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In 2015, chef Abraham Conlon and his business partner, Adrienne Lo, of Chicago’s Fat Rice were preparing to leave on a research trip to Macau. They were also, as Conlon recalls, “a bit desperate.”
The two were returning to eat, cook and dive deeper into a cuisine they had fallen in love with four years earlier. But Macanese cuisine—a complex mix of dishes that evolved as Portuguese traders worked their way through Asia and settled in Macau nearly 500 years ago—is largely served in the home. That left Conlon searching frantically for friendly strangers to welcome the pair into their kitchens to share their recipes and stories.
After searching the web, he found Juliana Loh, a blogger and food lover from Singapore who moved to Macau, where her husband runs two-Michelin-star restaurant The Tasting Room. A series of introductions and connections followed, the kind that happen only when someone shares an interest and passion in a cuisine few others even know exists.
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It was through this game of international telephone that Conlon and Lo met Marina Senna Fernandes, a talented home cook and member of a prominent Macanese family. The group met up in central Macau, where Fernandes shuttled them around her local butcher and food shops to stock up for a day of cooking.
Fernandes is the type of cook who “brings people together over great food,” Conlon remarks. She invited family and friends over and prepared a feast of Macanese fare including galinha chau-chau parrida (chicken cooked with ginger and turmeric), tcha-tcha (a porridge made with coconut milk and legumes) and the kicker: a golden haloed capela (see the recipe), a rich Macanese meat loaf topped with cheese and bacon, and laced with olives and pine nuts.
It’s a classic of the cuisine "and the king of all meat loaf," Conlon says, nodding to the name of the dish—Bundt-like in shape—whose root in Portuguese translates to “crown” if you go back far enough. “There's a joke that the food [of Macau] is not pretty on the eye,” Conlon explains. “The beauty is that you can taste the melding of time and culture in one dish.”
That beauty is on display throughout Conlon and Lo’s new cookbook, The Adventures of Fat Rice, in which recipes are part instruction and part history lesson, helping unwrap Macau’s pasts and exposing readers to a cuisine that is virtually unknown in the West and even hard to find in the region itself. There are recipes for chili clams; porco bafassa, smothered and roasted turmeric pork shoulder; and serradura, or “sawdust” pudding made with pastry cream, guava and cookie crumbs.
The book also doubles as a sort of graphic novel peppered with comic book-like illustrations of various dishes, like a fried asparagus recipe featuring asparagus stems reimagined as aliens in an invasion scene.
During their time in Macau, Conlon and Lo absorbed what they could in the form of recipes and inspiration from Fernandes, and many others, to bring back home. All of the dishes in the cookbook have made the rounds on the menu at Fat Rice, except for the capela. It’s reserved for the restaurant’s family meal, a royal feast in its own sense that sustains the kitchen culture through the evening’s dinner rush.
For those cooking it at home, Conlon says, “You’ll never need to try another meatloaf recipe again, because with capela you’ll be crowned the king.”
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