They may have gambling in common, but historic Macau has a genuine heart – and far better cuisine – than its glitzy American desert cousin, writes Jesse Mulligan.
I hadn’t expected to like Macau much. When I mentioned to people that I was visiting, they’d inevitably talk about the casinos.
“It’s apparently like an Asian Las Vegas,” they’d say, before adding something sniffy like, “fine if you’re into that sort of thing”.
The real Vegas didn’t do it for me – once you get over that incredible first sight of neon rising out of the desert it’s really just fat Americans on holiday, isn’t it? But Macau has what Sin City doesn’t – a rich cultural history, plenty to look at outside the gaming districts, and some good and unique local food.
A Chinese territory, Macau was for 400 years controlled by Portugal, and that influence is easy to see in the cuisine. Unlike, say, the English who spent 150 years across the estuary in Hong Kong without managing to get mushy peas onto local menus, the Portuguese contributed to and borrowed from Cantonese cooking to create tasty and memorable hybrids.
Years later, in the age of jumbo jets, many authentically Iberian ingredients are now flown in for the local Lisbonese (is that a word? It looks more like a sexual preference when I see it written down) so it’s now actually possible to eat three ways in Macau: Chinese, Portuguese and the crazy mash up known as Macanese.
Casinos and hotels are a great place to find very high-end Chinese – at somewhere like Wing Lei at Wynn’s Casino you can sit beneath a giant crystal dragon and eat Michelin-standard dim sum, crispy prawn and their famous baked barbecue pork bun: light, sweet and sticky inside.
Likewise, the sprawling, incredible buffet breakfast at my hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, was one of the culinary highlights of the trip, if only for the dumplings.
Or, of course, you can grab a cheap bowl of wonton noodle soup and a beer from pretty much any tiny restaurant and it will be good. There’s no bad food in Macau – just a bit of grumpy service – and if you can point to a photo of what you want you’ll be laughing. To go even more low fi, follow Anthony Bourdain to the food carts; there are plenty on and around Avenue De Almeida Ribeiro.