Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reading into the Tea Leaves

The protocols of yumcha took a moment to decipher, and at one moment a woman probably Chinese American with her Caucasian husband walked over to clarify our confused looks. At the entrance to the dining room there had been a drop station for teapots and dishes in plain view, much like a fast food tray & trash disposal area. Adjacent to that was a semi circular counter where a woman constantly prepared pots of tea. Just to the left of the stairs was a food station where a woman stood arranging trays and carts with various plates and steamer baskets of dim sum, though the choices were limited to half a dozen options. I didn’t see it, but assumed that there was a dumb waiter in addition to the man who ferried a few assorted dishes and collected the spent remainders from the abandoned tables. Several people, servers and runners hustled through the space not talking much, while local customers chattered on, occasionally calling out requests in Cantonese. Behind us was a cashier counter with several abaci, stacks of coins and a butcher block off to the side with a man, the owner/butcher, dismembering chickens between making change. He carefully washed his hands between each activity.

One of the curious oddities of this excursion was the twist on how we were perceived by locals. Unlike most places we had previously been to, this moment in O Mercado Vermelho reeked of inside the identity of Macau, not peering into the fishbowl observations and skewed performed pseudo-realities. Unlike Union Square, this was a mom’s shoppers market. Yes, I did see 2 groups of the ubiquitous Japanese youthful tourists, (who pens their guide books, they are insanely local and micro-focused); but otherwise everyone was getting food for dinner, and possibly a few things for the weeks larder. At this point it was second nature that I, we would receive a thumbs up for my dreads, customarily from post teens and wannabe hipsters. Here, it was the women fishmongers, the dried foods vendors and random laborers who were quick to clammer forward, announce their praise and initiate a collegial hug claiming fame by virtue of a shared digital snapshot; most often with my camera & not their own. A few sported perms thus claiming membership in the crazy for curls club that I must chair in their eyes. More importantly, when we engaged these people, mostly women in our truly broke Cantonese, clipped simple English and/or finally deadending Portuguese, we were proclaimed as Portuguese. I thought long about this after the third incident, and ceased using any Portuguese phrases in an attempt to see if that elicited a different judgement call. But, no; we were confirmed in our nation-status as Portuguese by all. I found this odd, since the people I had spoken to in restaurants and on the street who identified as Portuguese were clearly white, dark straight haired, blue or brown of eye and in no way tawny or colored of skin. Fascinating that difference, skin color, hair texture, dress code provoked this association. I considered looking for things like Bacalhau to see if possibly, the point was that the Portuguese also came here to find their favorite local and imported foods. That would befit the Macanese who were culture crossers, blurring the cultural and language divide in sound an flavor; but the Portuguese were pretty true to form, wanting heritage foods and wines. I never solved this enigmatic riddle, but enjoyed basking in the delight that we brought to the merchants as we watched shoppers select the most vibrant, wiggling fish, carefully observing their favorite butcher cut carefully leaving just enough meat onto the head for soup and leaving the liver and air bladder or maw attached fully inflated like a balloon, with a substantial piece of tail, bone in left for home filleting. Both ends still jumped and wriggled as they were gingerly placed in the plastic bags, then into the baskets and woven carry bags. Apparently, only the non local species were fully filleted, since they came rigor mortis. Similarly, the meat butchers, displayed oxygen rich livers and organs up front, dripping with glistening crimson blood to identify freshness and recent kills. It appeared that not one aspect of any product was wasted. Waiting for a sales, each vendor had a side project, cleaning fish, sorting beans, grading or sizing like products in anticipation of business and as a time suck. Nowhere we walked on the selling floors was there an odor, other than freshness, though a cloud of bleach perfumed the bathrooms, I guess that was an appropriate means of deterring cross contamination and maintaining hygiene standards.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mercado Vermelho/Red Market

Arriving at the remnants of the Cathedral after walking the old quarter was a good punctuation to the morning, a Kodak moment and our first exchange with a Portuguese speaking Macanese. He looked the part of the Euro-Asian, freely borrowing lovely bits from several cultures DNA; South Asian warm skin tones, fine features nearly an aquiline nose, a long drawn face, yet hair and eyes distinctly Cantonese. He recommended one of the parks mentioned in books as a Tai Chi practice and observation spot. We never made it there, just kept walking down hill towards the port and the temple. After our commune with the various gods, A-ma holds court to Buddhist, Confucianism and Daoist shrines while also being the prayer point or patron saint to fishermen, seafarers, gamblers and pawn shops. After lunch I smartly chose the wrong bus, ended up crosstown who knows where, slowly wended our way back home to crash before dinner.
After the aforementioned low profile New Years we took another bus-hike to the northeastern extreme of the city to check out Mercado Vermelho or the Red Market. The market itself is a four story brick building housing the major “wet market”, or wholesale produce, poultry, meat and fish purveyors. Additionally there was a small section of “ dry market”, think preserved, canned or jarred foods. Surrounding the building for maybe a 8 block radius was their variation of Orchard Street. Narrow alley streets had numerous stalls selling most anything, hardware, stockings, clothing, batteries, etc that you could need or wanted to haggle for. I, was overwhelmed by the volume so I didn’t shop but shot images. Michele found a baby outfit for a yet to be born future second niece. In between stalls we found a lovely old Yumcha, or drink tea boite; classic in styling and menu with tasty mostly pork or beef based dim sum for very little MOP or patacas, the money of Macau.

the beach at Colonane, policemen's holiday greetings and a favorite soup noodle toast joint

New Year's, not really Ying Yeung; yum.

New Years was almost a non event this time. I guess it could have gotten much more mileage had we walked into a casino. Not happening. We did venture in along the periphery, yet when money changers had guards on the sidewalk and metal detector screening devices were de rigueur for the low end mass quantity consumption of slots and simple card games, the glitz tarnished in my mind’s eye. After a good dinner among many local family celebrations and a pleasant walk home, I was crashed and needed a nudge to see the year change, for the second time that day. I had called and emailed various homeys at around lunchtime when midnight hit America. At that point the focus of my day and real celebration was walking the streets of Macau
The A-Ma temple, the street markets and deciphering the local definitions of Portuguese, Macanese while nibbling bits of the various Cantonese establishments, Dai Pai Dongs, noodle soup houses, cross cultural Leiteria’s, etc. In addition to the introduction of peanuts, bacalhau and Catholicism the Portuguese also brought dairy products with them back in the 16th century. Some things stuck. I read a historic tract that described elite Macanese families as having a young servant girl to beat eggs all day. During my interview at Riquexó, aka Rickshaw in English with 70 plus Teresina and her 94 year old mom who still comes in to supervise the cooking; this fact was not supported. Or at least not in mom’s memory of her youth. Needless to say the Portuguese love desserts, creamy and custardy among the lot. One of the reasons to stop into these mixed bag Milk or Dairy diners is for the double cooked milk custard. Either white as freshly fallen snow or loaded with yolks and brilliant yellow, these delicate custards make panna cotta seem rubberish. A few spots will add additional flavorings, ginger, coconut or coffee were a few we sucked down. Toast as a concept living between the most basic iteration of the Maillard reaction applied to crustless soft white bread to French Toast sans syrup, and embellishments such as griddled spam, fried eggs, breakfast meats, etc all perched on top of the warm, caramelized manna squeeze in next to macaroni or rice noodles with simmered meats, fish balls and simple sandwiches. Ying Yeung (prounced Ying Yurng) a new favorite beverage, think strong English Breakfast Tea, a pinch of sugar, Evaporated (or Condensed if you prefer) milk and Coffee all in a glass, hot and balanced to reveal each component and meld to a great hybrid hot jolt, washes down the cheap eats. The dining areas are stainless and tile, designed like a subway car not to hang out in. Suits, bohemians, working class and tourists drop in, eat and split like our old pre fab diner devotees. A good sidetrack or pitstop snackspot on the road to find my cuisine.

Monday, January 18, 2010

pasteis de nata, walking the streets, smelling the creole magic

And on the fourth morning we split town.

We had scheduled an early flight out of Beijing to maximize time in Macau. Little did I know that I could or would need several visits to understand that small, quixotic city of dreams, casinos, slums, Portuguese colonial heritage, Macanese cuisine and Patúa language. The first good news was the weather, though overcast the temperature jumped from -10°C to about 16°. The traveling was initially stressful and ultimately circuitous. We arranged a cab with the help of one of the assistant concierges, leaving according to their suggestion. At the airport we were passed between three different attendants each one drawing long faces as they viewed our itinerary, hurriedly talking with their colleagues in hush tones, but not with us. Ultimately, they informed us that in their minds we were late arrivals and sent us to one then a third kiosk for boarding passes. I didn’t understand why the first set of folks couldn’t have printed out the paperwork and send us more quickly on our way, I had forgotten that in reality we were leaving the country and had to go through customs. We were able to board without much difficulty, fly into Hong Kong and transfer through to a hydrofoil for Macau, passing through several manned temperature control checkpoints that attempt to contain contagious diseases with plastic pistol like thermometers that instantaneously measure your temp, before passing customs at the ferry terminal before locating our hotel shuttle van.
This hotel was a dowager with fresh makeup in what appeared to be an older urban district reminiscent of old Times Square Hotels like the Edison. The managers seemed South Asian, though the clerks were clearly Chinese. Half of the elevators were glass rising up towards the sunroof, above the lobby garden and terraced floors. This room was not as smart and modern as the one in the Crown in Beijing. Still functional though its one modern pizzazz was a large control box, or super sized remote control for lighting, media and temperature. Stumbling into the bathroom late at night without the aid of this device was not easy.
We set out to change money and get lunch after quickly unpacking. Using our new concierge as a guide we found a Macanese restaurant, that was better for people watching, than dining. The garlic shrimp were decent, though the bolinhos de bacalhau, or cod fritters were not nearly as rich as a bunch of Chinese fellas that could be Triad wannabees or rejects among the gambling families and travelers. I found the seafood rice, somewhere between fried rice and paella to be competent and satisfying though not memorable. I hoped that this was not an indication of tastes to come. At least every corner had great old overblown neon that was lit day and night.
My research project is grounded in Macau and its distinct culture. As the first point of contact between Europeans and Chinese in the 16th century, parts of the city were designated World Heritage sites. Now home to an ever expanding casino empire, monopolized by Stanley Ho for 40 years and now home to the largest global casino enterprises this city is poised o make Vegas look like a pinball game arcade, cloning the western excess ontop of Chinese glitz and uber-bling. The visually orgasmic result is as abhorrent as it is seductive attracting a largely middle and working class Asian edgy gambler. That mixed with a spate of Japanese Christian tour groups centering their visits on iconic Christian shrines and reliquaries that are symbolic and reverential of prior persecutions for Catholic Japanese that had included crucifixtions and torture. The Westerner’s have been late to the party, with Atelier Joel Robuchon leading the charge, setting up shop in Macau for his ultra French open kitchen concept in Macau before opening in Manhattan. Money talks.

After lunch and comparative exchange rates we walked over to the Leal Senado or Legal Senate and center of the old Portuguese district. All through this area were large bandstands set up for performance and decorated with oversized Technicolor plastic and vinyl Santas, elves and reindeer. We walked through the old quarter, happening upon an old urban mansion, a myriad of food shops with sidewalk salespeople passing out samples of cured meat pastes, fish maws, (air bladders), medicinal and tea shops, video, book and clothing stores almost all with signs in 3 languages; English, Cantonese and Portuguese. Yet, most everyone spoke only Cantonese except for bye bye and hello.
Finally, after exploring the ruins of the cathedral, restored and excavated we found an older 50ish tour guide who purported to speak 7 languages, one being the Portuguese of his youth. That day wound down by getting lost on the bus system, ending up at the A-Ma temple and eating wonderful Macanese food at Littoral, before crashing for a bit and coming out later for another lovely Macanese early dinner at Alorcha.

duck, duck no goose later on.