By Richard Frisbie
It is exhausting and frustrating to look out over Macau and try to describe it because I know that by the time you read this it will have changed.
There have to be more cranes and construction projects on these three islands than anywhere else in the world.
The steady hum of building and industry carries on three shifts a day, seven days a week. The flashes of the arc welding on the unfinished towers, soon to become the new skyline, compete with the strobe lights and vertical acres of neon that identify their already completed neighbors.
Lakes, harbors, and lagoons are being filled in – “reclaimed” is the term used – so much so that the original lighthouse, built in the 1800s, is far inland. Even the popular nightlife section for the locals, called the “docks” is now landlocked, as billions of dollars are invested in new four, five, and even six-star hotels being built on newly minted Macau shorefront. The pace is incredible!
Macau is a Gambling Mecca
What drives this unbelievable growth? Gambling. Over twenty million people visited Macau last year. Most came for the casinos. They spent nearly a half billion dollars. Macau now boasts the largest casino in the world (The Sands) and more casinos than anywhere else in the world.
In fact, where Macau was once known as the Las Vegas of the East, Las Vegas will soon be known as the Macau of the West. It is that big!
Macau is one truly amazing gambling destination, but it is fast becoming a premier culinary and cultural destination, too. Once you can get beyond all the garishly lighted casinos, you’ll find that the food and hospitality are your best bets.
A Former Portuguese Colony
The Portuguese colonized the tiny Macau peninsula over 400 years ago. Today it is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
Over the years Portuguese cooking and Portuguese genes combined with the those of the locals to create a fabulous blend of peoples and tastes. Their Iberian sense of family and hospitality are all reflected in modern Macau, which is the true birthplace of Asian fusion food.
A location on both the ancient overland and sea spice routes guaranteed Macau a thorough mix of cultures and foods. Curry, coconut, turmeric, and coriander, along with regional cooking methods and implements, found their way to this outpost on the South China Sea.
Cantonese cooking, with its clean simple emphasis on the flavor of the food, not spices, combined with the Portuguese to have the greatest influence on what is now known as Macanese cooking. So, while some people came to Macau for the gambling, I came for the food. I was not disappointed.
Arrive by Plane or Ferry
Macau is easy to get to by plane, but most people arrive for a few days visit via hydrofoil ferry from Hong Kong, just 60 kilometers (37 miles)and $35 away. They get the best overall view of the three islands and the illuminated glory of the skyline from the water.
I flew in on EVA Airways with the executive chefs from the American restaurant group, PF Chang Chinese Bistro. We were there to experience the unique flavors of Macanese cuisine with an eye towards developing new regional recipes for their 150+ US restaurants.
What & Where To Eat
We had a packed schedule, with lunches and dinners in the best restaurants, including Restaurante Porto Interior, Restaurante Litoral, Restaurante Espao Lisboa, and the Portas do Sol Restaurant in the Hotel Lisboa.
We also had great meals at the Macau Wine Museum, the Macau Institute for Tourism Studies (basically the Culinary School) and Apomac, the Civil Servants Retired Association.
That one was a surprise. It isn’t really a restaurant, but the cook there is one of the last of her generation who knows how to prepare some of the more unusual Macanese dishes, such as her incredible Tamarind Pork, or “Cabidela” Duck Stew.
The many exotic African, Vietnamese, Chinese and Portuguese ingredients combined to create the unusual dishes we ate. The colors, textures and various spices all came together as Macanese cuisine every day of our visit.
We had stuffed king prawns (almost small lobster sized), octopus salad, chick pea and tripe stew and a version of Feijoada made with red beans instead of the black ones that anyone familiar with Brazilian cooking is used to.
Other highlights were seafood rissoles, fried game sausages and as many different styles of my favorite fish, bacalhau (cod) as I could imagine. Every dish we were served had Portuguese or Chinese roots with a twist that made it pure Macanese.
The food was delicious, always served family-style for a social and communal meal, not a formal event. The flavors proved worthy of the praise they receive worldwide. Soon they’ll be available here in the US. You can sample PF Chang’s version of many of these dishes on their menus this fall.
Pair Your Meals With Portuguese Wine
The trip wasn’t just about food. Each meal was accompanied by robust Portuguese wines. Surprisingly, they are cheaper in Macau than in Portugal, or even here. There were some good whites, such as Planalto (2005) from the Douro Region, a Alandra (2005) from the Alentejo Region, and a new “green wine” Paao de Teixeiru (2005) from the Minho Region. For reds, there were Vila Santa (2003) and the Quinta da Leda (2004) both from the Douro Region, plus a Monte Velho (2004) from the Alentejo Region.
The wines were paired perfectly with the food to bring out the best flavors of each, and most received Wine Spectator and/or Robert Parker scores of 87 to 92. On top of that, there was also a rare almond-flavored cordial – Licor de Amindoa Amarga – that had Amaretto’s flavor without the cloying sweetness.
The most spectacular wine tasting we attended included a sword-wielding sommelier who chopped the top off our champagne bottle and poured frothy wine from the jagged neck. What an event that was! He assured us that any potentially dangerous glass shards were carried away by the exploding wine. I had to believe him if I wanted to taste it – and I did!
Many Ways To Lose Money Gambling
When we weren’t eating we were sightseeing. Although I didn’t gamble, all the casinos we toured offered other attractions. Each tried to outdo the other with fabulous artwork and outrageous architecture, and all boasted star-studded entertainment.
My favorite was the Star World Galaxy, probably because I stayed there. I had a great view from a fantastic room high in one wing of their new hotel. Everyone was so attentive to my needs that when I explained that I didn’t understand the gaming tables, the concierge arranged for a tour of all three public gambling floors.
My guide was an expert who explained both types of Baccarat (the traditional one has a layer of Banker and Player to bet on, the simpler one doesn’t) and the different dice tables that baffled my western eyes.
So much is automated and electronic that the dice “throw” themselves at the craps tables. You can’t even touch them! I’m familiar with many of the card games such as blackjack and poker, but simply couldn’t believe anyone would bet the minimum $10,000 demanded at some of the card tables. It’s amazing how many ways there are to lose money in a casino, and how seriously the primarily Chinese patrons went about doing just that.
The Architecture is Amazing
.Probably the most striking new building on the landscape is the Macau Tower owned by Dr. Ho, who also owns nearly all the casinos in Macau. His tower is one of the ten tallest freestanding buildings in the world, with a needle base and a flying saucer-style glass-enclosed observation deck at the top.
It offers adventure seekers and the insane an opportunity to walk out from the observation deck onto a narrow ramp that circles the tower 233 meters (764 feet) above the ground. The truly certifiable can pay for the privilege of jumping from this height, cabled to a mechanism purported to prevent a lethal impact with the pavement below. Me? I took the elevator down.
The Macau Tower is 41 meters (135 feet) higher than the only other SkyJump in the world, the Sky Tower in Auckland, New Zealand. It’s a major adventure tourism destination I’d just as soon read about as experience firsthand.
[editor’s note: GoNOMAD Senior Travel Editor Kent E. St. John actually took the plunge. Read his story about Macau.]
Everything is in English
The language was no problem wherever I went. In Macau, all the signs and menus are in English, Cantonese, and Portuguese. Plus, it is a comfortable and walkable city, and the people are very friendly to tourists. Macau even earned a World Heritage designation with more than twenty historic sites. The museums, the cathedral, the public gardens, and especially the food, all are reasons to visit. I can’t wait to go back.
Macau is so small and easy to navigate that the one link for the Tourism Office is all you’ll need to locate everything:
Night Video of Macau’s Bright Lights (from my hotel window)
Institute for Tourism Studies
Apomac, Av. de Sidonio Pais no.49B, r/c Edificio China Plaza, Macau Tel 2852 4325
Restaurante Espao Lisboa
Rua das Gaivotos No.8 r/c Coloane Macau Tel(853)28 88 22 26
Restaurante Porto Interior & Restaurante Litoral are side by side.
Rua do Almiirante Sergio, 259-B & 261-A, r/c Macau. Tel 2896 7770 & 967878
Richard Frisbie has been writing culinary travel articles for more than five years as a columnist for his local newspapers and as a regular contributor to many Hudson Valley, Catskill Mountain and other regional New York publications. His most recent addition to that list is a wine column called “Fruit of the Vine” for Life in the Finger Lakes magazine. Online, he writes frequent articles for EDGE publications and TravelLady.com, as well as Gather.com.