When you walk past the entrance to Fat Rice in Chicago, just a few doors down, you’ll find the restaurant’s bakery annex; look up, and you’ll see a sign painted with a bright yellow pastel de nata, the Portuguese egg tart.
“The entire bakery revolves around the pastel de nata alone,” Adrienne Lo, the restaurant’s co-owner, told Goldthread via phone. On their research trips through Macau and Southeast Asia, she and Abraham Conlon, her business partner, came across the pastry, an iconic Portuguese dessert that became a Macanese institution during the region’s colonial years.
“When we ate it, it totally changed our lives. Like, wow,” she said.
Fans of dim sum are likely to be familiar with the tart’s descendent, the dan tat, which became popular in Hong Kong in the 1940s. So the pastel de nata that Fat Rice serves at their bakery, with its bruleed custard filling and unbelievably flaky crust perfected over the course of 500-plus attempts, will probably be familiar to many, but just slightly different than what you’re used to.
Nobody has any idea what the hell [Macanese cuisine] is.
“Nobody has any idea what the hell [Macanese cuisine] is,” Lo said.
That, and where it is, she added. Macau, the most densely populated region of the world, is neighbors with Hong Kong, located on prime real estate on the Pearl River in southern China.
A former colony of Portugal, the country's food is a meld of influences from Europe, south China, and other cultures from Southeast Asia and Latin America, thanks to its position on a busy trading route between East and West.
To that end, the pastry menu is a culmination of Lo and Conlon’s work to synergize the flavors of Macau and its neighbors, a showcase of just what happens to a local palate when bacalhau, ube, and char siu have been considered “local” for four centuries.
Macanese food is a beautiful, harmonious thing that just happened naturally.
“Everything we do is rooted in history and tradition: Macanese food is a beautiful, harmonious thing that just happened naturally.” During our conversation, Lo recounted stories of dining with Macanese who credited their fish dishes to their Japanese ancestors, of grandmothers and mothers who spent hours watching curries simmer on their stoves and crafting their own sausages and bacalhau at home.
Conlon has even gone so far as to consult with culinary historians of the region and get old recipes translated from Portuguese. To an outsider, the flavors and components you’ll find on their menu might not make sense together at first blush.
“It’s stuff like soy sauce, olive oil, tamarind, turmeric, coconut milk, and grilled fish all on a table,” Lo said. But in Macanese cuisine, these ingredients are bedfellows that have had a long time to get to know each other. Fat Rice takes that aesthetic even further by taking advantage of American flavors as well.
Pork floss and melted marshmallows
Tarts aside, you can see that melding reflected in treats like their Ceylon Snickerdoodles, classic American cookies which are dusted with cinnamon sugar and filled with house-made salted egg yolks. Or in their Macau Rice Crisps, a fish sauce caramel-drizzled take on the American rice krispie treat, which uses melted marshmallow to fuse puffed rice, pork floss, and nori together.
To craft the menu at what may be the only Macanese restaurant in North America, Lo and Conlon have dug deep, throwing themselves into the histories and traditions of the region and becoming well-versed in the complicated global relationships that helped shaped the local culture into what it is today.
The people, culture, and food are disappearing.
But even so, the portrait of Macau that Lo and Conlon have captured with Fat Rice is a fleeting one. “Most people only know Macau as a gambling mecca: as East Las Vegas. The people, culture, and food are disappearing,” Lo said.
Since the territory was handed back over to China in 1999, many mixed race Macanese people have left the area for North America. The people from whom Lo and Conlon learned are in a minority, with their style of food remaining behind closed doors, at home.
In fact, the majority of restaurants in Macau serve either Cantonese or European food and cater to tourists, with very few serving any of the homey, comforting cuisine that Fat Rice does so well. This sense of precariousness is what makes their work seem even more urgent, and it helps that the fruits of their labor are incredibly delicious as well.