Macau was under Portuguese administration from 1557 to 1999
Portuguese influences remain in the form of culture and cuisine
I never expected to end up living in Lisbon, on a lovely, sloping block with one of the city’s most iconic names: Rua das Janelas Verdes.
The Street of Green Windows.
Wandering the colonial core of Macau in southern China, I stumble upon a tiny sign bearing the same name. Only this “Janelas Verdes” is a dark passageway of less than 50 feet, used mostly for storing bicycles.
Seeking echoes of a five-century cultural imprint, I’m wondering if there’s any advantage in knowing what to search for in the place that sparked my interest in the world of the Portuguese.
I certainly don’t find it in the obvious places: like the ruins of the Sao Paulo cathedral, the main Senado square, the old battlements and ramparts, now overrun with day trippers, garish displays of paper lanterns and endless rows of pressed pork jerky shops.
And I plan to stay away from the Portuguese restaurants listed in every guide, many with falsely fancy airs to pamper tourists.
Of course, any place that puts out bacalhau, the salted codfish cooked a thousand ways by Portuguese, or spicy chourico sausage, has to at least partially fit the bill.
But many are run by Macanese and feature such multi-national specialties of empire as “African Chicken” or “Minchi” ground beef virtually unknown in Portugal itself.
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Starting out at the central Ou Mun Café, once a favorite gathering spot for homesick expats, I find a few appropriate pastry specialties.
But the Portuguese owner – and spirit – is nowhere to be glimpsed.
And when I ask for a café – along with “bica,” the customary way Portuguese ask for a strong shot – the Filipina waitress wonders if I mean an “espresso.”
I find solace around the corner at the Livraria Portuguesa (16 R. de São Domingos), one stubbornly surviving outpost of Iberian language and obsessions.
There’s plenty of surrealist poetry here by Pessoa, Portugal’s reigning if reclusive literary light, also the best photo books on Macau, academic works in English creeping in as well.
There’s something about the gentle, modest manner of the bearded young fellow who mans the front counter that’s quintessentially Portuguese.
There’s no arrogance of a “cultural representative” here, more the fateful resignation of living amidst Macau’s strange, waking dream.
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Casa de Portugal
Strolling the far end of Sao Domingos, that main shopping street crowded with sneaker shops, I fatefully glimpse a small signboard beside a baroquely sculpted door frame, announcing the sale within of “Pao Alentajano.”
From my time in Lisbon, I know this to be the hump-backed loaves of ultra-white bread beloved by Portuguese.
Once inside, I realize the bread actually comes from the Portuguese Bakery (Beco do Sal No. 24) near Macau’s port, already closed for the day. But I’ve accidentally entered the customary lair of at least half the Portuguese in town.
Called “Lusitanus” after the Latin name for Portugal, meaning “land of the light, this is the main dining hall of the Casa de Portugal (26 R. de Pedro Nolasco da Silva), set since 2003 in a mini-palace directly across from the Portuguese consulate.
The basic menu here is an exact replica of that found in every small corner tasca (simple inn) back in the home country. This is the real, unadulterated stuff: bifanas (pork steak sandwiches), pregos (the same with beef), puffy croquettes of bacalhau, thin steaks topped with a fried egg.
I choose my Portuguese wife’s customary lunch: breaded fish cutlets (panados) served with tomato rice, and done better than in Lisbon. It goes perfectly with a decent white Portuguese wine (not the inevitable, cheap vinho verde, but a steal at a mere 20 patacas – $2.50.)
They even serve Super Bock, the Portuguese beer and a Portuguese bottled water, Caramulo.
Taking my ease at an iron table painted white above the creaky wooden beams of an unnecessarily high ceiling, I speak with two neighboring migrants from Portugal.
Both architects, it bothers them that their work involves new construction, but not conservation. “But,” bemoans one named Lilia Silva, “it’s so much easier to save buildings than a way of life.”
For the latter, they suggest I head to the black sands of outlying Hac Sa Beach.
“Sun and sand, that’s us,” they confess, and I understand, having seen how Lisbon, a major European capital, empties completely every weekend in summer for an exodus to nearby beaches.
Igreja de San Lazaro
I opt instead to keep wandering back streets, and soon come to a remarkably preserved enclave of three blocks around the Igreja de San Lazaro – St. Lazarus Church.
Surrounded by blocky concrete shop houses, this area featured mosaic streets laid in curvaceous patterns, wall murals and galleries, petite squares shaded by massive flamboyant trees.
Asking for directions, I run into a passionately alive 81-year-old woman, with long light brown locks but Chinese features, who turns out to be a Macanese graduate of Lisbon University.
She explains that the church is named after Lazarus because this used to be the place that tended to lepers – perhaps a reason it was saved from bulldozers?
“The young today, they don’t know anything about the history we went through, our culture,” she bemoans.
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Santa Casa da Misericórdia
At the far upper end of this unique yet little touristed Calcada de San Lazaro oasis, posters announce art shows and a show of balloon-sculptures festooned to beautiful camphor trees lead me into a gorgeous courtyard.
This the elegantly transformed Santa Casa da Misericórdia, a former charitable home for old women with a 400-year-history, now washed in orange paint set off by a brace of black shutters.
The main attraction here is Albergue 1601 (Calçada da Igreja de São Lázaro nº 8), a Portuguese hangout of sorts for Macau’s few literati, with two floors of stone-and-wood atmosphere as well as assorted grandfather clocks and a menu (as well as wall of wine on display) suggesting it is truer to the form than most.
Never mind that one Portuguese I meet warns me to eat only where they put out cozido a la Portuguesa (hint: look for one or two in Taipa Village), a hearty stew.
Across the way, someone with more than passing knowledge of Portugal has outfitted a luminous matchbox of a store called Mercearia (Calçada da Igreja de São Lázaro nº 8) whose symbol is the quintessentially Portuguese sardine.
It’s stocked with retro soaps in art deco wrappers, wooden mascots of Barcelos roosters and sardines, and the real fishy stuff canned with special care. There’s homemade fig jams from the Azores as well.
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Even though I’ve already had my fill of café, I decide to follow the architects’ tip to check out Caravela (Shop 7H, G/F, Edf. Kam Loi, R. do Comandante Mata e Oliveira, Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro) – a popular hangout that’s Portuguese enough to dare call itself a “pastelaria” (from a country where pastry shops and cafes are one and the same).
It takes asking several rickshaw drivers before I find it down a small alley literally in the shadow of the blazing golden towers of the Wynn, MGM and Lisboa Grande resorts built on the backs of baccarat takings.
With a few outdoor tables under an awning, bare concrete walls inside and a glittery bar outfitted with display case of a typical if minimal selection of Portuguese sweets, like queijadas and the real pasteis de nata – not to be confused with the Brit rip-offs marketed everywhere as “egg tarts”) – the Caravela fits exactly my fellow diners’ description of “the typical gathering place along some rural highway of everyone in a small Portuguese town.”
The people here, too, look like the usual dapper yet unsmiling cast of characters in a place where, as Lilia Silva also said, “everyone knows everyone,” nursing with near-sacred devotion their strong coffees – and perhaps their thwarted schemes of wealth in the Orient.
And maybe that’s as Portuguese as anything can get.
John Krich is a veteran travel and food writer, previously with Asian Wall St Journal, known for his “Around the World in a Bad Mood” and “Won Ton Lust” travelogues and PEN/Hemingway awarded novel, “A Totally Free Man” – now based in Lisbon. Twitter: Krichyland