Food is much more than sustenance and gastronomy; it is, like language, also a part of a region's culture. The cuisine of Macau, a semi-autonomous city on China’s southern coast, is a blend of Chinese and Portuguese – a reflection of the city's Portuguese and Chinese heritage. The fusion of these two influences is a hallmark of Macanese cuisine. The original Macanese are now a small minority – just 10 percent – and their population and cuisine are both threatened. So a band of dedicated cooks and restaurant owners is trying hard to preserve the culture and cuisine.
In an humble restaurant in what feels a world away from the glittering neighbouring of casino strips, one would find a confluence of history and culture – a place where flavors of the past and the spirit of old Macau live on, according to a BBC.com feature.
“I would dare say Macanese cuisine was the first fusion food in the world,” said Sonia Palmer sitting with her mother, 103-year-old Aida de Jesus, in Riquexó, the small restaurant they’ve run together for the past 35 years. Macanese cuisine – a complex mix of Portuguese and Chinese and other Asian influences and 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 recognized by Unesco as the world’s first fusion food.
Palmer says Macanese cuisine, like the Macanese community, sprang forth from intermarriage between the Chinese and Portuguese. Palmer says her mother, often called “the godmother of Macanese cuisine” was a trail blazer. “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 is doing her best to preserve the cuisine. She and her restaurant are more than happy to share their recipes – they don’t want to keep them a family secret.
“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 favorite 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.
“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.
Eating is central to the culture of Macanese people. Alves is hard at work to keep alive the culture of the Macanese via food. He is keen to share his knowledge and recipes. For him, it’s a “win-win” strategy.