Macanese Cuisine, a Marriage to Fight For

by Meha Desai
Caroline Hatchett
May 2015

Restaurant

Two dishes arrive at the table: bacalhau and balchao. It’s a play on words and sounds, and the beginning of a conversation on the complexities and origins of the cuisine at Chicago’s Fat Rice. The bacalhau is a silky, subtle whipped cod spread that Chef Abraham Conlon’s great grandmother made for her family at Christmastime. The balchao is a more recent addition to the repertoire—a sweet-tart Goan prawn pickle full of hard winter spices and chiles. In any other context, the dishes would belong on different tables, continents even. At Fat Rice, though, there’s a crusty loaf of bread and a historical thread to unite them.

Conlon’s dishes trace Portuguese shipping routes and the mixing and moving of people driven by the spice trade and colonialism. At the end of those routes sits Macau, a small, autonomous Chinese territory across the Zhujiang River Delta from Hong Kong. “Macau was, in a way, a final point for Portuguese traders,” says Conlon. “It was a hub of international commerce. Many of the former Portuguese provinces helped build and influence the food of Macau.”

Those provinces included Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa in Africa; Goa in India; and Malacca and Timor in Southeast Asia. The blended cultures left behind by Portugal’s age of exploration are at the core of Fat Rice’s identity: Conlon’s heritage is Portuguese, and his wife and business partner, Adrienne Lo, grew up in Hong Kong. Fat Rice is their Macanese baby.

The menu at Fat Rice isn’t strictly Macanese. Conlon faithfully recreates dishes from the Portuguese motherland and its colonial diaspora; Lo’s grandfather’s spicy, crunchy boiled peanuts are a constant amid the snack selection. Where Asian and European cultures blended, the food and the rules got deliciously messy. And the format at Fat Rice follows suit, letting history, geography, and cultural preservation drive the menu.

Take po kok gai, or Portuguese chicken. It’s a rich coconut curry chicken stew with chorizo, sausage, olives, lemon, and melted cheese. “You will never find this dish in Portugal,” says Conlon. “It’s a seemingly disparate coupling of ingredients, but they come together in a truly harmonious way.” Most likely a descendant of curried stews from Nyonya cuisine in Penang and Malacca, the Macanese added chorizo and olives from Portugal and chiles from Brazil, tempered the heat for a European palate, set it under the broiler for crunch— and voila!

If you travel to Macau, you’ll find po kok gai on restaurant menus, but according to Conlon, there are only three restaurants left in the territory that serve authentic Macanese food. That number mirrors a declining population. As of 2011, the Chinese-Portuguese population of Macau was 4,019, less than 1 percent of the total citizenry.

“Right now, I believe Fat Rice to have the world’s highest concentration of Macanese home-style dishes coexisting on the same menu,” says Conlon. Dishes like diabo karil (a traditional holiday stew), arroz gordo (the restaurant’s namesake), and raba raba (sautéed greens, with green papaya, mushrooms, and mackerel chutney) survive in the hands of home cooks.

Another example is tacho, a restorative stew, whose broth is so thick with cartilage and gelatin that it coats your throat. Big chunks of soft pork skin and meaty mushrooms bob in a sea of stewed meat and sweet Chinese sausage. Food like this needs a voice, and Conlon offers one: “As we continue to learn, travel, grow, and cook, we’ve redirected our focus on more of the home-style preparations of Macau and other similarly diminishing cuisines of Portuguese-Asian unions.”

For the most part, the recipes are oral tradition. There is no bible for the Macanese chef, except for the one Conlon and Lo are creating (a Fat Rice cookbook is in the works). Conlon and Lo have made friends who share meals and dishes, but getting their hands on an original recipe is a challenge. They often turn to Google searches that yield one, maybe two results. “Sometimes I have to do searches in Chinese or Portuguese, and then I translate and try to figure out the exact interpretation and conversions,” says Conlon. “We take that base recipe and make it. Then, we think, ‘OK, so what do we do with this at Fat Rice?’”

Translating home cooking in a restaurant setting comes with its own set of perils, but Conlon and Lo have done the research and logged the travel miles to make it feel genuine. The essence of Fat Rice, ultimately, is comfort. It’s just a comfort accented with the techniques and products of a complicated geopolitical marriage. Conlon and Lo have determined it’s a marriage worth fighting for. “I hope that more people engage their parents and grandparents about heritage and recipes and pass them on for the next generations to enjoy. I hope that people look at what we are trying to accomplish at Fat Rice and apply it in their own kitchens, blogs, homes, and restaurants,” says Conlon.

Pass the bacalhau and balchao, and dip some crusty bread into the past and future of Macanese cuisine.

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