A Taste of Macau’s History – Maria Couto

A Taste of Macau’s History – Maria Couto

Maria Couto’s tiny kitchen is rocking. Pots are steaming on the stove, fresh clams are piled high on a plate and a fist-sized crab is waving an oversized claw as he tries to scuttle away. Maria nudges him back to wait his turn on the cutting board and goes back to halving cherry tomatoes for a salad, all the while keeping a careful eye on the pots.

Surrounded by family portraits and a century’s worth of Macau memorabilia, I’d been waiting in hungry anticipation, with the rest of our group, at the round table in Maria’s living room. But the intriguing aromas of Maria’s cooking made me too curious, and I had to sneak a peek into the kitchen.

“My mother taught me to cook,” says Maria. She prides herself on her Macanese heritage—her mother is from Guangzhou, her father from Portugal—and on being one of the few people who still know how to cook authentic Macanese dishes. She looks so happy and confident in the kitchen—it’s a pleasure to watch her work.

Our meal starts with a hearty vegetable and bean soup of the sort you can find in Portimão on Portugal’s southern coast. Chatting, sipping Portuguese wine and munching bread, we polish off the soup and a fresh crispy salad that leaves our palates tingling with vinegary energy.

Determined to serve something that isn’t available in restaurants around town, Maria presents a platter of pataniscas de bacalhau—pan-fried codfish fritters. “In Macau, you can find pastéis de bacalhau—codfish pasties—everywhere. But it is hard to find the pataniscas, in which we use flour instead of potato as a main ingredient.” These savory delights, rich with flavors of onion and coriander, have a fluffy texture like pancakes.

As we’re opening another bottle of vinho tinto, Maria arrives with a Macanese dish that exemplifies the qualities I love about this East-West fusion cuisine. It’s a dish that is at once familiar and exotic, comforting and surprising.

Tacho looks a lot like potée auvergnate, the French peasant stew from Auvergne. Don’t be fooled by appearances. This is a Macanese stew that derives its distinctive flavor from chunks of Chinese-style cured meats like lap cheong. A kind of preserved sausage, dried and smoked, sweeter than European sausage, lap cheong is flavored with rice wine and soy sauce. Added to the tacho mix are bits of pig skin and shredded white cabbage that soak up the rich flavors of the cured meats. “Macanese people have this dish after Christmas or the Chinese New Year, when we have lots of leftovers. We just throw the leftovers right in with the pig skin and cabbage,” says Maria with a smile.

Everybody is still raving about the tacho when Maria’s daughter arrives from the kitchen carrying a beautifully braised duck with blood sauce. Blood diluted with vinegar is a traditional ingredient in Portuguese cuisine. The Macanese twist is to add a touch of coriander and turmeric to the mix.

“The Macanese like to distinguish themselves from the Portuguese,” says Maria. “Although many of us speak perfect Portuguese, we are culturally different from pure Portuguese. One way to understand our identity is through our food.”

Deepening my cultural understanding by eating is great fun—my kind of homework. I’m not ready to quit. Happily, we’ve still got dessert, and it’s a Portuguese double feature.  First: apples baked with Port wine, cinnamon and slices of orange—a sweet, smoky, citrusy form of perfection.  And finally: leite crème.  It looks familiar, like a French crème brûlée, but the Portuguese version is softer and has a surprising hint of lemon—a deliciously tart contrast to the creamy sweet custard.

Macau is now part of China. Fewer and fewer Macanese are left; their traditions are disappearing with them. Maria is willing to teach youngsters how to cook Macanese dishes, but there aren’t many who want to learn. “The older generation of Macanese likes to take the recipes to their grave, but not me. As long as I can teach someone to make an authentic Macanese dish, I know that there will be hope for preserving our heritage.”

 

For reservation to Maria’s Private Kitchen, please contact +853 6679-4825.

By Jean Alberti

Photography by David Hartung