Most European capital cities have a Chinatown, and Lisbon is no different. In the 1980s many immigrants from the Zhejiang province, on China’s eastern coast, made downtown Mouraria their home; the wave of newcomers remained steady and eventually peaked in the 2000s.
As the first generation grows up, their family businesses are leaving indelible marks on the wider city, joined now by entrepreneurs from Macau – Portugal’s last colony – and those benefiting from the country’s Golden Visa scheme, which allows people who invest a certain amount or buy property in Portugal to move here. This means a boom in Chinese food right in the heart of the city.
There are around 20,000 Chinese people in Portugal, most based in Mouraria, a formerly no-go neighborhood (at least according to some Portuguese), where South Asians and others from lusophone Africa also settled. In the last five years, Chinese supermarkets, wholesale traders and stores around Martim Moniz Square – where Chinese New Year is celebrated annually in grand style – have been opening at a steady pace, with adapted snack bars and cafés following close behind.
The typically Portuguese supermarket chain Amanhecer has opened an “oriental” iteration in the area. Tellingly, its front of house café (where you can still get a Super Bock beer or a custard tart – the traditional Portuguese, rather than Chinese, version) now doubles as a simple noodle bar: the fresh Lanzhou noodles are hand-pulled in front of you. And a brand new Asian food court opened last month on its first floor.
In keeping with Lisbon’s international hype and expanded offerings, an extraordinary, previously unpublicized phenomenon has now become Internet-famous. Lisbon’s “illegal” Chinese restaurants – Chinês clandestinos – in Mouraria’s side streets are getting more business thanks to the influx of expats craving cheap noodles.
These spots have been around for a long time: according to (unverifiable) city lore, the authorities looked the other way when they started popping up in the late 90s as no one else was investing in the city center at the time. Walking around the northeastern corner of Martim Moniz square and Rua Benformoso, you can spot subtle signs of these family-run dining rooms, an upward glance offering clues to where they are – a hanging lantern, decorated window or a low clatter of noise a floor or two above an unmarked door.
We visited one of the oldest we know of, located in Beco da Barbadela; a room of around a dozen tables, with a TV connected to a mass of cables in the corner, a classic golden maneki-neko, or “beckoning cat,” statue and a polite note on the wall asking customers not to speak too loudly. The crowd here reflects the city center’s changing demographics: a few years ago, it was filled with Portuguese of all stripes, but now seems to be full of young tourists and French and Brazilian hipsters. It is still open late, with cheap abundant plates, and is often smoky. Chao, the friendly owner and chef, showed us the tiny two-burner kitchen where he cooks traditional/international Chinese dishes of dumplings, noodles, and – our favorite – fried eggplant. Even though he doesn’t speak Portuguese or English, he still managed to let us know to avoid the dining room located in the adjacent apartment, run by a competing family.
This means a boom in Chinese food right in the heart of the city.
Some of these eateries have become so well known in the last few years that it has become complicated to keep them undeclared. This could be the reason why some have now gone legit, like in the case of Clandestino (not so clandestine anymore), which two years ago suddenly popped up on Google Maps. Still, no one knows precisely how many of these places exist in Mouraria; sometimes a new one appears, and word gets around. But then you ring the doorbell to no answer – the dining room is either too crowded, or it has already been closed down.
A successful tale of transition from illegal to legal is Mr. Lu, probably the best Chinese restaurant in downtown Lisbon. Located in the residential neighborhood of Anjos, around a 15-minute walk north of Mouraria, this cozy restaurant run by the former celebrity chef Zhiaming Lu and his wife, Hua; the couple moved from northern China to Lisbon in 2004 because Hua had relatives here. Despite being slightly off the food map, it is always busy, with local foodies and Chinese families filling up the tables most nights of the week.
A big reason is because of Mr. Lu’s own proven credentials as a master – in 1997 he was officially named Best Chef in Shandong (one of China’s eight denominated food regions) and won second prize in a national TV cooking competition. He opened his own restaurant in Yantai with the prize money, an adventure that ended unexpectedly due to the construction of a highway that required the building to be demolished. After migrating to Portugal, he and his wife ran an illegal kitchen in Mouraria, making the business official in 2014. We highly recommend the sweet and sour fish, duck rolls and frog legs (the latter not typically eaten in Portugal) with xau xau rice. You can’t really go wrong, however, with whatever you choose from their extensive menu.
Though links have existed between Portugal and China since the days of the Ming dynasty (as the ubiquity of custard tarts, introduced in Asia by the Portuguese, in both countries shows), they have never seemed stronger than today: Chinese firms have huge stakes in Portuguese companies, including its national grid, banks, insurers and private hospitals, with Portugal recently expressing support for China’s Belt and Road initiative, a development strategy that aims to deepen geopolitical ties between Asia and Europe.
In this respect, the many sides of Chinese food in Lisbon reflect not just its growing immigrant population, but also the city’s burgeoning global financial and political interests.