A blast from the repast

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am


As the first and last European colony in China, Macau has had more than 400 years to develop its unique culinary culture. It's a tradition that extends way beyond the spots familiar to the casual visitor.

Even Macau native and private kitchen chef, Maria C.J. Couto often finds something new in her city. 'I went to a new market today and found these great fresh grouper that I would never be able to find at my usual market,' she says.

Couto opens her home to serve multicourse dinners at her own dining table, serving one party each night. Her apartment, just a few minutes by taxi from the ferry terminal, is filled with family pictures and ornaments that reflect Couto's Portuguese-Chinese heritage.

Eating at Maria's is like visiting a Macanese aunt and having her feed you. As soon as you step into the apartment, you're enveloped by the scent of tomatoes and onions slowly caramelising in the oven beside a fresh, whole fish, or the rich spiciness of garlic, shrimp paste and parsley on grilled prawns, all coming out of her diminutive kitchen. The food served each night depends on what Couto finds at the markets that day. A typical meal will cost 200-300 patacas per head. The number of courses will depend on the size of the party, so no two visits will be the same.

What won't change, however, is her love of cooking for others: 'If I see that eating my food makes you happy, I'm happy.'

While Couto proudly waves the Macanese flag, a surprising number of restaurants in Macau serving this type of food - a mix of Portuguese and Chinese cuisines - identify themselves as Portuguese. Most of these restaurants fuse Portuguese ingredients, such as bacalhau (cod), with southern Chinese sweet-savoury flavours, by such methods as adding sugar to a dish with olives.

While some may criticise this as being inauthentic, this style of cooking has been in existence since the Portuguese arrived on Chinese shores as early as the 16th century. In many ways, this has developed into a cuisine in its own right and is loved for its unique home-grown flavours by locals and visitors alike.

The Restaurante Tenis Civil Leon - housed on the first floor of the Clube de Tenis Civil de Macau, the civil servants' tennis club - is a favourite among well-heeled residents. It sits among some of Macau's oldest, most exclusive properties, with unobstructed views of Sai Van Lake and the Macau Tower, and serves a whole roasted chicken stuffed with fried rice (215 patacas) so gratifying that you will forgive the restaurant for its dowdy yellow polyester tablecloths.

If a beachside meal is your desire, the Miramar Restaurant - by the sands of Hac Sa beach, between the crowded Restaurante Fernando and the Westin Resort - makes a delicious arroz de marisco (270 patacas), a seafood stew with rice, for two people and roast leg of lamb with potatoes (390 patacas) for four.

The seats on the balcony are a prime perch in clement weather, where you can enjoy a meal with nature's soundtrack of lapping waves and swaying branches. It's good to finish with a stroll on the sands.

In western Macau, an area nicknamed 'Three Lights' around St Anthony's Church, is another example of the cultural melting pot. In the 1970s, many Burmese of Chinese descent settled in the area, and a hub of restaurants emerged. Among these, one of the most popular is Restaurante Birmanes Nga Heong, a two-storey bistro with folding stools and fluorescent lighting. It is known for its ohn no kauk swe (20 patacas), a classic Burmese dish of coconut chicken curry served with noodles. While rice noodles are usually used in Myanmar, thick, golden, spaghetti-like Chinese 'oil' noodles, which are deep-fried before they're cooked in water, are used in Macau. The viscous curry is ladled over a large bowl of noodles, and diners mix them together, like a sauce for pasta.

Macau unashamedly calls itself Asia's Las Vegas, and gambling and entertainment aren't the only things being replicated from 'Sin City'. Fine dining is part of that package, and one of the most notable recent openings is The Tasting Room. The restaurant is in the Crown Towers hotel, nestled in the vast City of Dreams entertainment complex along the Cotai Strip.

Contrasted with the ostentatious lights of the strip, the restaurant is elegant and relatively restrained. Before the main dining room there is a bar area, with a 16-bottle Enomatic wine dispenser and finger food from fresh oysters to chocolate truffles. The chef de cuisine, Guillaume Galliot, presents creative, modern fare that reflects his experience in some of the world's top kitchens. His food is, like Macau itself, a union of elements from different cultures, the only common denominator being the high quality of produce. 'Our ingredients come from all over the world,' says Galliot.

Gourmet travellers love edible souvenirs, so take a slice of Portugal with you by buying something from Mercearia Portuguesa. Stroll around the cobbled Sao Lazaro precincts, and forget you're closer to the South China Sea than the North Atlantic.

The Corner Shop celebrates all things artisanal and Portuguese, with preserves made in a small orchard to soaps, jewellery and handmade chocolates. Opened by filmmaker Ivo Ferreira and actress Margarida Vila-Nova, it seems a fitting finale.

Epicurean ecstasy

Maria Couto's private kitchen

MC-Servico de Catering de Cozinha Internacional

Tel: (853) 2856 6508 Restaurante Tenis Civil Leon

1/F, 14 Avenida da Republica, Sai Van

Tel: (853) 2830 1189

Miramar Restaurant

Zona Norte da Praia de Hac Sa, Coloane

Tel: (853) 2888 2623

Restaurante Birmanes Nga Heong

G/F, 27F Rua De Fernao Mendes Pinto, Santo Antonio

Tel: (853) 2852 8129

The Tasting Room

3/F, Crown Towers, City of Dreams

Tel: (853) 8868 6681

Mercearia Portuguesa

8 Calcada da Igreja de Sao Lazaro

Tel: (853) 2856 2708