust.
I leave Senado Square and make my way to the Ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral via Rua de Sao Paulo. This street is heaving with shops, selling everything from food to clothes, and beyond. A makeshift shop is selling congee, or Chinese rice porridge. Several pots bubble away on the stoves and I watch as two women rapidly cook the porridge, add pieces of pork and meatballs, and serve bowls of the concoction to the long queue of hungry patrons. The porridge is piping hot and silky smooth, with meat that is literally melting into the bowl.
There are rows of shops selling varieties of dried meat — spicy beef and wild boar jerky is on display and attendants are handing out samples to passers-by. At Pastelaria Koi Kei I try several varieties, some slightly sweet, some deliciously spicy, though I like the wild boar jerky best.
Koi Kei is also known for another Macanese treat — almond cookies. I watch as a baker expertly mixes the almond powder, almond pieces, lard, and sugar. He then presses the mixture into wooden moulds with a rolling pin. The moulded cookies are transferred to a large bamboo basket, which is placed on an open charcoal oven to slow roast the cookies. The almond cookies have a crumbly texture, much like nankhatai , with a nutty flavour.
The egg tart is the most noted Portuguese influence on Macau’s food offerings. I try these at various street shops, but the best ones are at Lord Stow’s Bakery in Coloane, a fishing village (island) in Macau. Like its Portuguese cousin pastel de nata , the Macau version has a light, flaky pastry shell, which encases a decadent egg custard, with a slightly caramelised top. Another Portuguese-inspired dessert is serradura , which translates as sawdust. The name may not be very appealing, but this layered, chilled pudding is a treat. Sweet biscuits, cream and condensed milk come together to make this semifreddo-like dessert, topped with finely powdered biscuits (hence, sawdust).
As I wander through the markets in Macau, I’m struck by the vast quantities and varieties of dried seafood that the Macanese eat. Roadside vendors have sacks brimming with dried mackerel, abalone, scallops, oysters, fish maw (air bladder), shark fin and more.
I also spot bacalhau , which is dried and salted cod fish, used extensively in Portuguese cooking. I try a version of this at Antonio, a restaurant in Taipa village. Antonio’s bacalhau no forno com cebola e batata assada is shredded codfish baked with a rich, creamy sauce, and served with olives and crunchy onions on top. Add to this the fado tunes played by a guitar-wielding Marcelino, and you could easily be in some town in Portugal.
Prachi Joshi is a Mumbai-based food, travel and lifestyle writer