Appetite For Discovery

Abe Conlon is simply mad about Macau. But as the chef and co-owner of Fat Rice, a Chicago restaurant that has garnered acclaim for championing traditional Macanese cuisine, he is careful to make one thing clear: “When I speak about Macanese food, I’m speaking very specifically about the home cooking of Portuguese-speaking mixed-blood families.” In other words, he’s not talking about the foods typically recommended to tourists: egg tarts, almond biscuits, pork chop buns and crab congee. Most of those “classic” dishes were created in the last century or so, but Conlon has learned to take a much longer historical view. 

Between the early 15th and late 16th centuries, the encounters of Portuguese traders in Asia set into motion an unprecedented exchange of ideas, ingredients and culinary practices. What emerged in the trade hub of Macau was a truly remarkable global cuisine that borrowed flavors and techniques from Europe, South America, Africa, India, southern China, Japan and Maritime Southeast Asia. 

In studying these tangled influences, Conlon has become – much to his own bemusement – a culinary sleuth. “It’s the worst!” he laughs. “In school, I hated history, I hated geography. And now all I do is intensive research on history and geography.” 

Then again, Conlon’s love affair with Macau was practically preordained. He grew up in an American-Portuguese family in Lowell, Massachusetts, which had a sizable Southeast Asian population. As a young cook, he was obsessed with Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotian and Thai food. When he first started reading about Macanese cuisine in 1999, he realized that it was a way of simultaneously exploring his own heritage and Asian flavors and ingredients. The deeper he dug, the bigger the project became. To truly understand how the globalizing impulses of the Age of Discovery impact the way we cook and eat today, Conlon had to travel back to the source – and then, based on his culinary research in Macau, turn his kitchen into a laboratory in which to revive old recipes and conduct brand-new experiments. 

All history lessons should be this delicious.


In the beginning, what really hooked me was was the sheer audacity of some of the traditional Macanese dishes. The po kok gai (“Portuguese chicken”), made with chouriço sausage, chicken, coconut milk, curry and olives. Or tacho, with all its different meats, Chinese sausage and shrimp paste. Or the arroz gordo, which tops tomato-scented rice with at least five kinds of protein, including beef, pork, veal, sausage, chicken and pigs’ feet. I was like, “What the heck? What are they doing over there?” Here’s an sample ingredient list for diabo (aka Devil’s Curry) from Cecilia Jorge’s Macanese Cooking: A Journey Across Generations: “Roast meat leftovers, turkey, chicken, duck, suckling pig, chicken and beef curry, beef stews, breaded pork chops, roast pork, Chinese BBQ duck.” All of these are combined and simmered in a sauce made from drippings and juices of the proteins with the addition of mustard, chillis, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, chopped eggs and pickles. I was like, all this in one dish, are you kidding me? This food is awesome!

Learning about this globally-influenced extreme cuisine that existed centuries before the likes of Norman Van Aken or Epic Meal Time was exhilarating. It was packed with flavor, traditional, historically significant and most importantly, not made up by some pork-obsessed stoner chef in a Brooklyn kitchen. I loved it!



In 2011, my partner Adrienne and I made our first trip to Sichuan, Hong Kong and Macau. Our 36 hours in Macau were a whirlwind eating frenzy. But even as we sampled many of the iconic foods – Galinha à Africana, curried oxtail, egg tarts, serradurra, pork chop bun1 – we knew there was another side to the food of Macau. The problem was we didn’t know any Portuguese-speaking Macanese people and had no access to home cooks.

We did meet Dona Aida de Jesus, who will be 100 years old this October. Her restaurant Riquexó is a cafeteria-style canteen that serves very humble and homestyle food, including Macanese-style feijoada, pato de cabidela, minchi,2 capela,3 chicken and beef curries. Her clientele is the aging Macanese community and the younger generation that wants to cherish and perpetuate their culture. We were enthralled by the dishes, and asked Dona Aida where we could learn more about this magical food that combined Portuguese techniques and Chinese ingredients with Indian and Malay flavors. She said: “Go to the retirement home next door. All the Macanese people, they’re old. They’re dying out, along with this food. But that’s where they like to eat.” Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to do so, but we were grateful to Dona Aida for the opportunity to taste a virtually unknown bite of history.

Back home in Chicago, we spent the next year continuing to run our supper club X-marx, but we knew that we had to open a real restaurant soon. We knew we wanted to present real cooking that employed old-school techniques through the use of cast iron, woks and live fuel. We wanted to have hearty and wholesome dishes with Chinese, American and Portuguese influences that reflected our heritage and experiences. Beyond that, we had little direction and focus.

Egg Tarts  photo courtesy of Fat Rice

Egg Tarts  photo courtesy of Fat Rice

Two months before opening, we started thinking about Macau and Dona Aida, and thinking, “What if ...?” We started reading our Macanese books and researching as much as we could. We needed a name and a signature dish – one that would reflect the restaurant’s ethos and bring people back again and again. Soon, we realized that arroz gordo (“fat rice”) was the symbol of abundance, heritage and ethos that we were looking for. This quintessential Macanese dish exemplified the commingling of cultures and cuisine that we wanted to present.

Our original menu had a variety of dishes: Macanese, Portuguese, Cantonese, Sichuan. Eventually, we streamlined it to focus on homestyle Macanese and dishes from similar Luso-Asian cuisines. I didn’t make the decision in response to customer feedback. Instead, it was about the potential for some 70-year-old Macanese lady who just happens to walk into Fat Rice – when I put a dish down in front of her, I want her to recognize it. I want her to say, “Yeah, my grandmother used to make this dish. Maybe not exactly like this, you’ve used some fancier vegetables here, but yes, this is that dish.” Although we put our own twists on dishes, authenticity and tradition are very important.

We’ve had fewer than ten Macanese people eat at our restaurant. We’ve served thousands of people who were born in Macau or Hong Kong – but unless they have married into a Macanese family, they’re not in the culture and therefore will not recognize traditional dishes like porco balichang tamarindo4 or batatada.5

Diabo Curry photo by Jason Little

Diabo Curry photo by Jason Little

There is very little documentation on Macanese cooking. This cuisine is primarily an oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation. And that’s if you’re lucky! There are many stories of closely guarded recipes being taken to the grave. There’s a Portuguese word: saudade. It means hopeless longing, a feeling of I left my family behind I’m never going to see them again, I love them, I miss them in the worst way. This sentiment also applies to food. People say things like “Eu tem saudades de tacho e diabo” (I long for tacho and diabo). “I haven’t had this dish in years, my grandmother used to make it but she died and nobody knows how to make it anymore. I wish somebody would make this dish for me again!” It is for this very reason that we research as much as we do, and try to stay true to these dishes as possible. I want to help in the preservation of Macanese and other Luso-Asian cultures through cuisine, while introducing these heirlooms of history to people who have never tried them before.

Dona Aida is one of the last people in Macau cooking this food. I wanted to know what she remembered from her childhood. I asked her about a dish called furoso, which combines pork, mustard, mint, chilli and soy sauce. Dona Aida said, “I remember people talking about it. But I have never eaten that dish.” And that was like a kick in the gut, you know? You get the oldest person on the island who knows what you’re talking about, you pitch something to them, and they’re like “Yeah, sorry, that was before my time.” Oof. 

In 2013, when I traveled to Portugal in search of the great wines of the Douro and the Dão to supplement our list at the restaurant, I was hoping to learn more about the influences that helped build Macanese cuisine. I ended up at the Macau Museum and the library there, looking through old community/church/family cookbooks, the kind that are photocopied and stapled. The problem with many of these Macanese cookbooks is that they’re written either in Portuguese or Dóci Papiaçam (“sweet language,” the colonial dialect). Additionally, the recipes are converted from old manuscripts where quantity is measured by how much the ingredient cost 75 years ago! For example, “Five patacas worth of sugar.” That’s really hard to decipher and to develop a dish from! What we needed were firsthand accounts – and the opportunity to watch elders cook. 

So two years after we opened Fat Rice, Adrenne and I returned to Macau. During our 12 days there, our mission was to dig deeper and to watch Macanese cooks making Macanese food firsthand. We wanted to know what we were doing right, what we were doing wrong and how we could improve.

Crazy Squid  photo courtesy of Fat Rice

Crazy Squid  photo courtesy of Fat Rice


We were put in contact with two amazing chefs, Florita Alves and Marina Senna-Fernandes, who welcomed us into their homes. We went shopping for ingredients with them, cooked together and ate with them at their family tables.

Florita Alves is a member of the Confraria Gastronomia Macaense (Brotherhood of Macanese Gastronomy) and an international ambassador for Macanese cuisine. One of the many dishes she cooked for us was the empada de peixe, a pie of sorts with a sweet crust and a savory fish filling inside. When I first started learning about these dishes, it blew my mind because you wouldn’t think some of these flavors would go well together. You fry up the fish (a lean one like bass or snapper) with some shallots, add cumin, vinegar, turmeric, chopped black olives and cheese, and set it aside. The dough involves a lot of sugar, pork lard, brandy, port wine and pine nuts. Originally I thought the dough for empada would be more of a pie crust, but the way Florita made it, it was almost like a masa, like in a Mexican tamale. When the flour mixes with all the fat, port and egg yolks, it becomes this moldable thing. Florita pressed it into the bottom of a pie pan, put a pile of the fish on it and packed it with her hands, just molding it around the fish. She used a spoon to decorate it with a scale design, garnished it with pine nuts and baked it in the oven. It was wonderful. We ate it between our savory course and dessert. It served almost the same function as a cheese course – transitioning your palate from savory to sweet. 

For years I’d been racking my brain about the “pine nut” in Macanese dishes. I’d wondered: How did China get the pine nut? I didn’t understand it. Then, Florita showed us a freezer full of these large nut things, almost almond-sized. “That’s pinhão (pine nut),” she said. I was like, “That is not a pine nut.” We later found out that it was the nut from inside the pit of what is called the “Chinese olive” but is actually the pili fruit. This nut is very fatty and mild in flavor, and used in many sweet and savory Macanese dishes as well a filling in Chinese mooncakes. 

On another occasion, Marina showed us how to make tacho, which is basically a Portuguese cocido that uses Chinese cured meats instead of Portuguese sausages and ham. It’s a rich, soulful one-pot meal containing cabbage, carrots, potatoes, turnips, Jinhua ham, Chinese sausage, preserved duck, Chinese bacon and pele pele (a puffed pork skin). Besides all that umami from the cured meats, the stew is flavored with balichão, a shrimp sauce that’s one of the defining ingredients in Macanese cuisine. Marina started the braise for her tacho with it. She put a little oil in the pan, bloomed the balichão until it was nice and toasted and fragrant, added some cumin and coriander, and then built the rest of the dish. 

Piri Piri Chicken photo courtesy of Fat Rice

Piri Piri Chicken photo courtesy of Fat Rice

Balichão is made from tiny shrimp that have been salted, then fortified with Portuguese brandy, Shaoxing wine, laurel leaf, black pepper and lemon. It provides a funky (almost cheesy) bass note to many Macanese dishes. If you’re wondering, what’s making this dish taste so good – nine times out of ten, it’ll be balichão

One of its key ingredients is the laurel leaf. I saw this passage in Cecilia Jorges’ book: “Balichão has grown so popular among the locals that laurel leaves, an essential ingredient in this recipe, are known as balichão leaves in China.” Then in Macau, I was sitting between a Cantonese-speaking friend and a Mandarin-speaking friend who were trying to figure out what a certain herb was called. “In Cantonese, it’s ham ha ip. Literally, it means ‘salt shrimp leaf,’” one of them said. Surprised, I exclaimed: “Laurel leaf!” Small victories like this fuel my fire to understand more. 

In the old days, every family made their own balichão, with recipes differing from household to household. On our first trip to Macau, we had gone around to vendors on some of the more touristy streets (because we didn’t know any better) and say, “Hi, balichão? Balichão?” Or I’d point to jars of shrimp paste and ask: “Balichão?” And the vendors were like: What are you talking about?

One person who still makes her own balichão from scratch is Manuela Ferreira, who owns Restaurante Litoral, one of the best Macanese restaurants in Macau. The restaurant’s name refers to the oceanfront it overlooked before they built the skyscrapers that now line the streets. Manuela used to buy the tiny shrimp from the fishermen there. She would salt them herself, add her spices, laurel leaves, brandy and wine, and finally age it for three months. Thinking back, she lamented: “We used to have all this right here. You can’t get those shrimp in Macau anymore.” Nowadays, she’s made arrangements with fishermen from mainland China; once a year, they meet Manuela at the border with like a ton of these tiny shrimp. She makes enough balichão for the entire year! It’s a whole lot of effort, but she is keeping her heritage alive, and you can taste it.

Potstickers  photo by Jason Little

Potstickers  photo by Jason Little


We also visited the Malay Pennisula to taste and understand the influences of the Eurasian and Nyonya communities of Singapore and Malacca in Macanese cuisine.

In Singapore, we made sure to visit two Eurasian restaurants: Mary’s Café and Quentin’s Eurasian Restaurant. At the former, Mary Gomes serves lunch five days a week to the parishioners of the church within which her tiny café is located. Her homey and subtle Eurasian food included a sweet mackerel pickle similar to that of Macanese esmargal and her Sugee Cake was as light and fluffy as Florita’s magnificent bolo menino.6 Her curry dabel with chicken, pork ribs and frankfurters was spicy with pickled cucumber, cabbage and whole mustard seeds. It wasn’t quite the legendary Boxing Day diabos of Macau that we’d heard tales of, but it was a tasty relative for sure.

Quentin’s Eurasian Restaurant is located in a famous Peranakan neighborhood where the colorful pastels and ornate flourishes of the Nyonya/Baba homes reminded us of the old residences of Taipa in Macau. Quentin Perreira is a colorful and passionate chef who is putting out boldly flavored heritage dishes that are heard only as echoes in back in Macau. For us, the standout dish was one called Feng, which was not dissimilar to sarapatel, a Macanese dish of pork meat, offal, blood and vinegar. It was much more assertive in spices and herbal aromatics than any sarapatel that we have tasted or made, but absolutely delicious nonetheless.

Pato de Cabidela  photo by Jason Little

Pato de Cabidela  photo by Jason Little

Malacca, only a three-hour bus ride from downtown Singapore, was once the center of the world – a place where many cultures collaborated and collided. We were sure that we would find the roots of Macanese cuisine there in the Portuguese Settlement. There we met Papa Joe, a local celebrity and unofficial ambassador of the Malacca-Portuguese community. He told us: “If you want the real-deal Malacca stuff, let’s go to Big Ben’s Restaurant.”

And once we got there, the chef and owner asked us: “You want the real Portuguese food? Authentic old Portuguese food?” Adrienne and I looked at each other – like, if Big Ben serves us suckling pig, or salt cod or grilled sardines, we’re gonna be pissed. Because we were short on time and we’d enough of that food in Macau.

“Yeah, OK, go for it!” we said politely.

To our surprise, the very first dish he brought out was lamb vindalho.7 The second dish was curry dabel. Then stir-fried water spinach with sambal belacan (a spicy relative of balichão), and a whole “Portuguese” baked fish with lemongrass sambal. Big Ben sat down and said to us: “You don’t cook this dish and eat it right away. You cook it and leave it for three days, and then you eat it.” He was talking about the curry and the vindalho.

Though this food did not look like Portuguese or even Macanese food, there were some unifying factors. Everything was red with chillis; everything was fragrant, garlicky and spiceful with a sharp vinegar edge. These proved to be important pieces of the puzzle. Big Ben was not cooking food from Portugal or really even Malaccan Eurasian cuisine. Instead, this food was closer to what the Portuguese had brought from Goa, India! That’s what he meant by Old Portuguese food. He was using pre-refrigeration techniques that sailors had employed for food preservation as well as flavor and nourishment. We’d imagined that going to Malacca would take us “back in time” as far as the roots of Macanese cuisine were concerned. Big Ben took us way back and showed us the Indian roots of Malaccan cuisine. Looks like our next trip will be to Goa!

Pork Collar Vindalho  photo courtesy of Fat Rice

Pork Collar Vindalho  photo courtesy of Fat Rice


At first, we had found Macanese cuisine to be a pretty straightforward cross of Chinese and Portuguese food. However, getting a taste of these other influences helped give us a deeper understanding of the subtleties of Macanese cuisine. Some dishes whispered spice songs of India with cumin and coriander, others had gentle notes of warming heat from Thailand, and some only echoed the sharpness of tamarind-based dishes of Malaysia. These global nuances weren’t as bold as we had expected nor were they in every dish together. In tasting actual Macanese dishes, the flavor profile seemed more refined and nuanced than we had been led to expect from our research. 

But why? The Portuguese had put down roots and developed traditions in Malacca, Goa and Japan before they came to Macau, so why weren’t the flavors of those cultures more prominent? Even as we flew back to the US, we were still pondering this question.

The answer didn’t surface until later, when I was reading about the early days of Macau. Back then, the Portuguese men brought with them wives, girlfriends and children from Japan, Malacca, Penang and Goa. Sometimes they had three or four wives or consorts. When the Jesuits got to Macau in the mid-16th century and saw all these girls, they said, “Get them the hell out of here. They need to go home!” So instead the Portuguese men married Chinese women, who, with their Cantonese ingredients, technique and a delicate palate more similar to that of the Continental Portuguese, essentially started laying the groundwork for a new cuisine with faint taste remnants of their partners’ former lands and families.

And that was our breakthrough: Through the process of tracing the culinary roots of Macanese food, we did not find one mother spiderweb of culinary tradition that encompassed all Portuguese-speaking communities. We realize now that these cuisines evolved independently in the different enclaves of Macau, Singapore, Malacca, Goa, Japan and elsewhere. They have a strong sense of place and heritage with trace elements of their sister lands.


photo courtesy of Fat Rice

photo courtesy of Fat Rice

At Fat Rice, when we cook dishes that are truly traditional, we try not to mess with them too much. We just want to work on refining our technique and presentation while maintaining the identity of the original preparation. Sometimes we amplify and turn it up a bit. We might garnish with some herbs, put in a spike of acid here, add a little seasonal vegetables there, but the dish should still be true to what it once was.

My scope and knowledge of Macanese cuisine is becoming much broader based on the places we’ve visited and are looking to understand now. I’ve realized that at my restaurant, I’m not cooking just Macanese food but the global Portuguese food that has contributed to and inspired Macanese cuisine.

In only two and a half years, we’ve already evolved so much. Four years from now, the menu at Fat Rice might have Eurasian dishes from Penang or East Timor. But the starting point is Macau. It’s always Macau – she tells us where to look. Eu sempre tem saudades de Macau, seu povo e sua culinária. I will always have longing for Macau, its people and their cooking.


Endnotes

1. The pork chop bun is a derivative of the Portuguese bifana sandwich, in which thin-sliced pork is cooked in a spicy broth with some chilli, paprika, garlic and laurel leaf. You scoop up a few pieces onto a toasted bun and you eat it with a beer. Macau’s pork chop bun is similar in that there is no garnish: no lettuce, no tomatoes, no pickles. Just awesome papo seco (Portuguese bread), stuffed with a juicy pork chop. 

2. Minchi is derived from the English word “mince.” In the 1840s, when many Macanese moved to Hong Kong, they developed a taste for minced English beef and adapted the dish by adding sweet, dark and light soy sauce along with laurel leaves and Worcestershire sauce. Nowadays, it’s eaten either hot or cold for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner. It can be made from all pork or all beef or a combination, fish, or other proteins. Everybody’s family makes it, but nobody else’s is as good as their grandmother’s. 

3. Capela is a round pork meatloaf made with diced chouriço sausage and ham, covered in cheese and bacon, and then gratinéed in the oven. For me, the key to capela is the milk-soaked bread that adds moisture and the chopped-up black olive which gives a wonderful aroma to the dish. 

4. Porco balichang tamarindo is sweet and sour, a rich and unctuous pork dish cooked with tamarind, jagra (raw sugar bricks) and balichão

5. Batatada is a moist potato cake made with coconut and egg yolks that can use either sweet or white potatoes. When made with white potato, batatada has a texture almost like cheesecake, whereas the sweet potato version is like a cross between a pumpkin pie and a pound cake. 

6. Bolo menino, which means “little boy cake,” has an amazingly moist texture due to its large quantity of egg yolks; the recipe also includes ground-up cookies (Marie biscuits), almonds and pili nut. 

7. Vindalho, the famous spicy curry from Goa is, like most meat dishes of Luso-Asian cuisines, a derivative of Portugal’s carne vinha d’alhos. In the days before refrigeration, seasoning meat with vinegar and garlic was a method of preservation during the long ship voyages. Salt, vinegar, chillis, garlic and other spices all have antimicrobial properties. Over time, people realized that the stews tasted better after three days. According to “Big Ben,” that became part of the modern recipe. 


text by Abe Conlon as told to The Cleaver Quarterly, banner image courtesy of Fat Rice


Recommended reading

You can find recipes for most the dishes mentioned above in The Adventures Of Fat Rice, a genre-busting hardcover by Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo that will do for your bookshelf what a quarter cup of balichão does to a pot of tamarind pork. (In a word: funkify.) The ingredient glossary goes a long way to help home cooks outside Asia stock their pantries for diabocapelaminchi and more.  Other practical resources include Annabel Jackson’s Taste of Macau, and Cecilia Jorge’s regrettably out-of-print Macanese Cooking: A Journey Across Generations.

For a general introduction to Macau’s historical role as “an open border between Europe and China,” check out Luis Filipe Barreto’s survey, “Macao: An Intercultural Frontier in the Ming Period,” the first chapter in History Of Mathematical Sciences: Portugal and East Asia II, which identifies Ming-era Macau as

one of the major centres for the introduction into China of a wide variety of other plants such as the potato, cassava, red pepper, papaya, tomato, guava, and cocoa, as well as green vegetables like beans, cabbage, lettuce and watercress, the latter being called ‘the vegetable from the Western seas’ in Cantonese to this day.

Abraham Conlon grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, and his culinary beginning was heavily impacted by his Portuguese heritage and a strong Southeast Asian presence in his community. After training at the Culinary Institute of America, Conlon’s career has taken in the Dominican Republic, Virginia and Chicago, where he runs the acclaimed Fat Rice with Adrienne Lo. The duo most recently released their first cookbook, The Adventures of Fat Rice, a compilation of recipes that explores the vibrant food culture of Macau.