MACAU, Macau - Macau is globally famous as a haven for gambling. Luckily, getting great food there is no gamble.
The Chinese region overtook Las Vegas in terms of gaming revenues almost a decade ago, cashing in on growing wealth in China and other parts of Asia. But on a recent visit, it was the food that impressed me. After a stroll through its Venetian resort, I discovered a cuisine that's a blend of the fragrant spices of Asia and deep earthy flavours of Africa, all crossed with a Portuguese flair.
Macau was a Portuguese enclave for four-and-a-half centuries and the last European colony in Asia in late 1999 when it was handed over to China. Along with former British colony Hong Kong, Macau is one of China's two Special Administrative Regions that retain some elements of their former autonomy.
Tucked away from the bustle of Macau's colonial downtown is Henri's Galley, a restaurant famed for offering some of the territory's most succulent dishes in a modern Western setting. The menu is like a trip to Portugal, where bacalao (cod) rules every meal. Henri's menu offers bacalao in a variety of ways. But the dish that gave the restaurant its reputation is galinha a Africana — African chicken.
But before plunging into that, I started with caldo verde, a light yet warming kale and potato soup that was especially welcome on a cold and rainy afternoon.
Soon, the African chicken arrived at my table and that's when the fireworks in my mouth began. The restaurant helpfully puts the list of ingredients of the dish on its placemats, the same list that was featured when Gourmet magazine offered the restaurant's signature dish to its readers in the early '90s. I found it helped my appreciation of the dish to be able to dissect the flavours.
My plate had half a chicken on the bone — a breast and a thigh — in addition to a firm boiled potato covered in the same luscious sauce as the meat. And it is that sauce that's the real marvel of this dish. It combines garlic, shallots, sweet paprika, grated fresh coconut, peanut butter, chicken broth, pitted olives, bay leaves and oil. If this array of flavours doesn't bring your taste buds to their knees, I don't know what will.
The slightly rough texture of the grated coconut contrasts with the smoothness of the peanut butter and the shallots. The bay leaves evoke zesty Turkish dishes and the olives bring the Mediterranean close to this restaurant on the South China Sea. And if that mixture isn't enough, you will be happy to learn that the chicken itself is marinated separately before cooking in rosemary, five-spice powder and paprika. The end result is a dish that faintly reminded me of spicy Ethiopian stews, but left the image of Portugal and its African colonies in my mind long after the meal was over.
For dessert, I couldn't pass up the mango pudding, which was every bit as flavourful as the chicken, yet with basically one main ingredient.
After this hearty meal, I strolled back along the scenic route to the downtown where I managed to still find room for the almond cakes at Koi Kei, a bakery that's an institution in Macau. The round biscuits are branded with a symmetric Chinese symbol. They are quite addictive. And just as I guessed from their taste, they are made with lard.
If You Go...
HENRI'S GALLEY: 4 G-H. Avenida Da Republica R/C, Macau, 853-556-251. http://www.henrisgalley.com.mo/main_en.htm
KOI KEI: Many outlets in Macau, including several in the downtown area: http://www.koikei.com
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