It wasn't so much confidence that motivated Fat Rice chef Abraham Conlon to write a Macanese cookbook after only two visits to the former Portuguese colony of Macau. It was fear.
Next month Conlon, partner Adrienne Lo, and Hugh Amano, the Logan Square restaurant's opening sous chef, will publish the highly anticipated The Adventures of Fat Rice: Recipes From the Chicago Restaurant Inspired by Macau, based on Conlon's years-long obsession with the elusive food of the little peninsula (and two islands), now in Chinese possession, that's home to a glittering jungle of casinos and a dwindling population of Asians with Portuguese ancestry.
It's this small, aging community of Macanese that Conlon and company connected with to research the book that he feels a responsibility to. "The people that we're involved with are the most knowledgeable," he says. "They are essentially the people who are holding it together, and we give them credit. So just making sure that what we're saying are the right things—that was the fear that pushed us to go, 'I really need to understand this. I really need to dig deep on this because I don't need anybody calling me out.' "
Conlon's concern is not with the egg tarts, pork chop sandwiches, and African chicken that most tourists associate with Macanese cuisine (though there are recipes for the latter two in the book), nor with the Chinese food that predominates, but with the homey, traditional cozinha Macaista, prepared in homes, community centers, and a handful of restaurants. "I'm just trying to cook like grandma," he says. "That's it. That's the whole goal."
The problem with compiling a book based on such recipes is that the relative scarcity of Macanese cookbooks means that they'd never been widely codified. So Conlon's worry that his recipe for diabo, aka devil's curry, might be spot-on for one family and all wrong for another isn't without merit.
Conlon has said previously that his goal with the book, which includes some 86 recipes, was to write the most comprehensive document on Macanese cuisine in print. But he walked that back a bit when I spoke to him, saying The Adventures of Fat Rice still provides more information on the dishes than any other publication. "We really dig deep and try to explore every aspect and possibility, and origins of the dish and ingredients, and how they got there, who and how things developed the way they did," he says. "Kind of from an outsider's perspective." It's broken down into eight chapters covering pickles and preserves, appetizers, rice, noodles, vegetables, fish and seafood, birds, meats, sweets, and building blocks, everything from Fat Rice namesake arroz gordo to the Macanese meat loaf capela; from stir-fried greens with green papaya, mushroom, and mackerel pickle to papa seco, the Portuguese bread rolls used as the vehicle for the pork chop sandwiches on Fat Rice's brunch and lunch menus. Beautiful photography by Dan Goldberg from a third trip shows the cooks that helped the authors on their journey, and illustrations by Sarah Becan spell out step-by-step recipe methods.
Conlon is attuned to the accusations of cultural appropriation that have been aimed at white chefs such as Rick Bayless and Andy Ricker who've had profitable careers cooking the food of cultures they weren't born into. "I do have a little bit of a connection," Conlon says. "Even though I'm only half Portuguese, I'm still Portuguese. And we've been welcomed into the community. As far as they're concerned, we're Macanese. And we can have a conversation regarding those dishes with them, and they've willingly opened up and given these recipes and they're appreciative to have somebody who can, on a mass scale, be able to kind of be an advocate. And I think for us we've become the advocate of the Macanese culture.
"If there was somebody in Macau doing what I'm doing I don't know if I'd be doing it," he continues. "But nobody is."
At least one Macanese scholar who's seen the book has given it a thumbs-up. "They obviously are passionate about what they are doing," Alex Mamak says via e-mail. The Los Angeles-based anthropologist has written about the scarce documentation of Macanese cuisine. "They put everything on the table—history belongs to everyone. I'm glad they took the time to chronicle the journey."
Macanese cuisine is really a hybrid of Portuguese and Chinese food as well as the food of all the lands the Portuguese passed through in the name of conquest and commerce, including Brazil, Mozambique, India, and Malaysia, among others. During their second research trip, Conlon and Lo visited Portuguese settlements in Malacca and Singapore. It cemented the idea in Conlon's mind that Macau was just a beginning. Fat Rice didn't start out as a strictly Macanese restaurant in the first place—the Chinese characters on the front of the restaurant translate to "Portuguese food." But by researching the building blocks of this obscure cuisine, he's realized there's a wider world of food to explore.
"It doesn't end in Macau," he says. "Macau for the Portuguese was the ending point, but it's also our starting point. So now it's like you could have The Adventures of Fat Rice Volume II: Recipes From the Chicago Restaurant Inspired by Malacca. It gives the chance for the dialogue to continue, for the restaurant to grow, the quest for knowledge to continue, and frankly, to keep the customer excited. And keep our staff continually learning and looking at the restaurant as a center for study of global Portuguese cuisine." v