18 December 2012

Macau: A little bit of Portugal in Asia

Back in the middle of October, we made a long weekend getaway to Macau. Nestled in the South China sea and at the tip of the Guangdong province of China, talk about a fascinating place! Our main purpose in going (beyond checking out the food, architecture and culture) was to attend the annual Festival da Lusofonia, a celebration of music and culture from all of the world's Portuguese-speaking countries. Macau, in case you didn't know, was a former Portuguese colony and was administered by Portugal from the mid-16th century to 1999, when it was transferred to China as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) (following neighboring Hong Kong which was transferred in 1997). As per the agreement between China and Portugal, Portuguese is still one of the official languages of Macau (Cantonese and English are the others), and Portuguese culture (including food) is everywhere there! Despite its status as one of the world's gambling capitals and the blingy casinos everywhere (now making more revenue than Las Vegas even!), parts of Macau look and feel exactly like Lisbon, with tiled streets, old Portuguese churches and squares and nooks and crannies that would make you think you were in the Bairro Alto or Alfama rather than anywhere in Asia (just check out the photos below...some taken by Luis):

In terms of the Festival da Lusofonia, it is relatively unknown outside of Macau despite this year having been its 15th edition. Organized annually by the Forum for Economic and Trade Cooperation between China and Portuguese-Speaking Countries, the event includes a cultural week as well as the 3-day festival.

Beyond all of the excellent music, there was all manner of food and drink from the represented countries (including grogue and ponche from Cape Verde, gindungu or chili paste from Angola, the Goan dessert bebinca...just to name a few!), handicrafts and different cultural displays. Some of the countries had truly beautiful booths. Not surprisingly, Brazil seemed to be the most popular...surely the delicious caipirinhas they were serving had something to do with that! It was truly amazing and wonderful to be in the midst of such cultural diversity right in the middle of Asia, particularly to hear African and Brazilian music which we sorely miss in Bangkok. Luis was also delighted to discover that there is a small Cape Verdean community in Macau, as well as communities from all of the Portuguese-speaking countries. Not surprising, I guess, but it was news to us!

Outside of the festival, we of course explored the historic center of Macau which is replete with UNESCO World Heritage sites from the Portuguese times. At every corner, we felt like we were in Lisbon! Only the shiny casinos interspersed here and there, as well as the hundreds of people speaking Cantonese all around us, reminded us that we were very much in China.

All of this sightseeing tired us, so we sampled one of the famous Portuguese egg tarts (pasteis de nata) at a roadside stall in central Macau. They certainly looked like the real thing, but the taste and texture weren't quite like what one would find in Portugal. A bit of a disappointment, but nonetheless nice to have something so close!

The rest of our culinary adventures, however, didn't disappoint. We started out at a cute Portuguese cafe called Cafe Ou Mun in the central part of Macau. Frequented by many artists and people in the know, it's known mostly for its coffee and pastries but we enjoyed a nice lunch as well. Luis started with a pastel de bacalhau (saltcod croquette), followed by the typical Macanese dish known as galinha africana (African chicken), which is chicken in a delicious sauce of ginger, garlic, chili and coconut milk. It's the ultimate fusion dish, reflective of the tastes of Africa and India brought to Macau by the Portuguese mariners back in the day. I enjoyed a cheese sandwich with the excellent sauce from the galinha africana and a dessert of arroz doce (Portuguese-style rice pudding). We ended the meal with an excellent Portuguese-style bica (espresso).

On Saturday night, we had dinner at the legendary Fernando, a simple but much-loved restaurant at the tip of Coloane (Macau is in reality composed of the Macau peninsula and the islands of Taipa and Coloane). It's a bit out of the way, but luckily there is an excellent bus system in Macau that can get you pretty much anywhere that you want to go. Fernando is apparently from the Azores like Luis, but unfortunately is more or less retired so we weren't able to talk to him. His restaurant is huge but seemingly always packed with a mix of locals and tourists. It's definitely a no-frills kind of place...rustic checkered tablecloths, no AC, speedy service...but the food sure hit the spot! As expected there wasn't much for me there (Portuguese cuisine is sadly not vegetarian-friendly), but I enjoyed a delicious caldo verde and a tomato and onion salad with the most delicious tomatoes I've probably ever eaten (grown in the garden on the premises). We also shared a plate of batatas fritas (French fries), which we dipped in the insane house molho piri piri (hot sauce), which was so good that we nearly finished off the entire bottle. Luis loved his frango assado (grilled chicken) as well. If you go to Fernando, be sure to bring cash as they don't take cards!

Another fabulous Portuguese restaurant in Coloane where our Portuguese friends took us was Miramar. More geared towards the locals than Fernando, this "Portuguese with a Mozambican flavor" place is also right on the Hac Sa beach. We scored a table on the outside balcony, where you can enjoy lovely sea breezes. The place was packed with families during Sunday lunchtime, and Luis went positively wild upon looking at the huge menu with all of his favorite Portuguese dishes, as well as some Brazilian, Mozambican, Angolan and of course Macanese ones.

He sampled one of our dining companion's cozido portuguesa (top left) and ordered Portuguese-style feijoada (bottom left). I ordered two side dishes of rice and beans (top right) and cauliflower gratin (bottom right) but was shocked at the huge portions...not very side-dish like at all! The soupy rice and beans was very tasty, as was the gratin which was basically a vegetarian version of bacalhau com natas (codfish and potatoes baked in a cream sauce). As with most of our meals in Macau, we washed this enormous feast down with some icy Portuguese vinho verde ("green" wine).

We ended with another round of pasteis de nata at the legendary Lord Stow's Bakery. This place was established in 1989 by Andrew Stow, a British guy who (erroneously) claimed to be the "creator of egg tart now famous throughout Asia". Luis, ever the patriotic Portuguese, took offense to that claim (rightfully so!) but it was anyway cool to check out this place, which has lines out the door at its original Coloane location (just like the equally famous Margaret's Cafe e Nata, which is a spinoff place created by Stow's ex-wife). Again, not quite the real deal but nonetheless delicious (to me, anyway), particularly with coffee for breakfast the next day (I brought a box back to Bangkok).

And thus ended our Macau adventure. Between all of the delicious Portuguese food and wine, music and new friends, we had a lovely time! For anyone who's in Asia and feeling some saudade (nostalgia) for Portugal, I highly recommend a visit there. And even if you're not, do check it out (perhaps in conjunction with a visit to Hong Kong or China in general)...the fascinating mix of cultures and the blend of old and new makes Macau a fascinating place indeed!

Café Ou Mun
12 Travessa de São Domingos, 
Macau, Macau SAR, China

Praia de Hac Sa, #9
Coloane, Macau
Macau SAR, China

Norte da Praia de Hac Sa,
Coloane, Macau,
Macau SAR, China
Tel: +853.2888.2623

Lord Stow's Bakery
1 Rua da Tassara
Coloane Town Square
Coloane, Macau
Macau SAR, China
Tel: +853.2888.2534

1 comment:

  1. Very nice post on Macau! Love all the pictures! I can imagine how excited Luis must have been to be there.-Mom