Down a Macau side alley is an unassuming restaurant that’s far removed from the showy neon and glittering facades of the Las Vegas-style casinos that have come to define this semi-autonomous city on China’s southern coast. Yet it’s here, in what feels a world away from the neighbouring casino strip, that a different kind of richness can be found – one of history and culture; a place where flavours of the past and the spirit of old Macau live on.
“I would dare say Macanese cuisine was the first fusion food in the world,” said Sonia Palmer sitting across from her mother, 103-year-old Aida de Jesus, inside Riquexó, the small restaurant they’ve run together for the past 35 years. Macanese cuisine – a unique mix of Portuguese and Chinese ingredients – has a culinary legacy dating back more than 450 years. Originating in the 16th Century when Macau was first leased to Portugal as a trading post, it’s recognised by Unesco as the world’s first fusion food.
Palmer explains that Macanese cuisine, like the Macanese community, originated because of the intermarriage between the Chinese and Portuguese. “The Chinese wives tried to cook as close as possible to the dishes that their Portuguese husbands grew up eating back in Portugal. But of course they didn’t have all the ingredients in Macau in those days, so the wives used some Chinese and South-East Asian ingredients as substitutes. That’s how this fusion food came to be.”
Speaking of firsts, Palmer says her mother, often dubbed ‘the godmother of Macanese cuisine’ was a pioneer herself. “When my mother opened Riquexó it was the first Macanese restaurant in town; before then it was mostly a family food cooked at home.”
Palmer says her mother, despite her age, still visits the restaurant daily. “She doesn’t want to just sit at home and stare at four walls. By coming here, she can sit and talk to the customers; she comes and eats here. She also gives the chefs feedback on all the dishes and tells them what needs to be improved.”
With its walls adorned with photographs of old Macau, the small and cosy family-run restaurant harks back to a bygone era and attracts a mix of customers who praise the authentic Macanese dishes and reasonable prices. Regulars include locals from the Portuguese, Macanese and Chinese communities, some of whom eat here every day without fail. Tourists from out of town visit as well, although not as often, Palmer explains, because it’s not in a touristy area. “Some tourists do make the effort to come here and are always pleased that they did because they get to experience something that is truly Macanese. I think they go to the internet and find our restaurant.”
Besides its legacy as a pioneer of fusion food, today the cuisine has taken on the role of helping to preserve a fading Macanese culture. A large number of Macanese emigrated during the 1999 handover of Macau back to China from Portuguese colonial rule, and Macau’s current population of around 663,400 is now around 90% Chinese. Amid dwindling numbers, there is concern that the Macanese community risks extinction.
“Unfortunately, the Macanese community here in Macau is not very big these days. I would say only around 1,000 people,” Palmer said. “Since the handover, there isn’t a big population of Portuguese to intermarry here in Macau anymore and so the Macanese community is not growing.”
The Macanese community have their own language, Patuá. This Portuguese creole language originated in the 16th Century when the city came under Portuguese control. However, Unesco estimated in 2000 that Patuá was spoken by no more than 50 speakers and listed the language as critically endangered. With Patuá all but extinct, the remaining Macanese community in Macau are hoping that their beloved cuisine will not suffer the same fate. Passionate about preserving their native food, Palmer and her mother have been sharing their family recipes in the hope that up-and-coming chefs will continue its legacy.
“There is an educational restaurant in Macau where they train the next generation of chefs,” Palmer said. “We have shared many recipes with them as we want Macanese food to continue. We don’t feel the need to keep our recipes a secret. Whoever asks us for them, we share it.”
One of their favourite recipes is porco bafassa, a hearty Macanese dish of tender braised pork and stewed potatoes with a turmeric gravy. Another is tacho, a Macanese spin on a traditional Portuguese slow-cooked stew that combines cabbage with cuts of ham, pork and uses Chinese sausages instead of the Portuguese chouriço.
Buoyed by the enthusiasm of the student chefs, Palmer remains optimistic that the cuisine will prevail. “It is very challenging to keep the Macanese culture alive in Macau these days. But fortunately, I have a few friends that have opened restaurants and they will keep the cuisine alive, even if we give up.”
One of those friends is local Macanese cook Florita Alves. Keen to continue building upon the pioneering work that Palmer and her mother have done to make Macanese food more accessible, Alves introduced a Macanese menu at her family’s restaurant, La Famiglia, earlier this year. Located in the heart of Macau’s Taipa Village, a tourist hotspot, and offering classic Macanese dishes like Macau chicken (a braised coconut chicken stew with coconut milk, shredded coconut and turmeric), Alves is on a mission to preserve her culture through food, which she believes is the most direct and easiest way.
“I’m starting by introducing signature Macanese dishes like minchi (sautéed minced beef and/or pork),” Alves said. “This comfort dish is great for introducing someone to Macanese food as it’s easy eating and most people love it. Later on, I will add more seasonal dishes and, step by step, generate more interest in the food.”
In a globalised world where most cuisines are now widely available, Macanese cuisine remains rare in that it’s virtually exclusive to Macau. It’s only in recent years that it’s moved from being a home-cooked family cuisine to becoming available in local restaurants. “It hasn’t travelled too far outside of Macau yet,” Alves said. “It’s still a cuisine that’s waiting to be discovered; for food lovers that are looking for something new, I highly recommend it.”
Alves speaks of the cuisine’s distinct flavours as well. She says a lot of people still confuse Macanese food for Portuguese food, but it’s different. “I am in a position now where I can show and educate people that our Macanese food is a little bit different to Portuguese food. While we do use some staple Portuguese ingredients like garlic, onion, salt and pepper, we also use a lot of Chinese and South-East Asian ingredients such as soy sauce and spices like turmeric and tamarind.”
Alves says that it’s not uncommon for Macanese food to contain several flavours, like one of her favourite dishes, O Diablo, a festive Macanese casserole. “O Diablo is a dish cooked after the festive season with different meats and some pickles inside,” she said. “The dish is sweet, sour, hot and salty – all the flavours are in one pot, it’s really interesting.”
A retired civil servant, Alves grew up helping her grandmother in the kitchen. Rather than slow down and opt for a quiet retirement, she saw a growing need to preserve and sustain the legacy of Macanese cuisine. “Since I still have my health and I can work, I will continue to do something to help preserve our culture,” Alves said. “When you are in a minority, you will find that you need to find a way to stand out to let the people know that you still exist. We need to have something to identify us and I hope it’s our food. Otherwise we will just disappear.”
Alves believes that food is central to the Macanese community and eating is their strongest custom. “Whenever we come together in our families or as a community there is always this sharing of food.” That’s why, Alves explains, the community is pinning its hopes on Macanese cuisine to preserve the culture. “Eating is a primary need. Everybody needs to eat every day. Therefore, I believe through our cuisine we can reach more people and keep our culture alive.”
Critical to that goal of keeping the culture alive through food, believes Alves, is visibility and sharing her knowledge and recipes. “Let’s spread it out – it’s a win-win situation. Otherwise, if nobody knows about Macanese food then nobody will come looking for it.”