The name Macao has always intrigued me, but it was not a destination that I ever expected to visit. I knew little about it, other than it was a former Portuguese colony, that is close to Hong Kong and my father liked to go gambling there in the 1970’s. However, with Macao reputedly attracting 16 million visitors each year, I decided that there must be many more good reasons to visit, other than casinos, and that perhaps I have been missing a trick.
One of the most important lessons I have learned through my travels is never to judge a book by its cover and to appreciate that there is not a place on earth that doesn’t offer something special and unique. I am also grateful for all new experiences and I hope to see the whole of the world before I bid farewell to it.
The journey from London to Macao was a simple one. Upon landing in Hong Kong I took a gentle ten-minute stroll to the ferry terminal (within the airport), and approximately an hour and a half later I was checking into my hotel.
The Macao peninsula lies 42 kilometres from Hong Kong and became a Portuguese settlement in the mid 16th century. It grew into a lucrative port of strategic importance in the development of trade, between Europe, China and Japan. It remained under Portuguese administration until 1999.
At 29km Square, it is easy to find ones bearings and comforting to know that nothing is very far away. The islands of Cotai and Coloane are joined to the peninsula by three bridges.
There is an obvious and unavoidable comparison between Las Vegas and Macao, mainly due to Cotai (an area of reclaimed land joining the two islands of Coloane and Taipa) that is densely populated with spectacular casino hotels and is referred to as “The Strip”. These luxurious resort style properties deliver everything they lay claim to and provide visitors with a myriad of leisure opportunities i.e. top quality accommodation, a plethora of dining options, designer shopping malls, world-class entertainment and state of the art health spas. Children of all age groups are surprisingly well catered for too, with efficiently staffed crèches, adventure parks, theme parks and water parks being standard offerings.
Macao’s rapid economic growth is partly due to gambling related tourism, and it has risen to this competitive challenge with great aplomb. However, for me Macao’s Portuguese heritage and unique cuisine, is its real heart and soul.
The vibrant historic centre of Macao is a Unesco world heritage site, compromising of over twenty monuments, which stand as living testimony to Macao’s multicultural integration and identity. The iconic ruins of St Paul’s church, loom imposingly over this district of winding roads that are paved with Portuguese mosaics, studded with colourfully painted baroque cathedrals, neo classical colonnades, colleges and theatres. Each of these buildings has a story to tell in the evolution of Macao’s rich history.
Senado Square is the cultural centre of the old city and a popular local meeting point. It plays host to many large events, festivals and performances.
Taipa village is where the Portuguese originally settled and it is a charming maze of cobbled lanes enchantingly lit by street lamps with hanging baskets, where restaurants, bakeries, antique shops and colonial villas sit harmoniously amongst cathedrals and temples. Dimly lit alleys secretly house some of the oldest and most authentic Portuguese restaurants and bars in Macao. This neighbourhood is distinctly European and were it not for neon signs written in Chinese hieroglyphics, I could easily have mistaken it for the Mediterranean.
Coloane is the where the locals go to relax and escape the hustle and bustle of city life. It’s a romantic, laid back, lush haven with rolling hills and sandy bays, despite being only half an hour’s drive away from the city. Coloane village is a joy to wander around with its’ artisan workshops and art galleries, before choosing a table by the sea to watch the sunset.
Macanese food is recognised to be one of the worlds’ first fusion cuisines, dating back to the sixteen hundreds. It consists of a blend of southern Chinese and Portuguese flavours, combined with spices from Latin America, India, Africa and the straits of Malacca, charting Portugal’s maritime cultural journey. It is a humble and resourceful cuisine that began in people’s homes, with its delicious secrets being passed down from generation to generation. Braised pork in shrimp paste and tamarind, African chicken and Minchi are amongst the most beguiling of Macanese dishes, and my personal favourites. For a comprehensive introduction to Macanese cuisine, try The Educational Restaurant, at the Institute For Tourism. It is a little off the beaten track, but well worth the effort as the food is revelatory. The restaurant is run by Macao’s future chefs and hoteliers, under the tutelage of internationally acclaimed chef David Wong .The lunch buffet offers excellent value for money and serves a combination of Macanese and Portuguese classics, beautifully presented with contemporary flair.
Antonio’s, Litoral, Riquexo, Santos and Miramar are all Macanese/Portuguese restaurants that I enjoyed and hope to return to.
With sixteen Michelin starred restaurants, Macao is now firmly rooted on the foodie trail, and is attracting some of the world’s best chefs. I can honestly say that I ate some the best food that I have ever eaten during short stay there and this is one of the reasons that I shall return.
Macao is a surprising, perennial destination of contrasts and choices, where East meets West and old sits comfortably alongside the new. The LGBT community is accepted and welcome, but not necessarily understood or well catered for. Although Sexual activity between people of the same sex was decriminalized in 1996, the LGBT movement has only just begun and it will take time for Macao to catch up with it’s neighbour Hong Kong regarding human rights.
Macanese braised pork
2-3 tbsps olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely diced, plus 1 deseeded and finely sliced diagonally, to garnish
1½ tsps ginger, peeled and finely grated
450g (1lb) pork shoulder, cut into 5cm (2in) chunks
225g (½lb) pork belly strips, cut into 5cm (2in) chunks
120g (4¼oz) brown sugar
2 tsps tamarind paste
2 tsps dark soy sauce
1½ tsps fish sauce
2 tsps shrimp paste
500g (17½fl oz) chicken stock
Finely chopped coriander, to garnish
Heat the oil in large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the chopped onion and sautée until softened . Add the garlic, chilli and ginger, then cook until aromatic.
Add all of the pork and brown on all sides. Sprinkle over the sugar and stir until it dissolves and begins to caramelise. Stir in the tamarind paste, combine well then add the soy sauce, fish sauce and shrimp paste.
Pour over the stock and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 40 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to cook for a further 10 minutes or until the sauce is reduced and slightly thickened.
Serve garnished with steamed rice and garnish with finely chopped chilli and coriander.