Macau is in a fight to keep its own culinary traditions alive

Home to the original fusion cuisine, Macau is striving to revitalise its own culinary traditions as well as welcome new fusion styles

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 1:43pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 1:13pm

Fusion cuisine might seem like a modern phenomenon – with the internet, and global travel, making the exchange of ideas much faster, but the concept has been around for centuries, ever since the beginning of trade.

One fusion cuisine close to home that has stood the test of time is Macanese. “Macanese cuisine has a 400-year history and it’s the original fusion food,” says chef Antonieta Fernandes Manhao (Neta), who is renowned for promoting the cuisine. “Nowadays, they have all these fancy fusion cuisines, but Macanese is the original.”

Blending southern Chinese cuisine and Portuguese ingredients, spices and cooking techniques from Macau’s colonial days, they melded into a distinct style that became known as “Macanese”.

Fast forward four hundred years, and there is growing confusion between Portuguese and Macanese cuisine. Concerned that the heritage of Macanese cuisine is being eroded, Neta, who was born and raised in Macau, stepped up as an advocate of her beloved native food.

Of all the new hotels and resorts that have opened in Macau in the past 10 years, not one has a Macanese restaurant. This is very sad.
Chef Neta

“Many people in Macau today find it hard to distinguish between Macanese food and Portuguese food, so I want to help educate people,” Neta says.

“Of all the new hotels and resorts that have opened in Macau in the past 10 years, not one has a Macanese restaurant. This is very sad. I think the problem with a lot of these hotels is that they don’t understand the difference between Macanese cuisine and Portuguese cuisine. There are many Portuguese restaurants, nearly one in every street. However, Macanese food isn’t represented.”

Keen to put Macanese cuisine back on the map, Neta spends her time teaching cooking classes and gives demonstrations on Macanese cuisine in a quest to pass down classic Macanese recipes to younger generations. 

Over the summer Neta conducted a series of Macanese cooking classes at JW Marriott Macau where she demonstrated how to cook classic Macanese dishes such as tacho, a fusion stew made with Chinese and Western ingredients, cappela, a baked meatloaf made with cheese, black olives and breadcrumbs, topped with crispy bacon, and lastly Portuguese chicken made with turmeric powder (originally brought over from India), black olives and sausages.

“Macanese cuisine is such an interesting food, you would never think of mixing Chinese and Portuguese ingredients and I believe many people would be intrigued and curious to try it,” Neta says. “If we start doing more demonstrations, hopefully more and more people will get to know and understand what Macanese cuisine truly is.”

One of the most interesting fusion cuisines to rise to prominence in recent years is Nikkei cuisine – a fusion of Peruvian ingredients and Japanese techniques. Esteemed Nikkei restaurant Maido in Peru jumped from 31st to 13th place in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list this year. At the helm is head chef Mitsuharu Tsumura who has been described as a modern day master of Nikkei cuisine. 

Tsumura will open the region’s first Nikkei cuisine restaurant called AJI at MGM Macau’s Cotai property next year. “I think Macau will be a great place to introduce Nikkei cuisine in the region,” Tsumura says. “It has its own cultural heritage and there’s a nice story about how the chilli first came to Asia – one of the first ports of entry for different spices from Latin America was Macau. So there’s a connection between Peru and Macau because our main ingredient is the chilli.”

The similarities don’t end there. Nikkei cuisine, like Macanese, also originated many years ago. “This cuisine is something that has not been improvised, it’s been around in Peru for many, many years and the roots and base of this cuisine is not a trend or a recent decision to try and mix one cuisine with another.”

Tsumura is confident that many of the dishes and flavours will be a hit with locals. “In Peru we have a lot of Chinese and Cantonese influence also. I think Nikkei cuisine will add something different to the local dining scene, but at the same time it will offer flavours that are already familiar to locals.”

Classic Nikkei dishes include cerviche, an appetiser of fresh fish marinated in citrus juices, which is “a personal favourite” of Tsumura. As is the xiaolongbao “a steam bun with crispy fish and an onion sauce which is a great blend of the three cultures and I believe it will be a hit”,  Tsumura says. 

The chef is confident that Nikkei cuisine will follow Macanese cuisine in making its mark in Asia. “I think the younger crowd travelling around the world are more open to trying new tastes and flavours – they want to try something new. Not just in eating – they want to experience new sensations. If you’re just going to stick to the same things your whole life you’re going to be so bored – what I think is that by introducing this new type of cuisine, it is very creative but I also greatly respect tradition and everything at some point was new and different before it became a tradition. So the dishes we’re creating now will become a tradition afterwards. That’s the way cuisine evolves – tradition and creativity go very much together rather than being separate."