When the Portuguese struck a deal with China in the early 16th century to clear the waters around Macau of pirates, they set into place an agreement which would lead to Macau ultimately being the first—and last—colonial establishment to sit on the Asian continent. Though the initial agreement with the Chinese was for the ability to anchor their ships in Macau’s protected waters, the Portuguese influence gradually began seeping its way onto land in the forms of churches, forts, and the Portuguese customs brought ashore by traders, sailors and missionaries alike. Now that 450 years of Portuguese occupation has been firmly placed in the history books, the colonial influence of the Portuguese is unavoidably evident for anyone paying a visit to Macau.
The most notable influence is undoubtedly the architecture. While ruins such as St. Paul’s Cathedral dramatically point to the presence that once was, modern city centers such as Senado Square still shimmer in pastel-colored building facades and streets paved in the traditional Portuguese style. Similarly, many street signs in Macau still retain their original Portuguese names, a curious navigational anomaly considering the overwhelming percentage of Cantonese-speaking Chinese who scurry about the streets today.
Then, of course, there’s the food. Classic Portuguese cuisine can be found at restaurants and cafes in all corners of the peninsula, much of which fuses traditional Portuguese recipes with local seafood and dishes with roots in colonial Mozambique. With 450 years to tinker with the fusion of recipes, many of the dishes are now described as classically “Macanese,” a type of cuisine in which recipes were pulled from all corners of the colonial empire to create a genre of food unlike any other in the world. A favorite among travelers are the pastel de nata: egg tarts which comprise a Macanese dish nearly synonymous with a visit to Coloane Island.
Though the Portuguese ceased to be a political factor after the 1999 handover, the customs, cuisine and culture they brought ashore will forever engrain themselves in the lives of the people who inhabit this quirky little corner of southern China.