As a frequent and fervent traveler, I am fascinated by crossroads cuisines. The meeting-and sometimes clash-of two cultures along a narrow geographic interface has produced some of the world’s most interesting food.
If you don’t believe me, visit Macao. This tiny Portuguese enclave on the southeastern coast of China is the very embodiment of what contemporary American chefs have come to call "fusion cuisine." Except that in this case the fusion has been going on for more than 400 years, merging two cultures from opposite ends of the earth.
Macao is a tiny snippet of land in the mouth of China’s Pearl River estuary. Tiny? Its population of 450,000 lives on two small islands and a peninsula only 2.5 square miles in size. Macao has been a Portuguese colony since 1557, when Iberian traders established an outpost here to serve as mercantile go-betweens to the Chinese and Japanese.
Portugal is one of the smallest countries in Europe, but in the seventeenth century it projected its sphere of influence around the world. Macao was the easternmost outpost of an empire that stretched from Brazil to Angola and Mozambique to Goa in India and Timor.
Today, only 5 percent of the mostly Chinese population speaks Portuguese, but you still find Baroque churches, markets selling salt cod and olive oil, and pastry shops specializing in Portuguese pastries. This is also one of the few places in China (or soon to be China, as the colony will revert to the Mainland in 1999), where grilling is widespread, for the Portuguese brought grilling to China, a country whose complex cuisine is remarkable, and surprising, for its lack of live-fire cooking. In other words, you have a fusion of Chinese and Portuguese culinary cultures-known locally as Macanese cuisine.
Like most of the million-plus tourists who come here each year, I arrived on a jet foil from Hong Kong. The ride took less than an hour, but it took me decades back in time. At first glance, Macao looks like any emerging Asian city-relentless construction, hellish traffic, high-rise apartments, and casinos crowding the waterfront. But step onto a side street, like the Rua de la Felicidade (the appropriately named "street of happiness" that once served the colony’s red light district), and you could be in prewar China.
Merchandise spills from storefronts onto rickety tables lining the sidewalks. Vendors cook sheets of au jok kohn, a sort of sweet, salty, and deliciously fatty pork jerky, over braziers filled with blazing charcoal. Restaurants specialize in foods you didn’t know you could eat: snakes slither in the window of one establishment another boasts cages of a small tapir-like mammal that are empty at the end of the evening. Come nightfall, the street fills with the heady aroma of cooking, as locals converge here for doorsill dining and outdoor socializing.
You’d expect to find grilling at Macao’s Portuguese restaurants and you will. Consider Fernando’s, opened by an Azores Islander and located on the most tranquil of Macao’s islands, Coloane. In the center of Fernando’s open-air kitchen stands a barbecue pit, where sardines, salt cod, even cuttlefish are grilled over burning charcoal.
In true Portuguese fashion, grilled seafoods and meats are served with a tomato, bell pepper, and olive oil "salsa" and fiery piri-piri sauce.
Many of Macao’s Chinese have adopted live-fire cooking. My next stop was a roadside barbecue joint called Lam Yam Wing on the island of Taipa. Run by four brothers, Lam Yam Wing is the farthest thing from a tourist trap. Instead the place is hopping with locals, who come here for Chinese barbecue.
The focal point of the restaurant is the grill, a 20-foot-long metal trough with half a dozen different cooking zones. There’s a rotisserie area, where whole chickens (with heads still intact) spin on mechanized turnspits. There’s a gridiron on which sizzle chicken wings, sea crabs, and fat, buttery local eels. The cooking technique may be Portuguese, but the flavorings are pure Chinese: soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, ginger, and scallions. The food is cut into bite-size pieces, so you can eat it with chopsticks. But many customers have adopted the Western practice of eating the ’cue with their hands.
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