Egg tart odyssey: The quest for real Macanese food
There aren't many people who can claim that their lives have been changed by an egg tart, but chef Raymond Wong -- who heads Macau’s Institute for Tourism Studies Educational Restaurant -- says when he tasted Macau’s famous local Portuguese tarts there was no looking back.
“I left Hong Kong when I was just nine years old,” says Wong, who grew up in San Francisco and studied at the culinary program at San Francisco City College.
“But when I came back here in 2004, I went to Macau with my fiancé and she took me to a famous shop for egg tarts.”
He says the unique taste of the tart was the beginning of a fascination with Macau’s world famous cuisine -- a centuries-old fusion of Asian and Mediterranean cooking.
“It’s just a typical egg tart, just like we have in Hong Kong, but what makes it so different is its caramelization; it’s really sweet and fragrant," he says.
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The crust of the Macau tart is also different; it’s made of puff pastry instead of sweet dough.
“It really got me looking more deeply into Macanese cooking,” says Wong.
Macau's unique culinary legacy
More than any other region in Asia with a comparable colonial history -- for instance the Spanish in the Philippines or the French in Vietnam -- the Portuguese laid down a strong culinary imprint in Macau and the locals are justifiably proud of its history.
There are often long queues at favorites such as Fernando’s, where on some weekends it can be almost impossible to get a table.
The restaurant doesn't take bookings and works strictly on a first-come, first-served basis.
A Lorcha is another Macanese gem serving the territory’s famous African chicken, a Portuguese colonial dish that combines Goan and east African influences, grilling the chicken with chillies and spices.
Local connoisseurs are also beating a path to Wong’s IFT Educational Restaurant -- just a few steps up the road from the Pousada de Mong-Ha hotel -- as his reputation for mining the local culinary culture grows.
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“It’s an endless field of fascination,” he says. “Just hunting down the true recipes -- you feel like a culinary Indiana Jones.”
Wong says this type of culinary archaeology -- many of the recipes in Macau are more than 100 years old and are passed on by word of mouth alone -- has surprising quirks and often has a strange language of its own.
“These recipes are kept within families for generations so it’s really hard to find a true recipe, for instance, for something like tamarind pork -- every family will have their own twist to it.
“Getting recipes out of some of these families, my God it’s like squeezing eggs!
"And if you’re lucky enough to get a recipe they’re not measured in proportions that we normally use like teaspoons or grams.
“They’re often given in dollar amounts; they’ll say you have to put in 20 cents of paprika or 50 cents of this or that. You find out exactly what a dollar bought you back in the day!”
Dishes served at the Institute for Tourism Studies Educational Restaurant are typical of Macanese cooking
The tamarind pork retains a tangy, salty Asian aftertaste that comes from shrimp paste.
The secret to this dish is to let the pressed rice and pork sit overnight.
Slow-cooked lamb shank falls off the bone after being casseroled for more than two hours and sits on a bed of white beans cooked in rosemary.
The dense texture of the olive oil adds a golden color and a fruity flavor.
In the years that Wong has been mining Macau for recipes, he says he’s made his fair share of discoveries.
“One gem, that I would consider such, is a Christmas dessert,” he says, sotto voice as if imparting a trade secret and conveniently forgetting its name.
“I don’t know if I should even bring this one up,” he says, laughing. “But it’s a real pain to make -- you have to stir the sugar a lot. Again, a lot of people here don’t have the exact recipe for that one.”
For paying guests, Wong is sure to recover his memory.
The restaurant trains students in its Culinary Arts Management course, but, as Wong points out, only professionals rather than students prepare and cook the food at the restaurant.
The only downside is that, being an educational restaurant, it's not open on Friday nights or weekends.
Be sure to book early for a weeknight table.
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