Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Food and Identity in the Macanese Fiction of Henrique de Senna Fernandes

Food and identity in the Macanese Fiction of Henrique de Senna Fernandes*

In Goa, there is a well-known restaurant called Nostalgia, which is famed for its traditional Goan food, including, according to its website, 'bolo sansrival', a dessert that “is practically non-existent in Goa anymore”. This little reference seems to vindicate the restaurant's name, and therefore its mission: to preserve a cuisine, elements of which have been lost, and that is, by implication, under threat of possible disappearance. If Goans had little or no chance to proclaim a culinary identity to the world, such was the speed with which Goa was absorbed into India in 1961, the Macanese further East, had more time, a full twelve years between the signing of the Luso-Chinese accord in 1987, and the handover of the territory to Beijing in 1999. During this period, restaurants advertising Macanese food (as opposed to Portuguese or Chinese) proliferated. Yet, what is Macanese food exactly?

Macanese cuisine reflects, in many ways, the evolution of the Macanese as an ethnic group, or at least a frontier ethnicity occupying the ambivalent world between western and eastern cultures, absorbing influences from Malay, Indian, Chinese and Portuguese roots, but also open to other influences as well. It is no coincidence, for example, that one of the most widely known Macanese dishes, minchi, is derived from the English word mince, and is a dish based on minced, or ground, meat. If there is an origin to Macanese cuisine, then it is commonly assumed to have begun with the adaptation of Portuguese dishes to different ingredients, depending on what was available as a substitute to the original components of a dish, and on the interpretation given to it by the cook or chef. Thus, the Macanese tacho is a kind of local evolution of the Portuguese cozido, while a regional Portuguese dish such as 'sarrabulho' reappears in Macanese cuisine. Given the early historical links between Macau and Malacca, and the presence of Malay women accompanying the first Portuguese settlers in Macau, it is not surprising that some signature dishes of Macau cuisine bear a close resemblance to those produced in Malacca and even in Goa. Lacassá is no other than Malay/Singapore laksa, consumed nowadays in any number of Thai and Asian fusion chains across Europe and North America, while the use of 'balichão', or shrimp paste in a number of Macanese dishes, echoes influences of 'balchan' in Malay cooking. Then there is the ubiquitous piri-piri chicken, often termed in Macau 'galinha africana', and served as part of a lunch deal to day trippers to the territory. If the term luso-tropical could be applied to any dish, 'galinha africana' would no doubt qualify, anecdotally originating in an adaptation of grilled chicken marinaded in pepper sauce, popular among Mozambican soldiers stationed in Macau up until the 1960s, to a Chinese predilection for larger amounts of sauce. Interestingly, 'galinha africana' is still a new kid on the block, and does not have the time-honoured pedigree of some other famous Macanese dishes.

It is probably true to say that when people are placed in a position in which they have to define identity, or what they think is authentic about their identity, they are forced into a degree of self-consciousness that in turn produces confusion and disagreement. One of the oldest restaurants in Macau, Fat Siu Lau, established at the beginning of the twentieth century by a Chinese entrepreneur, happily served Portuguese and local dishes for many decades, as we shall see. Nowadays, its signature dish is roast pigeon, prepared in a secret marinade, and it is advertised as being typically Macanese. But pigeon is also associated with Cantonese cusine, so it is obvious that the delicacy is a highly localised variant of a more generally regional dish, unless, of course, the cooking of pigeon spread from Macau into the adjacent province of Guangdong. At the other, western end of the spectrum, tourists are encouraged to try the typically Macanese soup called 'caldo verde', suggesting that the tourist authorities often cannot distinguish between Portuguese and Macanese culinary traditions. It is important to see Macanese cuisine as being situated on a kind of culinary continuum between Portugal and China, with inputs from traditions in between, that is, from along the old oceanic trading routes developed by the Portuguese. Like any cuisine, it is subject to change and re-invention, as old recipes are lost (often along with the availability of ingredients), and new ones evolve, and like many cuisines associated with an ethnic minority, such as the Macanese, food, the nostalgia for 'hometown' cooking, are woven into the group's cultural expression. In literature, the fiction of Henrique de Senna Fernandes is full of culinary references. They feature as markers of a strongly expressed concern with preserving Macau's unique culture, so much a part of this writer's work, but food references also reflect the author's lament at the passing of an age. Food is therefore woven into the author's memory and his sense of identity, and nowhere is this revealed more clearly than in his most well-known work of fiction, the novel A Trança Feiticeira.

The novel's plot is simple. It is in the detail of everyday life in Macau as it affects the hero and the heroine, that A Trança Feiticeira, shines a torch into the apparent confusion of what it means to be Macanese, above all for an author originating in one of the territory's older mixed families. Adozindo is the only son of a well-to-do Macanese family that is nevertheless not as rich as it once was. He is the product of considerable mixture down the centuries, with Dutch, Portuguese and a hint of Oriental ancestry. His father, Aurélio, hopes that he will carry on the family's import/export firm, but injected with new capital that the wealthy young widow, Lucrécia might bring through marriage to his son. Lucrécia is not the ideal partner envisaged by Adozindo's family given her widow's status, and the fact that she is the daughter of a lowly Portuguese soldier and a local peasant woman, but the capital she has inherited from Santerra, her late husband, suggests that this is a major factor in papering over her past. Adozindo is, however, a playboy, and Lucrécia is only one of his conquests among many others. One of these is the impoverished water seller, Ah Leng, to whose 'trança feiticeira', Adozindo is inexplicably attracted. Ah Leng repudiates the advances of Adozindo, who is regarded as a foreigner, or kwai, in the Chinese quarter of town, but she eventually succumbs to him and the two embark on an affair that eventually sees both of them banished from their respective communities. Much of the novel, set during the 1930s, focusses on their adaptation to each other's culture, their eventual rehabilitation into their communities and Adozindo's final reconciliation with his family. It is a novel that, through Adozindo and Ah Leng evokes the hybrid culture of Macau, in which food is often alluded to. Indeed, the importance of food at certain seminal points in the story, seems to illustrate the shifting identities of both main characters, in particular Adozindo.

In the beginning, Adozindo is the spoilt, relatively privileged gadabout, protected by his indulgent family, secure in a Macanese patriarchy that is as yet still unthreatened by the forces of history gathering on the horizon in the form of the Japanese occupation of large parts of China and the War of the Pacific. His father is a generous entertainer and giver of dinner parties, which we assume broadly consist of dishes that the family consider Portuguese (but are more essentially Macanese). Adozindo's hobbies are those of his class, and consist of fishing trips and picnics around the bay of Macau. He speaks Cantonese, and he does not hesitate to refresh himself at the stalls and bars selling to fu, in the same way that the local Chinese might do. So he has inevitably adopted some of the eating habits of the Chinese, not to mention other cultural mores, without assuming for one moment that he is Chinese. Indeed, the Chinese area of the city, the notorious Cheok Chai Un, is a strange and hostile place to him, much as the so-called Christian city is to Ah Leng initially.

Food plays an important part later as the relationship between Adozindo and Ah Leng develops to the point when he finds himself invited to her hovel. She has prepared a meal of crab cooked in black bean sauce, and a particularly fragrant tea, which serve as conduits to his seduction and the consumation of their physical attraction to one another (it is, of course, no coincidence that crab, in Chinese cuisine, is appreciated for its assumed aphrodisiac qualities). The food and drink are not foreign to Adozindo, and the relationship between them is one of social distance rather than cultural alienation. Not long after this encounter, Aurélio prevails upon his son to accept Lucrécia's invitation to dinner, as a result of which he hopes an announcement of their engagement will be made. And so we see Adozindo at the other end of town, openly visiting the widow's mansion that he has only entered before in clandestine fashion. Here the food is sumptuous, but of course prepared by Lucrécia's chef. As Adozindo embarks on the soup course, he recognizes its quality, but ponders on his preference for Macanese food: 'O jantar era de comida de pão, à europeia. Preferiria comida de arroz, isto é, à macaense' (56). But Lucrécia is out to impress him with an array of 'cristais, talheres', and 'pratos', not to mention fine wines from her late husband's cellar, all of which she would confidently assume, were she to know, would wipe the floor with her humble rival's chopsticks, bowls and tea. The fresh sea bass, 'mergulhado num molho que dava um sabor divinal', followed by 'a carne estufada, uma carne vinda de propósito de Hong Kong, da Dairy Farm', are the types of dishes that mark off the highest echelons of the Macanese elite from the middle and lower social orders, food that would not be out of place in the Governor's Palace. In the event, Adozindo's marriage proposal is never proferred, Lucrécia gets drunk, and her lover withdraws after a closing brandy. The affair in effect ends at that point.

When the spoilt young Adozindo and the resourceful Ah Leng are thrown together in their exile within Macau, they live from hand to mouth while trying to negotiate a future together. Tensions revolve around cultural difference, one of which is food. Adozindo's resentment is directed towards his companion's frugal cuisine based on rice and vegetables, she ultimately yearns for her former existence in the Chinese quarter. There is a temporary separation when she decides to leave him, during which time Adozindo, as if to reassert his 'Portuguese' identity, comforts himself by spending his last few savings on a steak and chips (bife com ovo a cavalo) at none other than Fat Siu Lao: 'Nunca lhe souberam tão bem os ovos estrelados, a clara tostadinha nos bordos, o bife grosso e enorme, o monte de cebolas e batatas. Calculou que estivesse a bater os lábios, mas não se importava. Regou tudo com meia-garrafa de tinto que naquela ocasião suplantava qualquer vinho francês de marca elegante da garrafeira de Santerra' (92). This, therefore, is Adozindo's 'hometown' cooking: middle of the road, popular Portuguese, knocked back with half a bottle of 'vinho de mesa'.

After their reconciliation, Adozindo and Ah Leng settle down to a life of domesticity. This part of the book, which is in part autobiographical, details the cultural adjustments that both make. Adozindo begins to appreciate the qualities of his wife's cooking, tastes in music, and understanding of Cantonese opera, while she adjusts to eating bread, drinking coffee, and going to the cinema. He never eats with chopsticks, while she finds sugar in tea an alien concept. With regard to Portuguese cuisine, the narrator notes, 'ainda não conseguia o apuramento ideal na comida macaense e na portuguesa. Faltavam-lhe os ensinamentos duma cozinheira de mão cheia' (130). The only Macanese people they socialise with at this stage are poorer ones who were 'muito limitados no mister', a revealing comment, for it suggests that for the narrator, proper Macanese food was that prepared and eaten in the houses of the traditional elite – not, it goes without saying, Lucrécia's nouveau riche cuisine, but that of Adozindo's family and their ilk, food associated with the routine Catholic festivities, the social gatherings, the renowned 'chá gordo' that Fernandes, through his main character, identified as binding the community together. It is the Macanese food of the 'casa-grande' rather than the 'senzala'. But it is also clear that certain foods are closely associated with Adozindo's nostalgia, and here the Chinese delicacies of the street vendors mingle with the Macanese dishes of his childhood home: 'Respondia-lhe, da embocadura duma escadaria, o vendilhão de <> e de <>, os bolos de catupá, bolos quentes de arroz gomoso, carne de porco e ovo salgado de pata, embrulhados em folhas de bananeira. Eram sons que enchiam de nostalgia a noite e evocavam a infância e as suas delícias' (119). Later, when thinking back to his parental home, time-honoured Macanese dishes are recalled: 'Moviam-no saudades (…...) dos pratos macaenses que, em casa dos pais, eram uma especialidade: o empadão de massa fina, com a sua chincha de galinha, cogumelos e nacos de porco, a capela, de sabor a queijo e azeitona preta, o sarrabulho de molho apimentado. Dos condimentos que acompanham o arroz, como o missó-cristão, o peixe esmargal, o limão de Timor e o balichão macaense' (135-6).

Adozindo's eventual re-admission into the society of the 'Cidade Cristã', along with his wife, who remains proudly Chinese but has herself entered the hybrid world of the Macanese through baptism and learning to express herself in Portuguese, is partly engineered by Ah Leng herself, who charms the domineering Macanese matriarch, Dona Capitolina, into renting them one of her houses, her devotion to Santo António, the patron of the parish in which Adozindo was brought up, and this reappearance of the young couple and their family in society eventually leads to Adozindo's reconciliation with his father. This is accompanied by a re-integration into the social life of the community, for Adozindo has already been invited by his landlady's son to go on a fishing trip with him, and to join them in a St John's Day picnic to partake in the 'tradicional arroz carregado com porco balichão tamarindo' (161).

What then do food references in the novel tell us about Macanese cuisine and culinary tastes? If Adozindo is typical, then he is at home with Chinese food as he is with Portuguese, although the latter is a comforter and re-statement of an identity at a time when he is in exile from his community. But food, for Fernandes, who occasionally uses his hero to convey his sentiments on this, is intricately linked to the author's overwhelming nostalgia1. Here, it is not always clear what his nostalgia is directed at specifically. Certainly, there is a yearning for the days of his youth, but also there is a lament for the passing of an age, for what he refers to as the 'boa e abundante vida da era patriarcal' (160), when traditional Macanese dishes were eaten in the home. In this sense, Macanese food was about eating in, and not eating out. In this sense too, it is the food of an enclosed circle, a secret food – hence the importance of secret recipes handed down by the women of the house from generation to generation. It is a food you are invited to partake of, and so enter the community, rather than being yours of right. But it is also a food that is threatened by modernity, by growing urbanization, the loss of the rural space that the Macanese elite once ranged over on their hunting and shooting expeditions. Here, Fernandes's nostalgia extends backwards beyond his own lifespan. In the introduction to his collection of stories, Mong Há, he writes: 'Em tempo mais remoto caçavam-se nas várzeas a rola, a narceja, os passarinhos ou pardais do arrozal, os rice-birds que a cozinha do Restaurante Fat Sio Lau tornava saborosíssimos e se comiam assados com oleoso pão torrado em forma triangular e pulverizados por uma pimenta especial. O meu pai falava ainda de almoçaradas de arroz-de-passarinhos amanteigado, um prato hoje inteiramente defunto da gastronomia ou mesa macaenses' (5). Maybe the current speciality of Fat Siu Lau, roast pigeon made to a secret recipe, is the last example of a whole variety of wild fowl dishes that the surrounding countryside once provided, proving that cuisines evolve in accordance with both what is available, and what is marketable. But the loss of a rural hinterland is central to the twin props of identity: memory and nostalgia, and Fernandes's evocation of Macanese food is an expression of this lament for a world that has gone for ever. The balance between town and country has been lost: Macau is no longer surrounded by hunting grounds, but by urban China, the surrounding metropolis of Zhuhai, which dwarfs Macau itself. And yet, ironically, Macanese food is probably more readily available than ever before. Any number of restaurants in modern-day Macau may be able to serve 'carne de porco balichão tamarindo', but it is not the dish of Fernandes's youth. It is served, consumed and paid for in another social and cultural context – it has been reduced to a commodity rather than remaining the expression of a community's stability and cohesion.

*Paper presented at the conference of the American Portuguese Studies Association, Brown University, 7-9 October 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment