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Macau's Cuisine Is an Oral Tradition

Macau is a place where many different cultures came together and shared their languages, food, and traditions. A lot of people think that Macau is just Portuguese plus Chinese, but it’s not.

Abraham Conlon

Photo by Huge Galdones/Fat Rice.

I grew up in that Massachusetts town that The Fighter is based on. My mom's side is Portuguese; my dad's side, Irish. Our town has a dense Southeast Asian population, too. In the 80s, a lot of Cambodians, Laos, and Southeast Asian people fled there from the Khmer Rouge, so I grew up eating those flavors. I was really into exploring and trying to find new ingredients as a young child, teenager, and cook.

I picked up a job at 15 as a fry cook, and quickly moved up to being a sauté cook. I got my start there, and then had the opportunity to work for some really great chefs. It all fueled my interest in food and fusion cuisine. I found out about Macau in 1999, when I read about the turnover back to the Chinese government, and it really resonated with me. It was a culture that incorporated all the things that I was interested in, and reflected my own background, being Portuguese and growing up in a predominantly Asian town. In the back of my mind, I always thought, one day I'm going to go there, but then I completely forgot about it. I went to culinary school, I cooked at the best restaurants that I could, and then traveled around.

MAKE IT: Fat Rice's Beef and Pork Minchi

Macau was a former Portuguese trading post from the 16th century through the 20th century; a place where many different cultures came together and shared their languages, food, and traditions. A lot of people think that Macau is just Portuguese plus Chinese, but it's not. The mothers of Macanese cuisine were most likely Indian, Goan, Malay, and Japanese.

From my travels, I had some realizations about fusion food—that terrible f-word. It got a bad rap in the 90s, when people would take a trip to Southeast Asia and look at books and go, "I'm just gonna throw some lemongrass in my consommé to make it Asian," or, "I'm gonna put some wasabi in my mashed potatoes, and they're Japanese!" It's much more than that.

Macau's food is from Portuguese merchants or sailors who left their wives at home, got to India, and were like, Man, I miss home. This dish reminds me of home. Then, they found an Indian wife and said, "Can you make this dish?" and the wife tried, and she'd have to substitute ingredients. It was all out of homesickness and necessity.

This isn't food that you find in restaurants. People aren't just hanging out on the street saying, "Hey, you should put Malagueta chili pepper in your fish stew to spice it." These are experimentations that happen at home. A lot of times, you have to be invited into somebody's home or a community church gathering to try it.

For the most part, this cuisine is an oral tradition. One household's recipe differs from another's. There is no Escoffier type that has written the Macanese version of Larousse Gastronomique that can inform you on things like, this is exactly how you do it, and this is the only way to do it. There are base guidelines for specific dishes, but every family has their own variation. I pull up Google searches for these recipes that yield one, maybe two results. Sometimes I have to do searches in Chinese or Portuguese, and then I translate and try to figure out the exact interpretation and conversions. We take that base recipe and make it. Then, we think, OK, so what do we do with this at Fat Rice? How do we make this a delicious, presentable, restaurant dish?

In 2011, my partner Adrienne and I decided to go to China. She is from a Chinese-American family, and spent a lot of time in India studying Buddhism. We went to a cooking school in the Sichuan province, and then onward to Hong Kong. While we were there, it all snapped back to me when I realized, We should go to Macau because I remember reading about it. Plus, we had always joked that if Adrienne and I were to have a child together, it would be Macanese because of our combined heritages and experiences.

So we went to Macau and saw it—in the streets, in the people, in their faces—that mixing and melding and blending of culture. We completely immersed ourselves and ate six meals a day. The place is at least 3,000 miles away from home. You have to go all out and crush it.

We decided to go to Portuguese and Portuguese-influenced places, and ran around trying to figure out what the food of Macau is all about. Luckily, we stumbled upon a restaurant called Riquexo, which means "rickshaw." It's a very simple, cafeteria-style restaurant. Aida de Jesus, the owner, is a lovely woman around 100 years old. She really looks like my grandma, if she had Malay in her. What we saw her doing in that restaurant was really sublime "fusion food" that didn't look forced at all. She had dishes like feijoada, but with red beans, carrots, cabbage, and even pig ears and sausages. I had her linguiça, a Portuguese sausage that I grew up eating in Massachusetts, and I could taste the Chinese influence in it. It was like lap cheong, the Chinese sausage, made with rose wine, maltose, soy, and probably MSG. You could taste nuances of lap cheong in the Portuguese sausage, and it blew my mind. That subtly made it her own.

The main clientele of Riquexo is the senior citizens of the Macanese community. This is for people who can't cook for themselves anymore, or a person who did cook for them has passed on, or whatever reason. I remember a couple of distinct dishes like pato de cabidela—basically giblets—which is a stew that comes from Portugal. It's usually made with chicken or pork, with some offal. But it's then thickened with blood. In Portugal, they might use white wine, bay leaves, and garlic. At Riquexo, Aida uses tamarind instead of red wine, and cumin, star anise, and maybe curry. Those spices weren't necessarily present in the Portuguese version because they didn't have those ingredients until they made their trek to India, Southeast Asia, and eventually, Macau.

Aida is the keeper of all secrets and she's the last woman standing.

She's trying to keep her culture alive and teach her children—not just her maternal children, but everyone in her culture. This isn't pretty food—it was cooked hours before and put into steam trays in a cafeteria-style setting. But what makes braises and stews delicious is eating them when they're a day old, at least.

I've been trying to get back to Macau this year. I'm going to visit , spend a few days with her, and try to get some more in-depth knowledge. We have people come into the restaurant and they're like, "I'm from Hong Kong," but they're under the age of 30 and have never seen any of our food before. That's a testament to the home-style nature of the food. If somebody's of Portuguese or Macanese descent and they're over the age of 60, and they want to talk to me, I'm like, Holy shit. I don't care about chefs, I don't care about critics; it's all about when the people whose native food I'm cooking come in and want to try it.

In the two years that Fat Rice has been open, there have only been three people who have come into the restaurant and told me things like, "Oh, my grandmother used to put minchi (ground pork) in our fat rice." I mean, fat rice already has so many proteins, and then they covered the rice with ground meat?

I can't help but think, Holy shit.

I make the connections with them and ask, "Hey, is there anything you want to share to help me preserve your food?" Everybody's been very willing, saying, "I'm gonna send you my grandfather's recipes for a few dishes." I take that dish, develop it, put it on the menu, and make sure to pay tribute by saying, "This dish is from this specific person." That's important, for things to not be forgotten. We're trying to document it, whether in blogs, books, or menus.

A lot of people, chefs included, are interested in the "new." With what I'm doing, I'm trying to say, "This has already been done, but you didn't know about it, and now we're showing it to you. It might come across as new, and it might come across as innovative, and it might come across as progressive, but it's not."

As told to Helen Hollyman.