Cheap, lip-smacking peasant snacks represent Macau's greatest allure to foodies like myself. While I thoroughly enjoy its 450 years of colonial culture, its fascinating, gorgeously dilapidating cityscape and its plethora of renowned upscale restaurants, nothing beats rummaging through its labyrinth of back alleys for some authentic local eats.
And the best part? Everything reviewed below is under 30 Patacas (CAD$4.3) per person!
FIRMA U TAC HONG (a.k.a. Lee Hong Kee)
19D Rua da Madeira; 5 minutes walk northwest of Largo do Senado
This tiny shop serves up possibly the smoothest, most velvety Soft Tofu Dessert we've ever tasted anywhere.
Best known locally as Lee Hong Kee, this 60-year-old institution is legendary among locals and visitors alike despite its obscure location in a residential neighbourhood, a few minutes' walk from the city's heart of Largo do Senado. You know it's legit when all the grandmothers down the street come here to buy their daily tofu.
Wobbly chairs, rusted wall-mounted fans and a customized refrigerator that still bore the name of the shop -- the interior decor probably hasn't changed since the 1950's. Nostalgia is just part of its appeal, but the key is ... one can always depend on these old specialty shops to excel at the one product they focus on.
The menu was simple -- Soft Tofu Dessert in small or large portions, and Soy Milk in sweetened or unsweetened flavors. The two of us ordered a large Soft Tofu Dessert to share as well as two cups of Sweetened Soy Milk, all for just 26 Patacas (CAD$3.7).
Look at the incredible softness of the Tofu Dessert as it wrapped around the spoon! The choice of condiments included the standard yellow cane sugar, ginger-infused syrup or the unconventional (and most delicious in my opinion) evaporated milk. I absolutely wouldn't miss this delectable ice-cold treat, especially on a hot summer day on my way to visit the nearby UNESCO World Heritage churches and mansions.
Bill for Two Persons
|Soft Tofu Dessert (Large)||14 Patacas|
|Sweetened Soy Milk x 2||12 Patacas|
|TOTAL||26 Patacas (CAD$3.7)|
That was a 5 minute walk from Largo do Senado on a side street. If you want some cheap and authentic bites even closer to the central square, head for the wet market building of Mercado de Sao Domingos.
COMIDAS CHI KEI and CAFE SENG KEI
3/F, Complexo Municipal do Mercado de Sao Domingos; less than 1 minute's walk northwest of Largo do Senado
This is another half-century-old institution in Central Macau, currently run by the second generation owner after the former street stall was relocated to the third floor of the Municipal Complex, known locally as the Ying Dei Gai Market. Welcome to Comidas Chi Kei.
Regulars should be able to locate the stall blindfolded, guided by not only the spicy aroma but also the distinctive clanging of iron scissors that always proclaims the presence of a Beef Tripe specialist. It is an evocative sound that is slowly becoming extinct in nearby Hong Kong and Guangzhou, but apparently still alive and well in Macau.
For just 45 Patacas (CAD$6.4) we ordered a heaping bowl of assorted Beef Tripe, including the common honeycomb tripe, flat tripe, omasum tripe, beef lungs and slow-cooked beef tendons. With a generous dash of special chili paste on top, a cheap and mouthwatering lunch for two was ready to go.
My favorite was the soft and flavorsome beef pancreas with its spongy, morel-mushroom-like texture to soak up the full complexity and spiciness of the Lo Shui marinade.
Equally well-known among the locals is the next stall to the right, Seng Kei, for its old-fashioned Milk Tea and coffee brewed out of traditional Chinese claypots and filtered with the so-called silk stocking sieves.
Their freshly brewed Milk Tea might not have been the absolute best in flavor, but it was authentic and smooth with just the right amount of evaporated milk and syrup. This light lunch for two cost just 53 Patacas (CAD$7.6), keeping enough change in our pockets and room in our stomachs for our afternoon tea stop.
Bill for Two Persons
|Beef Tripes||45 Patacas|
|Iced Milk Tea||8 Patacas|
|TOTAL||53 Patacas (CAD$7.6)|
Arguably Macau's best known contribution to the culinary world is the blue-collar favorite of Pork Chop Bun, the local equivalent of an Italian Panino con la Porchetta or a Pulled Pork Sandwich from the American Deep South, except that the locals prefer their pork in a meaty slab, sometimes boneless and sometimes with bones in. The best place to sample this local delicacy is to visit a neighborhood Cha Chaan Teng, or Macau-style cafe.
SING LEI CHA CHAAN TENG
94 Rua dos Mercadores; 2 minutes walk northwest of Largo do Senado
Located just a block away from Largo do Senado, little Sing Lei is widely known as one of the best bets for Cha Chaan Teng in Central Macau, especially for their famed Deep-Fried Pork Chop Bun. This neighbourhood hangout is also a great place to people-watch at any hour, as it stays open from 07:30 for breakfast until 22:00 for late dinners, seven days a week.
This isn't your typical Macanese Pork Chop Bun, which usually consists of a large, thin piece of pork chop marinated in a soy or Maggi sauce mixture and served either grilled or pan-fried. Sing Lei's version however is marinated, coated lightly in flour then deep-fried to produce a thicker, juicier pork chop with a golden crispy batter, just the way I personally prefer.
My wife's favorite item in any Cha Chaan Teng is the ubiquitous French Toast which, locally influenced by the Cantonese palate, often comes stuffed with a layer of condensed milk or even Malaysian coconut paste (Kaya) in the middle.
Perhaps the best item to symbolize centuries of Chinese-Western fusion would be the unlikely yet harmonious mixture of cheap coffee with Milk Tea, resulting in the popular breakfast pick-me-upper known as Yuanyang. That's the essence of the Cha Chaan Teng: cheap local ingredients, a marriage of Chinese and Western influences, all culminating in a range of comfort food designed for the working class of Macau. With fantastic choices like these, why would anyone go to McDonald's for breakfast?
Bill for Two Persons
|Deep-Fried Pork Chop Bun||19 Patacas|
|Breakfast Set: French Toast + Yuanyang||28 Patacas|
|TOTAL||47 Patacas (CAD$6.7)|
While Sing Lei was an excellent breakfast spot, we visited a truly unforgettable little joint on our second morning in town, a 5 minute walk south of Sing Lei.
SEI KEE CAFE
Largo de Santo Agostinho; 4 minutes walk uphill to the southwest of Largo do Senado
This place is a living fossil.
This isn't a film set or a reconstruction -- it's one of Macau's last remaining Dai Pai Dong, or streetside cafes, faithfully serving its neighbours at Santo Agostinho for over 50 years with its charcoal-fired stove and old claypots. While the grandsons have opened up two take-out shops elsewhere in town to promote their signature Milk Tea, the antiquated roadside stand is still run by the elderly couple, only from Monday to Friday and only in the morning.
There is no printed menu. Find an empty seat on one of the antique wooden benches, and the owner himself will come and tell you what's currently in store. On this day it was the classic Nai Yau Dor, the local peasant favorite of white toast roasted over a charcoal grill and topped with soft melted butter and sweet condensed milk.
The legendary claypot-brewed Milk Tea was as good as advertised, smooth as velvet and strong with a smoky aftertaste from its secret blend of tea leaves, rumoured to be a perfect balance of Ceylon Black and Yunnan Puer but never substantiated. Unlike most Cha Chaan Teng cafes, Sei Kee always refrigerates their Milk Tea ahead of time instead of serving it on ice which dilutes the flavor as you get to the bottom. Nowadays one could easily pick up a bottle at one of Sei Kee's retail outlets, but it just ain't the same as sipping a cold one on a sweaty day at the 50-year-old Dai Pai Dong ... while the old couple are still healthy and running the show.
Bill for Two Persons
|Charcoal-Roasted Toast with Condensed Milk and Butter||12 Patacas|
|Iced Milk Tea x 2||16 Patacas|
|TOTAL||28 Patacas (CAD$4.0)|
Four centuries of Portuguese rule has bestowed upon Macau a wealth of delectable sweets such as the crumbly Pastel de Nata, which has since become such a nationwide favorite that it can now be found at Chinese KFC outlets from Beijing to Kunming. But there is another local dessert that hasn't yet risen to the same level of prominence until recent years.
Shop AA, G/F, Block 6, Phase 1, Chun Fuk Sun Chun, Rua do Regedor, Taipa; 4 minutes walk west of Rua do Cunha bus stop
Located a short bus ride away from Central Macau in the former island village of Taipa, the playfully named Serrdura specializes on one item only -- the Portuguese favorite of Serradura, better known to the locals as Sawdust Pudding for the appearance of the finely crumbled tea biscuits on top. Purists like ourselves would go for the original flavor with condensed milk, though one could also opt for Matcha, Mango or even the loved-and-feared Durian.
In recent years this frozen treat has become THE signature dessert in Macau's finer Portuguese restaurants where it typically costs upwards of 60 Patacas (CAD$8.6). Here a fraction of the price buys you an authentic Serradura of respectable quality, though one could argue that it may not be as meticulously layered as what you would find at the Michelin-starred establishments in town. But 12 Patacas (CAD$1.7) towards a balanced diet of whipped cream and biscuits for breakfast? I definitely would have no complaints.
Bill for Two Persons
|TOTAL||12 Patacas (CAD$1.7)|
Prior to leaving for Hong Kong we made our obligatory stop for some authentic Macanese "Sau Shun," or snackable souvenirs in the local dialect. Our previous visit saw us hauling several pounds of Pan-Fried Pork Jerky in Abalone Sauce from the little shops lining the steep Rua de Sao Paolo, but this time we opted for some traditional pastries and candies in the Cantonese tradition.
PASTELARIA CHUI HEONG
12 Rua do Gamboa; 4 minutes walk southwest of Largo do Senado
Do not be mistaken.
This is NOT the popular, mass-producing bakery of Choi Heong Yuen, which is only second rate according to my tastebuds. While I do admire the likes of uber-famous Choi Heong Yuen and Koi Kei in their ability to churn out reasonably high quality products out of factories, they are simply no match for small-batch, artisan-operated bakeries in reaching that absolute peak of their traditional craft.
Pictured here was a fresh batch of the most scrumptious Charcoal-Fired Almond Biscuits, embedded with the crunchiness of roasted almond chunks and a layer of pork lard for that melt-in-the-mouth moistness. If you have business associates or friends in Hong Kong whom you want to impress, a package of Almond Biscuits from this one-and-only shop in Macau would surely proclaim you as a connoisseur of Chinese pastry.
Bill for Two Persons
|Chunky Almond Biscuits (20 pieces)||55 Patacas|
|TOTAL||55 Patacas (CAD$8)|
Last but not least I must mention a wonderful street vendor for the absolute best Cantonese Peanut Candy, though the exact location is tricky to describe.
FEI JAI KEI PEANUT CANDY
Street Stall across from Koi Kei Bakery at 72 Rua da Felicidade; 5 minutes walk northwest of Largo do Senado
This tiny, chaotic street stall is well worth your time even if it takes some effort in finding it. If you walk along the former brothel quarter of Rua da Felicidade, this stall is just across from the Koi Kei outlet at No.72. Trust me -- you will thank me for it.
Run by an older gentleman known to regulars as Fei Jai, or Fat Boy, the stall specializes in one and only one product -- the crunchy, syrupy Cantonese Peanut Candy handmade into various forms and flavors. Fat Boy isn't fat anymore these days, though he still packs that enviable bicep from decades of mixing his viscous, hand-pulled syrup and crushed peanuts into his signature sweets.
You get to choose between soft or hard candy in several flavors: original peanut, white sesame, black sesame and coconut shreds. While 30 Patacas (CAD$4.3) for a package of Peanut Candy with Black Sesame wasn't the cheapest, the mouthfeel and flavor of the candy was miles better than the offering at neighboring Koi Kei. Again if you have associates in Hong Kong, a couple packages as souvenir would surely earn you respect as a genuine foodie.
Bill for Two Persons
|Soft Peanut Candy with Black Sesame||30 Patacas|
|Hard Peanut Candy with Black Sesame||30 Patacas|
|TOTAL||60 Patacas (CAD$8.6)|