Where to stay
Hotel Royal A comfortable, uniquely positioned hotel found at the foot of the attractive Guia Lighthouse, away from the main drag. Portuguese restaurant, Fado, is a lot of fun (try the suckling pig). Doubles from £147. 2-4 Estrada da Vitória, 00 853 2855 2222, http://www.hotelroyal.com.mo
Love Lane Seven Inn A petite seven-room boutique heritage inn which sits in the shadow of the Ruins of St Paul’s on the historic Love Lane. It’s location in the heart of the old town it makes a good base. Don’t miss the excellent pumpkin ice cream. Doubles from £58. 7 Travessa da Paixão, 00 853 2836 6490, http://www.lovelane7.com
Mandarin Oriental This towering glass hotel overlooking Macao Bay and Nam Van Lake lives up to its name as one of the world’s most luxurious brands with contemporary Asian design, high-end dining and a first-class spa. Doubles from £198. N945, Avenida Dr Sun Yat Sen, 00 853 8805 8888, http://www.mandarinoriental.co...
MGM Macau Perfect for those who fancy a flutter, but be sure to make time for dinner at the Imperial Court restaurant, which serves a modern take on traditional Cantonese dishes. Doubles from £207. Avenida Dr Sun Yat Sen, 00 853 8802 8888, http://www.mgm.mo
The Parisian Macao This French-themed hotel boasts a shopping mall, water park and half-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower. Doubles from £157.Estrada do Istmo, Cotai Strip, 00 853 2882 8833, http://www.parisianmacao.com
Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16 A luxurious harbourside hotel that’s ideally situated for exploring the old town on foot with easy access to attractions such as the Ruins of St Paul’s. Doubles from £89. Rua do Visconde Paco de Arcos, 00 853 8861 0016, http://www.sofitelmacau.com
Macao is an autonomous region of China on the country’s south coast, across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong. There are no direct flights from the UK, so the easiest option is to fly to Hong Kong (around 12 hours) and then either take a ferry across to Macao (around 1 hour/from £16pp) or take a shuttle bus across the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao bridge (45 minutes/£7pp). Time is 8 hours ahead of GMT. Currency is the Macanese pataca (MOP), though the Hong Kong dollar (HKD) is widely accepted. In January the average high temperature is 18C and the average low is 12C.
Cathay Pacific flies from London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Dublin and Manchester airports to Hong Kong International. http://www.cathaypacific.com
Macao Government Tourism Office is the official tourist board and its website is packed with helpful information. http://www.visitmacao.co.uk
Taste of Macau by Annabel Jackson (Hong Kong University Press, £19) is much more than a cookbook, charting the history of this distinctive cuisine.
Return flights from London produce 2.64 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £19.81. Visit http://www.climatecare.org for more information.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses with half a bottle of wine, unless otherwise stated
António This resolutely Portuguese restaurant is run by an award-winning chef and lively character called – you’ve guessed it – António. The salt cod in garlic-infused olive oil is outstanding. From £42. 7 Rua dos Clerigos, 00 853 2888 8668, http://www.antoniomacau.com
Café Nga Tim Feast on fresh seafood and Portuguese-Macanese dishes at this café in picturesque Coloane village while you watch people taking wedding photos outside the Chapel of St Francis Xavier. From £19. 8 Rua do Caetano, 00 853 2888 2086
Fado A contemporary twist on Portuguese dishes at the Hotel Royal with a regionally inspired menu. From £69. Hotel Royal, 2-4 Estrada da Vitória, 00 853 2855 2222, http://www.hotelroyal.com.mo
La Famiglia A convivial, family style Macanese restaurant run by renowned Macanese chef Florita Alves. Minchi and dried fish fritters are must-order classics. From £28. 76 Rua dos Clerigos, 00 853 6320 2320
IFT Educational Restaurant The Institute for Tourism Studies has a restaurant staffed by students serving traditional Portuguese and Macanese dishes with plenty of contemporary flair. From £40. Colina de Mong-Há, 00 853 8598 3077, http://www.ift.edu.mo
Kam In Portuguese Food Pastry and confectionery shop making traditional sweets by hand including alua, a famous candy eaten at Christmas. A block costs from £3. 105 Rua Central, 00 853 6638 7623
Litoral Quaint Portuguese and Macanese restaurant with an excellent version of porco tamarinho – pork with tamarind and shrimp paste. From £20. 261A Rua do Almirante Sergio, 00 853 2896 7878
Lord Stow’s Bakery Home of Macao’s famous egg tart, established in 1989 by Englishman Andrew Stow. Tarts from 50p. 1 Rua do Tassara, Coloane Town Square, 00 853 2888 2534, http://www.lordstow.com
Macau Tower 360 Enjoy panoramic views across Macao and the Pearl River Delta at this rotating restaurant 338m above ground level. You can also do one of the world’s tallest bungy jumps here, but it’s probably best to partake of the extensive buffet after, rather than before. From £30.Largo da Torre de Macau, 00 853 8988 8622, http://www.macautower.com.mo
Riquexo This famous café founded nearly 40 years ago specialises in traditional dishes and is frequented by local Macanese and Portuguese families. You’ll find few frills but an abundance of soul. From £10. 69 Avenida de Sidonio Pais, 00 853 2856 5655
Seng Kei Congee Charmingly basic breakfast spot serving congee, dumplings and rice rolls (also look out for taro cake in autumn). Dishes from £4. 264 Avenida de Tamagnini Barbosa, 00 853 2840 3931
Tai Lei Loi Kei Purveyors of Macao’s most famous sandwich: the pork chop bun. This fun, lively café serves variations on the theme but the original is best. Also try the chicken thighs and the fish balls, which are served with a bowl of richly spiced curry sauce for dipping. From £5.35 Rua Correria da Silva, 00 853 2882 7150, http://www.taileiloi.com.mo
- A firm confection made with condensed milk, butter and coconut
- Arroz gordo
- Literally meaning ‘fat rice’, this tomato-flavoured rice is usually topped with a combination of pork, chicken, sausage and eggs
- Bak kwa
- Macanese beef jerky sold in large, flat sheets
- Camarões suados
- ‘Sauna prawns’ – fresh prawns marinated in rice wine, then steamed over hot rocks
- Caril de caranguejo
- Fresh crab cooked in curry sauce, often containing onions and peppers
- Triangular deep-fried pastries containing curried pork
- Deep-fried spiced meat pies
- A Portuguese dish combining beans, beef, pork and sausage
- Galinha à Africana
- Fried chicken topped with a rich, spicy sauce
- Galinha à Portuguesa
- A mildly spiced, slightly sweet chickencurry made with coconut sauce
- Minced meat cooked with onions and soy sauce, typically served with diced fried potatoes and often with a fried egg on top.This is the unofficial national dish of Macao
- Pastéis de bacalhau
- Salt cod fritters with parsley and potatoes
- Pastéis de nata
- Portuguese egg tart with flaky pastry and custard filling
- Porco tamarindo
- A rich dish of slow-cooked pork flavoured witha sweet-sour sauce made from shrimp paste and tamarind
- Also known as ‘sawdust pudding’ or ‘Macao pudding’,a popular layered dessert made with thick cream and crumbledMaria biscuits. A must-try for those with a sweet tooth
Food and Travel Review
The casino-fringed shore of Macao’s Outer Harbour extends a very different welcome to that which greeted sailors 400 years ago, when it was a crucial port on the Silk Road. The then-island’s location off the south-east coast of China made it a magnet for traders and missionaries as a gateway between East and West. Portuguese sailors, settled here in the mid-16th century, traded goods including textiles, spices, sandalwood and silverware between China, Goa, Malacca and Japan. The Portuguese created a home away from home in Macao, and it remained under their administration until 1999, when it returned to Chinese sovereignty. What endures is a unique mesh of Portuguese and Chinese cultures: streets are cobbled with stones once used to stabilise Portuguese ships, Taoist temples sit peacefully on the edges of European port-city squares and Chinese characters appear on the facade of the 17th-century Ruins of St Paul’s Church, an attempt to more easily integrate Catholicism into a predominantly Buddhist and folk-worshipping society.
As the sailors married in Macao, a new cuisine formed in the kitchens of local women eager to give their husbands a taste of home. Portuguese ingredients such as bacalhau (salt cod), olive oil and bay leaves were combined with rice, Chinese sausage and soy sauce, while techniques such as grilling and baking were introduced to a culinary culture that favours braising, frying and steaming.
The result was Macanese cuisine, a unique fusion of Portuguese, Chinese, Indian and African influences from the old trade route that has been preserved in home kitchens and is part of the distinctive gastronomic culture which also saw Macao become a Unesco Creative City of Gastronomy in 2017, only the third within China. Some chefs are now bringing traditional dishes to a wider audience, including Florita Alves, a member of the Macanese Gastronomy Association, who sees a ‘bright future’ for the cuisine. At her restaurant, La Famiglia, we chat over one of Macanese food’s greatest hits: minchi, a hearty bowl of fried potatoes and minced meat cooked with soy sauce, often topped with a fried egg. ‘Minchi is our national dish,’ Alves explains, ‘the meat is cooked with onion, garlic, shallot and light and dark soy sauce. It’s traditionally made with beef but I use pork to appeal to our Chinese customers.’ Homely and spoon-able with a moreish quality from the salty seasonings and sweet meat, it’s the kind of dish one might crave after one too many shots of baijiu (a strong, grain-distilled liquor) the night before.
‘The Macanese are very sociable people,’ Alves says, producing a tray of nibbles which would be the perfect accompaniment to an ice-cold beer. ‘These types of snacks would be eaten at parties which can go on until 3am.’ Pastéis de bacalhau are crunchy fritters which combine salt cod, potato, parsley and eggs. They commonly appear both on restaurant menus and on street-vendors’ stalls. Chamuças resemble samosas, plump with pork curried in nine different spices, and chilicote mimic deep-fried pasties, combining minced meat, soy, turmeric and crispy potatoes inside their blistered dough. At Litoral, Macanese dishes sit alongside traditional Portuguese preparations such as clams cooked in earthenware pots, their shells clattering like mahjong tiles. Here we try a fascinating dish called porco tamarindo – pork cooked in a sweet-sharp sauce of homemade fermented shrimp paste combined with tamarind.
La Famiglia and Litoral are part of a new wave of Macanese restaurants serving modernised versions of traditional dishes, but at Sonia Palmer’s Riquexo, time has stood still. Tucked down a side street off the tourist trail, this is one of the city’s oldest Macanese restaurants, and Palmer serves only the most traditional dishes. The white-tiled walls of the café are covered with photos of old Macao, giving it a homely, nostalgic feel that complements the food. She learned to cook from her now 103-year-old mother, Aida de Jesus, who still converses in Macao’s little-heard Patuá creole, a fusion of Portuguese, Cantonese and Malay. ‘People need to keep it the traditional way otherwise they cannot call it Macanese food,’ Palmer insists. ‘We change the menu every day apart from three dishes: minchi, galinha à Portuguesa (a lightly spiced curry chicken with turmeric and coconut milk) and feijoada (a kidney bean dish with beef, pork and Portuguese sausage).’
She flicks manicured hands through an extensive laminated menu, which includes galinha à Africana, or African chicken, a 50-year-old (so relatively modern) Macanese dish that Palmer’s mother claims to have learnt from its inventor. Fried chicken is coated in a spicy sauce combining butter, onions, garlic, paprika, chilli and coconut milk. The straightforward presentation of the dish belies its complexity of flavour.
While some Portuguese ingredients have integrated easily into the wider culinary landscape, others, such as sardines, required a harder sell. At Loja das Conservas in the old town – a maze of charmingly dilapidated buildings where pavements are studded with bollards and wrought-iron lamps – the shelves are lined with over 300 varieties of fish imported from Portugal. The manager, Jason Jiang Hong, explains how customers are mostly tourists from Taiwan and Japan who ‘know the canned fish culture’. The Chinese, he explains, are more reluctant, although a stack of Portuguese recipe books in the corner helps educate the newbies. One dish that’s entered recent repertoires is salt cod fried rice, a winning variation on a Chinese classic, made salty and rich with the preserved fish and chopped olives.
Integrating European flavours with fresh seafood was not such a challenge. Café Nga Tim in the tiny, undeveloped Coloane village (located a short hop across the casino-populated Cotai Strip), serves the freshest catch in a corner of Eduardo Marques Square. The chapel of St Francis Xavier looms a striking pastel yellow against the white and black cobblestones and jungly hillsides where walkers stomp ancient trails. As the sun sets, chairs are tucked under chequered tablecloths and icy beers are supped alongside caril de caranguejo (curried crab) and an intriguing dish of camarões suados, or ‘sauna prawns.’ They arrive in a cloud of aromatic steam. Prepared in a punchy marinade of rice wine, lime, garlic, ginger and pepper, they are dunked in a pot filled with hot black stones before we dig in, sucking the heads and eating the tender, sweet meat, all the better for its obvious freshness. The Chinese are discerning when it comes to seafood: at the famous, three-storey Red Market in the Santo António parish, shoppers pore over seafood stalls, stroking fish skin, examining eyes and questioning stallholders before making a final choice. One customer, delighted with her purchase of a perky sole, tells of her loyalty to just one stall. She will steam the fish at home with ginger and soy sauce.
Some Macao foods have become so famous they’re a rite of passage for any traveller. The pork chop bun has been served at Tai Lei Loi Kei since 1968. The dish is simple, comprising a chop marinated in Portuguese brandy, onion, garlic, white pepper and bay leaf, which is deep fried and served, on the bone, inside a freshly baked bun with a satisfying chew. People travel from around China to try this basic but unusual snack. For the adventurous, there’s a variation which swaps bun for croissant. Macao’s other unmissable delicacy is the egg tart, familiar to anyone who’s eaten a Portuguese pastel de nata. A trip to Lord Stow’s Bakery on Coloane Island reveals the scale of this dish’s popularity. ‘We sell 21,000 tarts across our three sites every single day,’ says Eileen Stow, sister of the shop’s British founder Andrew, who passed away in 2006. ‘I’m so bloody proud of him.’ This mind-boggling number is testament to the quality of the tarts, which are markedly different to their Portuguese ancestors. ‘The filling is less sweet with a wobblier texture… it’s more like the British custard our mothers would’ve taught us to make,’ explains Stow. ‘It’s also different to the Chinese egg tart served with dim sum.’ Other entrepreneurs have capitalised on its success by adapting the tarts, serving variations such as the white milk tart at San Hou Lei café on Taipa Island, made ‘birds nest’ by the addition of noodles.
Other must-try sweets include traditional Macanese almond cookies, which are everywhere including the heaving Rua do Cunha, a pedestrianised street where people queue for glazed jerky and vendors twirl sticky trays of peanut candy. Most impressive, however, are those at Kam In Portuguese Food in the city centre, a shop where Ho Kam and her team make cookies from pine nuts, almonds, walnuts and a whole lot of dairy. They also make alua or ‘Christmas candy’ using condensed milk, butter from New Zealand, flour, sugar and coconut. This dense caramelised confection is made above the shop by an extraordinary process involving eight gruelling hours of non-stop stirring. We ascend rickety wooden steps to find men heaving wooden paddles back and forth in a pot of what looks like white toffee, perched atop glowing charcoal. It’s swelteringly hot as they push their weight off carefully positioned stones set into the floor. It must be one of the most labour intensively produced sweets in the world, so it’s a good job it’s also delicious.
Preserving traditional methods is crucial when there are concerns the cuisine may disappear. At Riquexo, Palmer, explaining how knowledge is buried with home cooks, says, ‘the older generation, they were very secretive, they don’t want to give away the recipes’. At nearly 400 years old, Macanese food may be the original ‘fusion food’, preceding other famous examples such as Californian, Tex-Mex and the British-Jewish combo of fish and chips. Just as much of the Macanese land has been reclaimed from the sea, recipes are being reclaimed from the scrappy notebooks of elderly housewives, offering the world a taste of a cuisine born out of love, necessity and good old-fashioned homesickness.
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