The sea is never far in Macau. I’m following the waves, brisk-walking to keep pace with the people around me. These waves, however, are black and white mosaic swirls on the pavement. Every few steps, I spot a new marine motif — there are seahorses, lobsters and magnetic compasses. The paths lead to the touristy, tiled Senado Square, which, besides the waves, stands out for its architectural heritage. The hand-placed tiles seem familiar. I realise I’ve seen them before, in photographs of Lisbon’s Rossio Square.
Like Goa, Mozambique, and Brazil, Macau used to be a Portuguese colony. It was only in 1999 that Macau became autonomous. And, much like Hong Kong, the area is now a special administrative region in China. It may not be a city per se, but it definitely feels like one. Getting to this narrow peninsula, which juts out of mainland China along with a set of islands, is easy. There’s visa on arrival and hour-long ferries that run between Hong Kong and Macau through the day. And, in October, a bridge — supposedly the world’s longest sea bridge at 55 km, with underground tunnels — was launched, connecting Hong Kong’s Lantau Island with the gambling edge of the Las Vegas of the East.
It is, however, Macau’s Portuguese heritage that was a bigger draw for me, as a Goan, to hop over — to explore the similarities in the architecture and food. The egg tarts, to start with, are a slight variant of the Portuguese ones. Margaret’s Café e Nata, tucked away in a little alley near Senado Square, is one of the two iconic bakeries selling the pastries here. While Lord Stow’s Bakery is said to be the first, both have their own cult followings; and, there’s a bit of a dramatic history: Margaret is Stow’s ex-wife.
It takes me a second to spot Margaret’s. The visitors mill around, biting into the custard-filled pastries peeping out of paper bags. With ever-replenishing queues, the folks at the café have no time to waste. There are potato puddings and prune cakes, but I stick to what I’m here for. The tarts are hot, straight out of the oven. The buttery pastry greases my fingers and burns my mouth, in my eagerness for a bite. The lightly-charred custard, in the melt-in-your-mouth puff pastry, wobbles, and the sweetness is just right.
Fuelled up, I spend the afternoon walking around Macau’s Unesco-listed Historic Centre. Even though the street signs in Macau are in Cantonese and Portuguese, it doesn’t feel out of place. I wind my way to the Ruins of St Paul’s, a popular landmark in Macau. Said to be the largest church in Asia at one point, only an imposing façade remains on the hill today. I’m struck by its architecture — it’s so much like Se Cathedral in Old Goa.
Time seems to fly as it’s nearly lunchtime and I only have a couple of hours before my ferry leaves for Hong Kong. So, I set off for the small, homely Riquexo, near the harbour, to sample Macanese cuisine — a blend of Portuguese and Chinese flavours. I walk through the residential areas with buildings taller than the ones in the Portuguese-influenced, tourist-flecked centre. For me, it’s akin to the contrast between Goa’s Latin quarter of Fontainhas and other parts of Panjim.
At the restaurant — whose walls are covered with white tiles and blue-toned images of what, I assume, was once Macau — I choose a low-key spot and the day’s set menu: a three-course meal of lotus root soup, minchi (ground minced meat with pieces of fried potato) with steamed rice, and caramel custard. While the soup has distinct Oriental flavours, I’m thrown off guard by the minchi’s startling familiarity. I’ve grown up eating a Goan minced meat preparation — which also comes with little pieces of potato — that is not very different from this minchi. I knew that it was the Portuguese that brought potatoes, chillies, and other ingredients to these parts of the world, but I hadn’t realised the subtle influence on the use of those ingredients.
Walking back to the ferry, I try to wrap my mind around my afternoon. Here I was in Macau, a speck on China’s coast, miles away from home, tucking into flavours I felt so comfortable with. In that moment, cut off from mobile phone network and alone by the sea, the world felt incredibly, deliciously small.