Evolving palate in Macau

17 March 2017

The marriage of Portuguese and Oriental cookery gives birth to a cuisine unique to Macau

Emerging from the murky waters of the Pearl River in 1513 came a bearded man the likes of which the Chinese had never seen before. This stranger and those who followed him in later years were to eventually change the Middle Kingdom of China forever. For the Portuguese their golden years were to begin. A hundred years before, the Portuguese sailors of the Great Western Seas (Tai Sai-‑Yeung in Cantonese) had discovered Africa, Brazil, the Malabar coast of India, the Moluccas, Malacca near the tip of the Malay Peninsula then China and Japan. The Portuguese soon brokered a forbidden trade between the latter two countries.

A permanent base was required for the Portuguese to manage this operation. Near their first landing a tiny peninsula on the bay of A-‑Ma-‑O having a protected natural harbour and just south of Guangzhou (Canton) where the Pearl River emptied into the South China Sea seemed ideal. In 1557, with gratitude for the clearance of pirates in the area and seeking continued safeguard, the Chinese Authorities of Kwangtung province of which Guangzhou was the capital allowed the foreigners to remain and settle. There, the Portuguese were allowed to build permanent structures that soon brought other traders to the first European settlement in China they named “Macau.” This first group was made up of “Casados,” married men permitted to leave the service of the Crown to settle as traders.

In Macaenses – The Portuguese in China one reads: “The first settlers in Macau, Casados, brought with them their African, Indian and Malay women and children. Japanese women brought to Macau as concubines as well as the wives and children of the Portuguese traders expelled from Japan in the first half of the seventeenth century added to the racial mix as eventually did the Chinese.”

It is well to point out that there were no European women among them as the long and hazardous journey from Europe in their small naus that sailed to Africa and Asia in the 15th to early 16th centuries made that impossible at this time in history. In his book Seventeenth Century Macau, Charles R. Boxer stated that Peter Mundy, a merchant factor writing about Macau reported in 1637 that there was “but one women in all this towne that was borne in Portugal…”

Initially the Chinese looked upon the Portuguese as Fu-‑lan-‑ki [foreign devil] and barbarians only associated with them for business, the supply of provisions and food essentials. As in settlements before Macau it was the women they lived with that did the cooking. Following many generations in other parts of Africa, India and the Malay Peninsula the food the foreigners ate had taken on a different character employing local ingredients and methods of cooking, however, the base food-‑parameters were always Portuguese. At first the local Chinese did not intermingle with the Portuguese settlers, only over a century later did Chinese ingredients and cooking methods enter into the processes of Macaense (t’ou sang po yan in Cantonese) cookery.

The majority of Portuguese sailors who made the long journey to Asia with the merchantmen were uneducated men mainly from the Portuguese countryside. In their small ships they carried rations of biscuits, wine, pork preserved in vinegar and wine (vinha d’alhos), water and olive oil. In later years following the discovery of Brazil and the Spanish discovery of the Americas, they brought fruits and vegetables that would change the cooking of the Indian Sub-‑continent and Southeast Asia. Chili peppers would make the biggest impact on Indian and Malay foods. Verbal communication between the Portuguese, the natives in other settlements, and traders from other countries engendered a pidgin from Portuguese mixed with a few words in other languages. Over the years and from location to location this pidgin entered Macau and continued to develop mixing with Chinese then a few English words to become a creole language known as maquista or patuá. Many ingredients from old recipes still retain maquista words: saffrang for turmeric, sutate for soy sauce, cincha for stuffing, bafassá for braised then roasted or baked and fula, a flower, as in fula papaia for papaya flower.

Isolated from the rest of the world except by sea until the end of the First Opium War in 1840, the Macaense people, their patuá and their unique cuisine found its way to Hong Kong then Shanghai, not to mention the small communities in the Treaty Ports agreed to by the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) after Hong Kong was ceded to the British in 1841.

Macaense cuisine continued to be the mainstay of the evening meal of the tight communities that developed in these new centers of trade along the eastern Chinese coast. Quite a few of the men in those communities brought leftovers from the night before in vertically stacked interlocking metal storage containers known as kak-‑taus to their places of work for their tiffins (lunch).

Leftovers, especially meats from parties, birthday celebrations, weddings and Christmas gatherings were usually made into other dishes the following day. For example, a Vaca Estufada and a Porco Bafassá would be combined with other meats such as chicken and Chinese Char-‑siu (Barbecued pork) to make a delicious Virado.

Synthesis of Macaense Cuisine

Macaense cuisine is closely related to the cooking in Portugal and the Portuguese countryside. The influence on Portuguese cuisine evolved from centuries of Roman and Arab occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. Jewish influences should not be discounted either. The Romans introduced onions, garlic and olives among other vegetables while the Arabs brought in sugarcane, rice, citrus fruits and the use of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg with the reintroduction of saffron. With Portuguese food as a base Macaense cuisine evolved using the mixtures of spices and cooking methods of Goan, Malaccan, and a little Timorese followed by, and particularly, the Chinese culture. As the Chinese population in Macau grew exponentially over the years so their cuisine melded more and more with local Portuguese food.

The diversity of Macaense cuisine can be seen in recipes derived from the countries in which they settled historically:

Africa – Galinha Africana (African Chicken), Prawns Piri-‑piri, Peixe Esmargal;

India – Porco Vinho d’Alho (Pork Vindaloo)

Malaya – Sopa de Lacassá (Spicy Prawn Soup), Porco Tamarinho (Tamarind-‑shrimp Paste Sauce), Galinha Saffrang (Chicken with Turmeric sauce);

Timor – Limão de Timor (Timor lemon);

China – Porco com Restrate (Pork with Lotus Root), Margoso Lorcha (Bitter Squash with Ground Pork), Galinha com Rabano (Chicken with Daikon Radish).

Minchi and Cheese Toast were introduced by the Portuguese community (Macaenses) of Hong Kong, though the latter can be said to be Colonial British, and Shrimp Toast of Chinese origin. Many of the other recipes eaten in Macaense homes and celebrations are Portuguese with little to no additions of local spices. Pastéis de Bacalhau, Caldo Verde, Arroz Doce, Natas, and Torta de Laranja, just to name a few, are all from Portugal.

Rice is the staple in almost all the main courses over or beside which the meats, vegetable and gravy are served. Gravy plays a big part in Macaense cuisine. Some of it inherited from the Nhonhas – young woman, either single or married of Chinese ethnicity – centuries before and much of it retained from the inexpensive way of stretching a meal of gravy over rice when many were refugees in Macau during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II resonating that need was something the Chinese beggars chanted after that war in the alleys behind the houses in both Macau and Hong Kong – “Laang-‑Fan, Choi-‑chup” (cold rice and vegetable sauce), echoed in those lonely lanes. The sorrowful sound from those poor people with less than enough to eat still haunts the minds of many Macaenses. Few realised then the affinity and empathy felt between two peoples, living side by side, who hardly ever spoke to one another.

Following the British colonisation of Hong Kong, the Macau Portuguese who moved there had to compromise on the ingredients of their food. Portuguese ingredients were not available in that newly founded colony, and a trip to Macau and back was just too long. The growing Macaense community there had no choice but to substitute Chinese Sausages for Chouriço, Sherry for Port wine and Chinese rice wine came to replace Portuguese wines used for cooking. Understandably the Hong Kong recipes differed from those of Macau, but much of the Portuguese taste in recipes such as Feijoada Macaense, Vaca Estufada, and Capela was not there anymore. Many of the dishes brought in from Portugal, served in many Macau restaurants and family festivities there, were neither available in Hong Kong nor cooked by the community in that British colony. Very popular in Macau were Pastéis de Bacalhau, Iscas (liver) and Rins (kidney) à Moda de Macau, Galinha Africana, Feijoada Macaense, and many more.

Additional changes came after their diaspora to other countries. Those who went to California soon found that they had to change the quantity of eggs in their dessert recipes, as the eggs were much larger than those in Macau and Hong Kong. The same applied for other ingredients such as onions, garlic, tomatoes and much more as these were also very large by comparison. Even the soy sauces transformed with the introduction of new varieties such as sweet soy, double-‑black soy and a host of Japanese soy unknown in older recipes led to modifications and a new era of recipe evolution.

Macaense cuisine, now embodied among other popular “fusion” foods continues to evolve outside of Macau. However, some dishes have already vanished from the dining tables of those who have emigrated to California, Canada and Australia. Ade Cabidela, Miçó Cristang, Cria-‑Cria, Galinha Parida, Toresmo, etc. are almost never cooked now. It seems the younger generation has never heard of them as probably their parents have not either. Other recipes in danger of fading away are dishes cooked with Balichão as this shrimp sauce will almost certainly not be made by future generations, and similar Malay and Filipino sauces available in Chinese markets just do not taste the same. New recipes based on familiar tastes from Macau such as the author’s Feijoada, Minchi Buns and Bosco Correa’s Diabo (made with beer) will continue to be developed for at least the next generation or two.

(By António M. Jorge da Silva, photo courtesy of the author and Mr. R. Ramos)