ROCK superstar Mick Jagger singled out Macau’s famed egg tarts when the Rolling Stones performed at the Cotai Arena. Though a lighthearted comment to the audience between songs, the savoury treats certainly struck a chord with the legendary frontman.
However much Jagger may have admired the baked little wonders back in 2014, Macau’s food and wine heritage has more recently come in for high enough praise to merit recognition from Unesco, the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation.
Macau, a special automous region of China, has also designated 2018 the Year of Gastronomy with a host of events highlighting the former Portuguese enclave’s culinary heritage.
This heritage, along with gastronomy tourism, was a topic during a panel discussion at the 47th Skal Asian Area Congress, a gathering of regional tourism leaders at Macau Fisherman’s Wharf Convention and Exhibition Centre, June 22-26.
Macau’s unique culinary heritage stems from a combined Chinese and Portuguese that evolved into Macanese dishes. As well as providing popular staples, they also symbolise the strong links between China and Portuguese speaking regions across the world.
Macanese food – in addition to Macau’s Portuguese buildings in the town’s old quarter – has placed it in Unesco’s Cultural Cities Network. It is the third Chinese city to be accepted into the fold of more than 180 cities from 72 countries committed to preserving aspects of local culture, including unique cuisines. The Sichuan capital Chengdu and Shunde, in Guangdong, are the other Chinese cities in the Unesco network.
Chef Perry Yuen, a leading figure in the Macau Culinary Association and the director of F&B with City of Dreams Macau, told the Skal Asia conference how Macanese cuisine dates back 450 years to when the first Portuguese sailors and traders arrived in southern China.
Yuen, who hosted food shows on cable TV in his native Hong Kong and plied his trade as a chef in five-star hotels, was joined on stage by Fang Li, representing Shunde, and Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, Tourism Authority of Thailand’s deputy governor for policy and planning in a panel moderated by Cheng Wai Teng, deputy director of Macao Government Tourism Office.
“Long voyages meant the first Portuguese traders and sailors developed methods to preserve food and wine. It could take more than a year to sail to Asia,” Yuen said.
“The routes they took went around India and Africa until landing in Macau. They collected spices [and ingredients] along the way… picking up influences from Chinese cooking which became Macanese cuisine.”
Early Portuguese settlers felt content enough to marry and work with native peoples across Asia without the prejudices held by later colonisers. Yuen said that in Macau this gave rise to a unique culture and the first known forms of fusion cuisine with dishes influenced by Chinese and Portuguese cooking styles that used European and Indian ingredients.
Shunde, which is one of Macau’s neighbouring regions in the Pearl Delta region, is also a City of Gastronomy thanks to its natural produce and for it being considered in China as the home of Cantonese cuisine, with a tradition of supplying chefs to the world’s Chinatowns.
Such is Shunde’s strength as a City of Gastronomy that food festivals it holds over five days attract more than a million visitors, while a three-part documentary series made about the area’s culinary heritage registered 100 million online views.
Fang Li, a main coordinator in Shunde for the Unesco Creative Cities Network, and a lecturer in the hotel and tourism management department at Shunde Polytechnic, said the city was today equally famed for being a huge manufacturing base for household appliances. Yet food culture in the region held an enduring appeal alongside dragon boating, Cantonese opera and kung fu legend Bruce Lee’s ancestral home among the visitor attractions.
In Thailand, Chiang Mai and Phuket are the two cities in the Unesco gastronomy network, while Bangkok is making a mark in the Michelin guide from its traditional Thai eateries through to haute cuisine and even streetfood.
Though Thai food is adored worldwide, tourism authorities have until recently struggled to build a sustainable visitor-economy model for the kingdom despite an impressive annual growth in tourist numbers. In a meeting with the International Monetary Fund, IMF officials pointed out that any other country with such “phenomenal double-digit growth” also saw a rise in domestic consumption figures, “but not in Thailand, where domestic consumption was stagnant”.
“It tells you that we are not distributing tourism well enough – we want tourism to be as sustainable power that drives the economy forward,” said Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, the Tourism Authority of Thailand senior official.
“Putting Thai food at the forefront and in line with sustainable development goals is what we do.
“In Thailand, we’re trying to position ourselves as one of the main destinations when you think of good places to eat. But we want to go beyond that and to a sustainable social economy to create a better life for our people and we do that by promoting and developing tourism.”