For a country that has long had a love affair with Asian fusion, it's surprising that the U.S. hasn't seen Macanese cuisine take off. As early as the 1960s, American cooks were experimenting with blending European and Asian cuisines. Richard Wing, of Imperial Dynasty in Hanford, California, is widely credited with creating one of the first fusion cuisines when he combined French and Chinese cooking traditions at his family's restaurant in the 1960s. Wing, who closed the restaurant in 2006 after more than 120 years in operation, died this month in Hanford at the age of 89.
As for Macau's cuisine, perhaps the world's first Asian fusion, it dates from much earlier. The Portuguese, once one of the world's leading imperial forces, landed in Macau, a small peninsula and islands near Hong Kong, in the 16th century. In 1887, it officially came under Portuguese rule, not to be returned to China until 1999. During those hundred or so years, Macanese culture as we know it came to be—and, along with it, a cuisine that expresses not only the traditions of both ethnicities living there, but the flavors of other Portuguese colonies, from Brazil to Mozambique.
Upon first arriving in Macau during a recent trip, after the hour-long ferry ride from the Hong Kong airport, I wasn't hungry for much of anything. My stomach was still wonky from the 15-hour flight from New York, and the choppy boat ride hadn't helped. But I was already making a mental checklist of everything I should eat during my short stay. Until recently, Macau mostly attracted business travelers and gamblers—the two often being one and the same. The eastern side of the peninsula looks like the Vegas Strip, and in fact is home to many of the same hotels you find in Sin City. The average duration of a visit is only 36 hours.
In the last few years, the local tourism board has been pushing Macau as a foodie destination. Indeed, chefs like Joël Robuchon have opened Michelin-starred restaurants in some of its top hotels. Being from Montreal, which has a sort of fusion cuisine of its own, and living now in another city where cultures are known to fraternize on the plate, I was more interested in the food found on the streets and in family-owned restaurants than that touted in the little red Michelin guidebook.
As in Hong Kong, Macau has great dim sum. You can also find authentic Portuguese bacalhau, and there is great Mozambican curry. And then there are local specialties, like the popular popular chu pa bau sandwich, a take on the Portuguese bifana: a grilled pork chop stuffed into a sweet, crunchy-topped bo lo bao (pineapple bun), so tasty it hardly needs a condiment. And, of course, there's African Chicken.
Now, just how a coastal territory on the South China Sea, occupied for centuries by the Portuguese, ended up with a national dish christened African Chicken is not really known. The story goes that the dish is an amalgam of recipes gathered by Portuguese soldiers stationed in colonies around the world. There's also a local chef who claimed he invented the dish in the 1940s. In any case, I had my first experience with it at a well-known restaurant on the lower west side of the peninsular called Litoral. It arrived looking like a hot mess on the plate, the bird having been marinated in chiles, onions, and garlic, smothered in a spicy, lemony coconut milk-and-butter-based sauce, and cooked to crisp perfection. It was hearty and heavy, yet complex, balancing savory and sweet with a hint of sour and just enough heat that I found myself working away at it with the slightest urgency. The dish is filling the way Brick Lane-style curry is filling, and puts you in the sort of breathless food coma often associated with Thanksgiving.
In the States, true Macanese food is hard to find. The Macanese restaurants that open—Macau Street in Los Angeles, Macau Friends in San Francisco—can't seem to stay open despite their cult followings. In New York, there's Macao Trading Co., which does serve something called African Chicken, but it's a polite, if tasty, take on the dish rather than an authentic incarnation of it. Macanese is the kind of cuisine you crave once you've had it. If Chowhound boards and my own food memories can be trusted, it would be a crying shame not to import it properly to America.
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