Tikka masala tacos from Goa Nights, a new addition to Macau’s bar scene serving Indian-fusion eats and cocktails inspired by the sailing route of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.
When Portuguese merchants first sailed into the tiny enclave of Macau in the 16th century, they struck gold.
Not because they had found any tangible treasures—the swampy Chinese islands bore no jewels to mine or crops to farm—but because they had reached an Eastern port open to trade. The Portuguese sold the discoveries from their maritime route and the bounty pilfered by their Spanish neighbors—potatoes from Peru, chilies from Mexico—to China and also made a tidy profit trading Chinese tea and porcelain to the Europeans.
The alliance infiltrated Macau’s food. New settlers introduced ingredients they’d found from previous ports—spices from Goa, coconuts from Malacca, piri piri chili sauce from Mozambique—and the Chinese cooked Portuguese dishes with their own techniques to create a brand-new “Macanese” cuisine.
Over the past couple of generations, Macau’s identity has evolved to center on its current neon-lit gambling rep. But punters are beginning to appreciate the region’s culinary merits, which last year earned its classification as a unesco Creative City of Gastronomy. As a traveler who is more concerned with my next meal than ticking off top sights, I’m not here for an architectural tour—who has time for a selfie at St. Paul’s ruins when egg tarts are coming out of the oven?—and I’m far too stingy to try and beat the Baccarat table. Instead, I plan on studying Macau’s culture and history through its dishes. To kick off this gluttonous madness, it’s only fitting that I start with Macau’s most epic traditional feast: Cha Gordo, a bilingual portmanteau whose direct translation is Fat Tea.
“GORDO MEANS FAT, so a Cha Gordo has to be abundant; it has to cover the whole table with food,” says Felipe Ramos, an operations manager at St. Regis Macao and a born and bred Macanese. He’s not kidding. The spread that takes over the gilt St. Regis Manor each Saturday for their Cha Gordo afternoon tea is a noholds- barred buffet, featuring a mix of distinctly Macanese finger food and decadent Portuguese desserts. It’s the only place the public can get a taste of this home-style tradition in Macau; the celebration is usually reserved for birthdays, weddings and family events.
Pile your plate at the Cha Gordo buffet at St. Regis Macao
I pile my plate with a mishmash of savory and sweets (don’t judge, I’ve skipped lunch for this): chilicote pastries filled with pork and beef; pasteis de bacalhau, the famous salted-cod croquettes; a slice of bolo de chocolate cake; a cloud-like spoonful of pudim molotof, a Portuguese egg-white soufflé; bagi, a cinnamon-spiced coconut rice pudding; a Portuguese egg tart, of course; a wobbly wedge of bebinca de leite, Macanese coconut custard; and a maltose “lollipop”—maltose syrup between two crackers—a nostalgic treat from Ramos’s childhood. “There are a lot of recipes here that don’t really exist anymore in Macau,” Ramos says. “We’ve had to revive many from my grandmother’s cookbook.” I polish off the entire stack of food, for history’s sake.
But wait, there’s more. Two madeto-order Macanese plates arrive: minchi, stir-fried ground pork and beef, cooked with first-press soy sauce, a hint of chili and topped with a fried egg; and lacassá, a shrimppaste noodle dish with obvious Malay influence—the name is said to derive from the street food staple laksa.
I recognize Malay elements in many meals this trip, but the most iconic is African chicken. “This dish is symbolic in Macau,” Frederico So, of Macao Tourism, tells me. “The name goes back to its origin in Mozambique, but the Macanese version is served in a sauce that’s made up of coconut milk, a Malaysian ingredient.” So has ordered us some classic dishes at Restaurante Litoral, founded by local cook Manuela Ferreira in 1995 as a venue to share her Macanese family recipes.
Steaming clams, African chicken and tender turmeric-stewed pork with potatoes arrive on our table, alongside a basket of bread and a plate of rice. This trifecta of carbs is yet another symbol of cultures combining. “The Macanese community always serve rice, even with what you consider to be ‘Western’ cuisine,” So explains.
I drench my rice in the garlicky clam juice, and carve up a piece of the African chicken, veiled in a glossy sauce redolent in sweet and spicy piri piri, creamy coconut and, the secret ingredient, peanut butter. “The Portuguese normally serve their chicken dry,” So says with satisfaction. “This is something unique to Macau; you won’t find it anywhere else in the world—not in Portugal, not in Africa.”
Restaurante Litoral’s African chicken.
CHECKING INTO the new MGM Cotai is another round-the-world tasting experience. The sprawling 1,390-room resort is happily food-focused, offering nine global dining spaces within its building block structure. After taking the gordo a little too literally the day before, I sleep through my buffet breakfast. So, in the spirit of all-out decadence, I opt for mid-morning cake instead, at Singapore dessert-queen Janice Wong’s newest outlet in the MGM. But “cake” doesn’t do these sweets justice—these are science-defying creations. My “Cassis Plum” plates a sphere of tart plum ice cream filled with elderflower yogurt foam on a bed of boozy plum liqueur jelly, granita, freeze-dried raspberry bits and yuzu pearls. While this elaborately ticks off my most important meal of the day, I’ve got two more dining dates under MGM’s undulating skylight roof.
Colorful creations at Janice Wong MGM, the new Macau outlet of the Singaporean dessert maven.
At their Sichuan restaurant Five Foot Road (an alternate nickname for the Silk Road) I try hot-and-sour jellyfish, pull-apart beef short rib and a spicy bowl of dan dan noodles while my acrobatic waitress pours a traditional Chengdu-style kung fu tea ceremony, gracefully wielding her long-spouted teapot like a weapon. For dinner I nestle in at Aji, the first Japanese-Peruvian eatery in Macau, with a menu overseen by Nikkei chef Mitsuharu Tsumura, whose Maido in Lima is a constant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The Peruvian chocolate mousse topped with yuzu and mochi is sinkin-your-seat kind of wonderful.
The kung fu tea ceremony at Five Foot Road.
On either side of MGM are two more food-and-beverage (and, yes, hotel and gambling, but remember why I’m here) megaplexes. The most dramatic way to access the very-Vegas Wynn Palace Cotai is via its gondola that circumnavigates its dancing fountain. This plush, floral themed shiner is accented by animatronics, from the giant chicken-and-the-Faberge-egg reveal in one rotunda to the choreographed mini-shows that accompany your prime cuts and fresh seafood at SW Steakhouse. Other main events include Cotai Strip branches of the original Wynn Macau’s Michelin two-starred Japanese spot Mizumi and one-starred Cantonese high-end Wing Lei—though you might find hopping the shuttle bus to the older sister property worth it for their two-starred pan-Chinese fine dining Golden Flower.
Meanwhile, next door at City of Dreams, the complex’s freshest hotel, Morpheus, mightily looms. The nine-year project finally opened last month, and was the last work of the late, legendary architect Dame Zaha Hadid. So far, Morpheus’s superficial qualities have garnered the hype—it’s the world’s first freeform exoskeleton-bound high-rise (translation: supported entirely from the outside, there’s no need for columns)—but inside’s gourmet options promise to be just as unforgettable. Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse oversees French and Chinese restaurants, Pierre Hermé’s pastries tempt in the lounge, and regional Chinese omakase-style restaurant Yi offers a daily changing menu. On my visit, the hotel is still in the final stages of construction, so I head to City of Dreams’ long running culinary star: Jade Dragon.
Morpheus rises in Cotai.
The Cantonese restaurant’s acclamations run deep: Michelin starred, five stars in Forbes Travel Guide and a prominent figure on South China Morning Post’s 100 Top Tables, all since 2014. Chef Tam Kwok Fung credits quality produce for the string of awards. Hokkaido kegani crabmeat swims in a tangy hot-and-sour soup; Australian Wagyu arrives flambé; and Iberico pork is barbecued in a traditional lychee wood–fired oven. “The Iberico pork has nicer marbling,” Fung says. “After cooking, the texture and flavor is different.”
Tiny drawers on walls herald the Chinese medicine cabinets of Guangdong’s herbalists, and Fung draws upon this culture in his menu—for example, the double boiled sea conch soup uses yam and wolf berries, said to aid digestion and improve vision. “Chinese herbal [recipes] have been passed on from one generation to another,” he says. “This is not a secret recipe, it’s just the way of Chinese living.”
BUT FOOD HERE isn’t all about fine dining, and Macau’s true roots shine best in the shophouses and holes-in-the-wall on the streets of the Macau peninsula and Taipa Island. I heed chef Fung’s advice and eat at one of his favorite Macanese joints, Rico’s, spooning straight into their creamy salted-cod pie that’s so good there’s no need for a plate.
In Taipa Village, a fishing-townturned-tourist-destination, busloads spill out for a taste of Macau’s classic snacks: crumbly almond cookies from Pastelaria Fong Kei, and famous egg tarts from Lord Stow’s. I wander off the beaten path down the narrow laneways to Antonio, a proudly authentic Portuguese restaurant. “We don’t serve any Macanese dishes here,” says our steadfast waitress, who also says we must we try their clams. I ask how they’re different from the Macanese version. “It’s all in the sauce,” she answers, pointing to the house baked bread. “You have to dip the bread in the juices. When I eat this dish I eat more bread than I do clams,” she laughs. Like Restaurante Litoral’s clams, they are cooked in a white wine and olive oil broth, flavored with coriander and a sprinkle of chili, but the juice in Antonio’s version is almost drinkable—a refined, clear broth that’s a sweet, delicate ode to the sea.
Lord Stow’s egg tarts at the original Coloane bakery.
Antonio’s flaming chouriço.
After lunch I check out the sights (and smells) of Taipa Village. Incense wafts from the Sam Po Chinese temple, and the funky stench of fermenting shrimp paste smacks me as I walk past a tiny balichao factory. Behind a Chinese restaurant I spot three chefs taking a cake break on stools outside the kitchen. I follow the sugary aroma to Pui Kei, a tiny café on busy Rua do Cunha. Trays of freshly baked cupcakes greet me, and an iced lemon tea goes down perfectly with one. I order Macau’s signature pork chop bun, which looks difficult to eat, what with the bone sticking out, and has me anticipating chewing through dry leather. But the pork meat is tender and tasty, and Pui Kei’s fresh-baked, crusty bread is the perfect casing to soak in the buttery juices that spill out as you bite in.
Serenity at Sam Po temple.
Hot trays of almond cookies at Fong Kei.
By now, it’s sundowner time, and Taipa Village’s newest watering hole, Goa Nights, is a cozy finale. The tapas-style menu of Indian classics and fusion pub food are tasty, but the cocktails here are the main attraction, each celebrating an ingredient from Vasco da Gama’s sailing ports: the Lisbon gin sour uses raw turmeric–infused Aperol with a rooster sprayed in Port wine on top. Three cocktails and yet another bowl of clams later (here they’re sautéed in a Goan recheado spice mix and topped with Goan Alphonso mangoes), I’m stuffed, and, for my stomach’s sake, secretly thankful I’m leaving tomorrow.
BEFORE I RESIGN myself to a diet back home, I make a last lunch booking at The Eight. It’s in the Grand Lisboa hotel, whose sister is neighboring Lisboa Hotel, the first casino in Macau opened by gaming tycoon Stanley Ho in the 1950s. Grand Lisboa draws thousands of Chinese high rollers not just to play its garish baccarat tables, but also to eat what Michelin has essentially anointed the best Chinese food in Macau: The Eight is the only three starred Chinese restaurant here. Executive chef Joseph Tse lifts his Cantonese menu with refined execution—“Fish Delicate” is a chicken broth with homemade fish balls and a cube of silken tofu sliced more than 100 times to create a blossoming chrysanthemum flower.
The Eight’s 14-day-old suckling pig stuffed with fried rice.
Dim sum almost too cute to eat at three- Michelin-starred restaurant The Eight.
For Tse, it’s all about the ingredients—he is so excited about a just-delivered box of Alphonso mangoes, he asks if I want to try one. Silly question. Now icons of the dining scene, the Goan mangoes were, of course, a lasting gift from the intrepid Portuguese. Tse plans to use his in a sautéed scallop dish, but serves mine simply sliced on a plate: sweet, creamy, the color of saffron. In Macau, the migratory influence on its cuisine now comes second nature to its chefs, and the delicious results are still worth crossing oceans for.
Most may come here to gamble, but along the cobblestone alleways, past old Catholic churches and Chinese temples, Macau’s multicultural cuisine can, and should, be scouted out. Fine dining, home-style cooking, on-trend cocktails, Macau has it all.
Most Asian cities are connected with Macau International Airport. Ferries from Hong Kong leave every 15–30 minutes; buses from Zhuhai, in Guangdong province, go to the Gonbei border gate, where hotel shuttles will pick you up. A new 55-kilometer bridge connecting Macau to Hong Kong and the mainland will open this year.”
This colossal Cotai resort has luxe rooms and plenty of entertainment. Its central atrium features a series of panoramic LED screens playing cinematic scenes of nature and art; and the MGM theatre will open later this year boasting the world’s largest permanent indoor ultra-HD screen. mgm.mo; doubles from MOP1,500.
St. Regis Macao
The rooms in this five-star Cotai hotel are spacious and plush. Visit the St. Regis bar for their Macau-themed Bloody Mary, Maria do Leste, inspired by the Portuguese journey, and don’t miss Cha Gordo every Saturday at 3 p.m. stregismacao.com; doubles from HK$2,088; Cha Gordo afternoon tea HK$148.
You’ll spot this iconic hotel’s neon lights all the way from Taipa. The lobby holds some of founder Stanley Ho’s antiques, and the dining spaces are among the best in Macau. grandlisboahotels.com; doubles from HK$1,388.
Wynn Palace Cotai
The second Wynn in Macau, opened in 2016, is a gilded affair, overflowing with floral décor and spring colors. The glam resort pool sits between the 4,500-square-meter spa and the dancing fountain, which is best surveyed from the gondola. All generously sized guest rooms come with a super intuitive touchscreen control panel. wynnpalace.com; doubles from MOP1,435.
Opened in June, this ultraluxury 770-room hotel was designed to abstractly resemble the number eight, auspicious in Chinese culture. cityofdreamsmacau.com; prices not available at press time.
RESTAURANTS AND BARS
Five Foot Road
Pastelaria Fong Kei
The almond cookies at this century-old bakery are crumbly yet not too dry, and come Michelin recommended. 14 Rua do Cunha, Taipa; cookies from MOP34.
Janice Wong MGM
Lord Stow’s Bakery
This tiny café in Taipa Village is famed for its cupcakes, pork chop noodles and pork chop buns. 25 Rua do Cunha, Taipa; mains from MOP28.
Homestyle Macanese fusion at its friendliest. The rice-stuffed crispy chicken, the salted-cod pie and the clams come recommended. 6 Rua de Tomas Rosa, Macau; +853 2835 3797; mains from MOP65.