Editor’s note: We regret to report that Casa de Macau is no longer hosting a weekly lunch on Wednesdays.
The era of Portugal’s seafaring might was so long ago, it seems almost like a myth – one still patriotically related by locals today. Gastronomic evidence of the country’s imperial past remains, however, particularly in Lisbon, where Angolan, Brazilian and Goan eateries can be found among the many other restaurants serving non-Portuguese food. Yet, despite Macau being under Portuguese control for around four centuries, passing into Chinese administration only in 1999, Macanese cuisine is still a mystery. Lisbon has yet to see even one Macanese restaurant open.
There is a place here, however, to eat food from Macau: a cultural association in between Alvalade and Areeiro on a main road that leads to the airport, far from Lisbon’s center. Housed in an old villa, Casa de Macau – created in 1966 originally in Principe Real – is a meeting point of two worlds. In its elegant rooms, decorated in Macanese style with pictures of the founders on the walls, the mutual influence between the two countries is evident in the Oriental ceramics that inspired the typical Portuguese tiles, a table for playing mah-jong (a game that originated in China, quite popular among Macanese) and magazines dedicated to the contemporary lusophony in the region. With the aim of keeping alive the legacy between these two faraway territories, this association organizes cultural workshops of Chinese language and culture, Mandarin courses and – almost regularly – a Wednesday lunch to savor Macanese recipes.
The flavors of Macanese food are an eclectic convergence of Portuguese and southern Chinese cuisines, enhanced by a variety of ingredients and spices – some originating from Africa (especially Mozambique) and other places in South Asia (in particular India). The interesting blend can be explained by the lengthy boat journey from Portugal to Macau – too lengthy to conserve fresh food on board, so sailors learned to cook with different local ingredients and spices they found on the way. Portuguese sailors and merchants’ wives based in Macau were often slaves displaced from India, Goa or Japan; the attempt of these women to reproduce European dishes, using spices and components, such as saffron, coconut milk or cinnamon, with very different origins can also explain the peculiarity of Macanese cuisine.
Dishes such as sopa de lacassá, a rice-noodle soup with prawns, oil, ginger and balichão (a sauce made with shrimp, liquor, pepper, bay leaf and chili) or duck rice, cabidela style, reflect the merging influences that met along the ancient routes of many Portuguese maritime merchants. The duck rice is a variant of a typical dish from Portugal (with added Angolan influence), with the meat cooked in a sauce of its own blood, water and a bit of vinegar. In Portugal, however, the most common meat used for this dish is chicken or rabbit. Macanese-style codfish soup is another classic: pork meat, hen stock, sesame oil and soy sauce enhance the strong taste of the codfish.
João Botas, vice president of Casa de Macau, says that Macanese food is much more than just its distinctive taste. In fact, it represents a marker of cultural identity, and proof of the existence of a community that is not so easy to define. “After the Macanese diaspora, many characteristics have dispersed, such as Patuá, the Portuguese-based Creole language. Food is currently the most representative feature of the Macanese community, and in our association we make an effort to preserve it.” Curiously, the majority of restaurants in Macau are either Chinese or Portuguese, implying that the cuisine seems to be very rare there too, though you can find Macanese-Portuguese or Macanese-Chinese hybrids.
The importance of protecting this culinary culture is likely related to the dispute around the exact meaning of “Macanese,” and its reformulation after the relatively recent handover of this region by the Portuguese administration to China. The definition has clear political meaning, reflected in the ambiguity between those recognised as Chinese, or those as descendants of old-established families of Portuguese lineage. Being Macanese today tends to be left up to how individuals categorize themselves.
Among the Wednesday lunchtime customers at Casa de Macau, there are mainly Lisbon-Macanese: Portuguese descendents who were born in Macau but later returned to Portugal, together with those people who have other kinds of connections – familiar or commercial – to this Asian territory. Occasionally, there are also foodies who have managed to discover this initiative, which seems to be somewhat unknown in Lisbon. It’s a chance to experience rare flavors in an intimate setting that is full of history.