Gold Nothing
Saveur|Fall 2019

A sleepy city on the South China Sea ruled by the Portuguese until 1999, Macau has become a glitzy playground for China’s ultra wealthy. But in pockets between the casino resorts fueled by mainland money, traces of its culinary history remain.

Kevin Pang

It appeared at first that I had arrived in Macau by time machine. The hotel’s name, Morpheus, seemed picked to evoke either Greek mythology or The Matrix, but the exterior of the $1.1 billion building makes it clear the proprietors had chosen science fiction. Designed by the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, it looks as though a black block of liquid metal had three holes melted through it before it was wrapped in a fishnet exoskeleton. It’s even more difficult to describe the avant-garde dream space once you’ve stepped inside the lobby. Imagine a glass church built from fractals expanding skyward in chaotic harmony. It’s a bit like the city itself: ostentatious and awe-inspiring, a place that can bankroll wild ambition.

A tiny peninsula across the Pearl River Estuary from Hong Kong, Macau was a Portuguese colony for nearly five centuries. Twenty years ago, the city reverted to Chinese rule, and construction cranes quickly crowded its skyline. Gambling— thanks in part to American corporations such as Wynn Resorts and the Las Vegas Sands Corporation—boomed so unfathomably fast, it now makes Las Vegas seem like the nickel slots. The only territory under the Chinese flag with legalized gambling, Macau now brings in seven times more gaming revenue than Vegas. And so, new casino resorts keep shoehorning in; Morpheus is barely a year old, and it’s not even Macau’s newest hotel.

With only 12 square miles of land, virtually all of it developed, there’s no room for local farms for livestock or produce. Like the trading post it was during its 442 years of Portuguese colonial rule, Macau today is a crossroads where cooking traditions from all corners of the globe converge. Like much of traditional Macanese cooking—a hybrid of Portuguese and Chinese, with sprinklings of Indian, Malay, and East African—Macau is a stew of influences, a place that looks like Europe and sounds like China. But everything here is flown in internationally or trucked from mainland China, and any dish from any cuisine could magically appear before you—provided you have the means.

These days, the greatest demand is for high-roller Chinese food. On the second floor of Morpheus, the Cantonese restaurant Jade Dragon is a kaleidoscope of gold, silver, and crystal, all undulating walls and 12-foot-wide chandeliers. Thumbing through the menu, the existence of a $1,850 fish maw made me shudder at the items marked “market price.” But in Macau, a restaurant like Jade Dragon is not an exception but increasingly the rule. The restaurant was awarded its third Michelin star in December 2018, which automatically warrants a reservation among a certain set of wealthy Chinese visitors. Macau, a city with a population equal to Louisville, Kentucky, has eight restaurants with two or more Michelin stars—more than Chicago or Los Angeles. Cooks who swing for the fences have a receptive audience here.

Kelvin Au Yeung, the 39-year-old chef at Jade Dragon, took me back to his spotless glass-wrapped kitchen. He showed off a brick oven more suited to a Naples pizzeria, where a row of glistening barbecue pork char siu hung, glow​ing in the flames of lychee wood. While other Cantonese siu mei chefs might use pork loin, Au Yeung uses the marbled pork collars from acorn-fed Spanish Iberico pigs. What emerged from the lychee wood embers, my very first bite after arriving in Macau, was a sweet, crusty, luscious piece of pork char siu good enough to make my eyeballs roll toward the back of my skull and ruin all other Cantonese barbecue for me forever.

Around the corner from the cartier and prada billboards, the water-and-light shows, and faux Venetian canals is a sweltering Macau with a soundtrack of Cantonese, honking horns, and air-conditioner hums.

At the entrance of one alley was an orange sign advertising Riquexo, a restaurant that serves homestyle Macanese cooking from the ground floor of an apartment complex. It is not Portuguese or Chinese cooking, or even a straightforward fusion, but a singular cuisine formed over five centuries that uses Portuguese ingredients (olive oil, chouriço) alongside Cantonese (soy sauce, ginger, lap cheung sausage), and marries the two with flavors that have their roots in Portugal’s historical link to the spice trade.

With the notable exception of Fat Rice, the James Beard Award–winning Chicago restaurant, Macanese cooking is rarely found in restaurants, even in Macau—it is a culinary tradition of the home cook, kept alive by the precious few ethnic Macanese living here today. One of the last places to find it is Riquexo. Inside, an elderly woman named Dona Aida de Jesus sat by the cashier, sipping the murky broth of a lotus-root soup. At 103 years old, she’s at the restaurant most days as both an ambassador and for quality control.

All around de Jesus were black-and-white photographs from the Macau of yore. She spoke in a whisper, in short declarative sentences. I told her I came halfway across the world to meet her. She flashed a wide smile and asked a server to bring me a bowl of what she was eating.

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