Macanese desserts and the Portuguese legacy

A piece I wrote for Travel2Next.

As a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, Macao is also home to a plethora of desserts for those with a sweet tooth. While many visitors go in search of Lord Stow’s Portuguese egg tart or Serradura – both Portuguese desserts – they miss out on traditional authentic Macanese desserts, whose flavour profiles and texture consistencies are more similar to Indonesian and Malay cakes.

Few ingredients feature heavily in Macanese desserts: egg yolks, coconut, almonds, butter, and glutinous rice flour. Historical anecdotes link the heavy use of egg yolks in desserts because the nuns needed egg whites to starch their habits and had to find a use for the yolks. The rich flavours of butter come from Macao’s Portuguese legacy while coconut and glutinous rice flour – ingredients used across Southeast Asia in desserts are a result of the Portuguese trade bringing together produce across their colonies from Melaka to India and Africa.

According to Macanese chef Florita Alves at La Famiglia restaurant in Taipa village, “Aluais probably the most iconic Macanese dessert. Although it is eaten only during Winter, it has a very special flavour. The easiest Macanese dessert to attempt at home is probably the Baji– made with pulu (glutinous) rice, sugar, and grated coconut.”

Alua(baby Jesus’ mattress) is eaten mostly during Christmas time in Macao. It is a dessert made with pulu (glutinous) rice flour, coconut, jagra (brown cane sugar), almonds, pine nuts and a generous amount of butter (or lard). With a similar texture and consistency to Indonesian and Malay Kuihs(cakes). Originally from Goa where the dessert shares the same name, the Goan version is made with wheat flour, chopped almonds and ghee.

It is one of the three Christmas sweet treats that best symbolise the Christian faith in Macao. The other two Coscurao (baby Jesus’ blanket) and Farte(baby Jesus pillow) make up the holy trinity of desserts. You will find the Coscuraoon the dessert menus across the South China Guangdong region, known as “windmills” in Chinese given their shape –  deep-fried dough sheets sprinkled with sugar syrup or molasses. 

Bajiis made of three simple ingredients: glutinous rice, sugar and grated coconut. It is derived from the Malay glutinous rice dessert Wajekand the Macanese’s answer to Europe’s “creamy sweet rice”, or the Portuguese variation of Arroz Doce. Boiled in coconut milk and sugar is added to the cooked rice.

The Bolo Menino meaning “little boy’s cake” is only found in Macao and not in Portugal or Brazil despite its Portuguese name. The sponge cake’s origin is not known. Its key ingredients are butter, coconut, 12 egg yolks, six egg whites, roasted bean flour, and sugar. A key sweet treat at parties, it is said to be created to honour baby Jesus as it is seen mostly during Christmas and other celebratory occasions. The Macanese always celebrated religious Catholic and Christian holidays with a feast.

From top to bottom: Bolo menino, Fish pie (empadas), lower left genetes, lower right christmas fruit cake. Cooked by chef Florita Alves

The Portuguese are said to have brought potatoes to the Far East. A popular Macanese dessert is the Batatada, a potato pudding now made with sweet potatoes or yam (historically made with potatoes) mixed with coconut, butter, and egg yolks. There are many variations to this recipe.

Bebincais a versatile dessert that’s popular on Macanese restaurant menus and found across the rest of Southeast Asia. Of Malay origin and known as Bingkain Malay, the Macanese recipe uses the same recipe featuring coconut and rice flour features in the pudding. On the streets of Manila, you can find Bebingkaor Bebincam – small cakes made of rice flour, sugar, eggs, and coconut with one side of it cooked over the charcoal fire. In Goa, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, Bebincais a multi-layered cake (also known as Kuih Lapis) that is baked in layers – a tedious amount of work.

Genetesare simple buttery cornstarch biscuits – the airy powdery texture melts in your mouth. The Macanese’s genetes are the perfect snack accompaniment to your afternoon coffee. Often confused with each other Bicho Bichomeaning little bugs is pan fried dough (instead of baked in the oven) and dipped in caramelised sugar. You can find also find bicho bichoin the Philippines and it’s said to have been introduced by the Chinese, but is a smaller sweet variant of the youtiao, deep-fried crispy Chinese dough sticks.

Finally, there are the classical Portuguese desserts that have stuck on the menu of restaurants across Portuguese colonies like Serradura “sawdust” pudding popular in Macao and Goa and a fluffy rich chocolate mousse. Serradura means sawdust in Portuguese – its name derived from the texture of crumbled Marie biscuits. The rich dessert is served in a glass cup with alternate layers of whipped cream, condensed milk and crumbled Marie biscuit.

At Litoral restaurant Macao, there’s chocolate mousse, flan, serradura and bebinca.

The repertoire of Macanese desserts is rich and colourful. Whatever tickles your fancy, don’t leave Macao without trying at least one traditional dessert – the rich, robust flavours that carry the tales of Portuguese adventures through their colonies.

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