Macau sheds gambling persona to embrace its 450-year-old culinary legacy
A steaming pile of chicken feet on a plate. Roads packed with cyclists like sardines in a tin can. Impromptu kung-fu battles breaking out in temple courtyards. Those are the thick-witted options spewed by my friends—who just found out that I’m travelling to China—as they play a rowdy game of stereotype bingo while driving me to the airport. A few hours later, I’m in Macau, the Eastern hemisphere’s answer to Las Vegas.
After quickly checking into a luxurious suite at The Parisian hotel, and grabbing a few cocktails at the pool deck, I make my way to the top of their Eiffel Tower replica in high spirits and initiate a group video call with those very friends back home. Just as the video stops pixelating, their snarky remarks end. Everyone’s gaping, quietly.
They see the city’s decadent crimson skyline—occasionally marred by jumbotrons announcing Macau International Fashion Week, pop sensation Maroon 5’s upcoming gig, and a David Beckham guest appearance. All of them begin to contemplate the changing face of modern China. This is no longer the old colonial watering hole that parades Chairman Mao’s work; it’s where the world’s richest come to play.
It’s a gambling haven where high-rollers bet billions every day, access world-class shopping, and experience sensational entertainment.I’m here for a different reason though—to look past its hazy blackjack tables and the seemingly never-ending array of slot machines. UNESCO recently declared Macau as one of Asia’s leading culinary destinations and bestowed it with the title of ‘Creative City of Gastronomy’. This tiny 28 sq km area quickly became home to over 18 Michelin-starred restaurants (including The Venetian’s Golden Peacock) and one of the world’s best bars (The Ritz-Carlton Bar & Lounge). But, how did it get from ‘sin city’ to ‘gourmand central’?
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Food isn’t sustenance for the Chinese. It’s everything. They love to eat. And when they aren’t eating, they are talking about eating or planning what to eat next. In fact, they appreciate food so much, that it has become a vehicle of memory and identity for them. I thought, as an Indian born in a partly-agrarian society, I had a clear understanding of this notion. I was wrong.
During breakfast the next day at Le Buffet—a cosy eatery resembling a European market inside The Parisian—an opportunity to learn more about this concept arises through a casual conversation with an elderly gambler from Hong Kong. The talk, like most discussions during a meal among strangers from diverse cultures often does, quickly broaches the subject of nourishment.
A self-proclaimed slot machine addict, Ying Yue—whose dentures unceremoniously rest in a glass of water beside her—explains while she champs on a platter of melt-in-your-mouth charcuterie, “In China, dining out is a glue that binds the social fabric. New friends are often made at the dinner table; family meals are a multi-course affair; most of the populace are staunch believers in ‘culinary superstitions’; and often during religious occasions, food is presented as offerings to deities.” Pausing for a loud slurp of hot soy milk, she adds, “Kids these days even inundate social media feeds and WeChat with food photos too.” Ouch, that hits a little close to home! Therefore, I assumed, the gastronomic scene in China was not unlike in India. Another incorrect speculation.
I didn’t know how erroneous the hunch was until I bid adieu to Ying and ventured out before the crack of dawn on a mini-excursion. Supposing you’re not the early bird type, try a round of mini-golf at Grado, a multi-hole course within The Venetian, before stepping out to paint the town red. If the easy-to-pick-up game doesn’t leave you invigorated, their bourbon iced-teas will. Since my intention was to avoid the rush hour I hopped on a local bus (#21A) that traversed from the hotel to a World Heritage site.
After earning an earful from a Cantonese-tooting bus driver for lingering too long at the front door to dish out the exact fare in patacas, I find myself seated on an ice-cold plastic seat by the window. The familiar (and comforting) smell of takeaway coffee and freshly-baked egg tarts wafting through the bus distracts me from a game of ‘count the skyscrapers on the horizon across the Ponte de Sai Van bridge’.
Twenty minutes later, the vehicle rumbles into the greatest tourist trap in Macau: Senado Square. Which is saying a lot, considering, it’s located in a ‘casino city’ which recently surpassed Las Vegas’ gambling revenue. If the humid weather gets to you while walking on the monochrome tiled pavement of the baroque plaza, shaded on all sides by pastel-hued colonial buildings of a bygone era, take a small detour (towards Livraria Portuguesa, a 30-year-old two-story bookshop) and stop for some Japanese gelato from a quaint shop called Kika. You won’t regret trying their velvety pistachio serving. I certainly didn’t. The dessert will (probably) last the entire walk leading up to this region’s most prominent landmark: Ruins of St Paul. After a cursory stop, I fire up Google Maps and navigate a nine-minute uphill walk towards Fortaleza do Monte. My destination: The biggest museum in the city.
It is my quest to uncover similarities between India and China’s socio-cultural fascination with food that brings me to Museu de Macau. Unfortunately, I bite off more than I can chew. As it is within this 30,000 sq feet fortress, I learn that even though there are numerous correlations between the neighbouring nations, there is an elemental difference. Frequent famines.
References within seminal philosophies like Taoism, geographical diversity, and many millennia of culinary heritage notwithstanding—it boils down to this phenomenon. It’s one of the major reasons for this Chinese obsession (and often overcompensation) when it comes to everything surrounding nutrition. Despite what authorities in Zhongnanhai say, this nation has witnessed over five famines in the 20th century alone. The last one, which reportedly resulted in the deaths of millions due to starvation, happened barely 60 years ago (between 1958-61) and is considered one of the world’s greatest peacetime catastrophes of all time. Yet, they survived and thrived due to their phenomenally resilient attitude. Today the People’s Republic of China is one of the fastest growing economies on the planet and its Special Administrative Region (aka Macau) is just as hardy.
This never-say-die mindset of the Macanese might be why they withstood over 450 years of imperialist subjugation. The ancient port boasts a peculiar blend of Oriental and Western influences which extends further than the architecture on display, from Taipa’s narrow cobblestone streets to the beaches of Coloane. During the ride back across the bridge to the bokeh-like neon facade of the area’s casino boulevard known as The Cotai Strip, my amiable cabbie, who insists I call him Tom, elaborates on this inter-cultural smorgasbord. “I see that you have a packet of bak kwa snacks (dried sweet-salty pork jerky) in your hands, ” he points out, smiling, “Did you try a plate of our home-style galinha a africana? It’s a heirloom dish with chicken slathered in peanut and chilli sauce which was born out of this region’s European, Indian, African and south-east Asian connections. We simply call it ‘African chicken’. You should try it at any of the busy restaurants on Rua do Almirante Sérgio.”
Taking Tom’s advice to heart, I try to soak up everything I can about Macanese cuisine, during the rest of my stay. I consume everything from pork chop buns to minchi (ground beef served with rice, soy sauce, and a fried egg). Yet, I’m still as confused as a hungry goat on astroturf! Macau seems to be a city that’s progressing at breakneck speed.
However, its people still appear to pride themselves in faithfully conserving their unique cultural and culinary legacy. Lost in these thoughts, I disembark at Hong Kong International Airport’s SkyPier from a high-speed ferry which ricochets on the Pearl River like a stone whipped across a pond’s surface. Just as I’m about to board my flight back to the Motherland, it hits me—I forgot to try and eat chicken feet! Oh well, I guess there’s always next time.
The writer was in China on invitation from the Sands Resorts Macao.