Away from the casinos of Macau – the only place in China where they have been legalised – there lies an old Portuguese city steeped in colonial history and packed with impressive sights and restaurants. Rough Guides writer Helen Ochyra set out to find the best things to do in Macau beyond the betting tables.
“Where East meets West” is a cliché as overused as those other travel writing horrors “city of contrasts” and “melting pot”. And yet, for some places it is simply true.
One of those places is Macau, a city where Portuguese colonial history sits inside modern China. Macau was a Portuguese colony for several centuries until 1999, and as a result this very Asian city retains a wonderfully European flavour.
This cocktail of cultures is expressed nowhere better than in the food. Macanese cuisine combines the city’s Portuguese and Chinese influences, but adds a dash of African or South American spice picked up from its days at the centre of numerous trade routes.
I sample this unique culinary mix at Restaurant Litoral, started by Manuela Ferreira with the aim of bringing traditional Macanese food, as cooked in the home, to the public. Her signature dish is galinha à Africana (African chicken), barbecued chicken smothered in red spicy sauce. Although garlic, chilli, paprika and coconut are staple ingredients in this Macanese favourite, every restaurant makes it differently and Manuela makes hers with peanut in the sauce – this makes it thicker and tastier than you’ll find elsewhere. I tuck in to mine with gusto and find myself hoping this full-on flavour-punch of a dish is served anywhere back home in London.
Traditional Portuguese cuisine is also popular in Macau and many of the city’s best restaurants specialise in this. One of these is Antonio’s, run by chef Antonio Coelho. My meal begins with an array of starters – clams in white wine, prawns in garlic, chorizo in brandy – all of which I scoop up hungrily and devour with a smile on my face. Then, the main event; a rich cataplana packed with scallops, prawns, octopus and chorizo, served in a steaming copper pot that is unveiled with suitable reverence at the table. It is designed to be shared and so I tuck in politely with my companions. Washed down with a Portuguese Quinta da Aveleda, it is delicious.
More Portuguese classics are served at O Manel, where we are welcomed with luscious slices of pata negra (cured ham), aged for 36 months and imported directly from Portugal. I could eat solely this, folded on top of the homemade bread, but the chalkboard menu cries out to us and so I order more clams, more prawns and a seabass from the nearby fish market, cooked on a charcoal grill. Owner and chef Manel visits the market twice daily to get the very best fresh fish and the benefits are clear – this is one succulent seabass.
Portuguese food may be popular in Macau, but I am in China and can avoid its intoxicating pull no longer; it is time to indulge in some Cantonese. For this I head to Coloane, where Kwun Hoi Heen serves upmarket dim sum. This is a real test for my chopstick skills, as I pierce crystal dumplings, scoop up dao miu (peasprouts) and attempt to wind stir-fried crispy noodles with Wagyu beef around them. This is dining at its most varied and I stay for hours, soaking up the sea views and trying to fit in just one more prawn dumpling.
Suitably sated I stroll around Coloane. This historic fishing village has always been less populated than the main city and today it remains a quiet retreat, the parks lined with walking trails and cobbled squares surrounded by pastel-coloured churches.
From Coloane Town Square we walk along the waterfront to one of Macau’s most well-known foodie names – Lord Stow’s Bakery. This small café is credited with bringing Portugal’s most famous tart, the pasteis de nata (egg custard tart), to Macau. It is the perfect mid-afternoon snack, the creamy sweetness providing the necessary sugar rush to carry on exploring.
And there is still so much to see. We head to Macau’s historic centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005, which is ripe for strolling. We start at Senado Square, its cobbles arranged in black and white waves, and its colonial buildings standing grand with their-neo-classical arches and creamy yellow and white façades. From here we walk past the Baroque São Domingo church, the nineteenth-century Dom Pedro Theatre and up to Guia Lighthouse, China’s oldest.
But the highlight is the atmospheric façade of the seventeenth-century Portuguese cathedral dedicated to St Paul. Today the ruin of St Paul is Macau’s most photographed site and you can spend ages staring up at its intricately carved stonework.
Our final stop of the day is the Macau Tower, a 338-metre spindle that was finished in 2001. This is the best place to get a view of the city and looking out over it all I see Chinese temples standing side-by-side with colonial churches, Portuguese ruins next to ultra-modern casinos. “Where East meets West”? Check. A “city of contrasts” and “a melting pot”? Absolutely yes.