Just Eat the Soup: Pushing My Culinary Boundaries in Macao

I had some of the best and most challenging meals of my life

Illustration of writer sitting a table filled with food with the Macao skyline behind her

TripSavvy / Alison Czinkota

We’re dedicating our September features to food and drink. One of our favorite parts of travel is the joy of trying a new cocktail, snagging a reservation at a great restaurant, or supporting a local wine region. Now, to celebrate the flavors that teach us about the world, we put together a collection of tasty features, including chefs’ top tips for eating well on the roadhow to choose an ethical food tour, the wonders of ancient indigenous cooking traditions, and a chat with Hollywood taco impresario Danny Trejo.

You know the episode of “Portlandia” where Carrie Bradstein and Fred Armisen grill their waiter about the life of the chickens served there? I lived it on a trip to Macao—except the food in question was shark fin, and the role of the waiter was filled by an apathetic tour guide.

Shark fin soup, a highly controversial dish said to have origins in China’s Song Dynasty, is considered a delicacy, with a high collagen content that’s “good for ladies,” as our guide Ken explained. However, this soup comes at a high cost—literally and ethically. According to Humane Society International, 72 million sharks are killed each year for shark fin soup, and a single bowl can cost as much as $100.

“Where did this come from?” “Is it sustainably farmed?” “Was the shark killed before harvesting the fin?” the group chattered—all good questions but aimed at the wrong person. “Yes, of course, it’s sustainably harvested,” Ken said half-heartedly.

Despite the legitimate ethical concerns surrounding the dish, I was still left feeling uneasy. The only reason that bowl of soup was on our table was that certain members of the group would not stop talking about shark fins—and it didn’t help that this was the third time in two days that I heard these kinds of complaints, always at a business selling no-frills Chinese food, regardless of the ethics of the dish.

Rua da Felicidade or The Street of Happiness, with red doors and windows on all the buildings
Ruchaneewan Togran / Getty Images

Before my trip, the only thing I knew about Macao was its gambling industry. However, I soon discovered that it is also a UNESCO City of Gastronomy with a whopping 17 Michelin starred restaurants with a history, unlike any destination I’ve visited before.

Now a Chinese Special Administrative Region, Macao was under Portuguese colonial rule for more than four centuries, only being “handed over” back to China in 1999. The result is a 12.7-square-mile peninsula and island chain with streets and buildings that resemble a Portuguese city, intricate casino resorts, and design hotels that feel like Vegas and closely clustered apartment buildings in a category of their own. 

Macao’s cuisine is similarly segmented: Portuguese restaurants abound, boasting “authentic” meals from kitchens helmed by Portuguese chefs. If you’re in the mood for Cantonese, you’ll be easily fed with Michelin-starred dim sum spots or low-key eateries. Then you have Macanese food, a blend of cooking styles and ingredients from Europe, Africa, and Asia, that creates something entirely new and wholly unique to Macao.

My trip, alongside a group of other journalists, was meant to highlight the area’s incredible cuisine, with between-meal breaks used to show off Macao's architecture, culture, and history. During those four days, I had some of the best meals of my life and tested my culinary boundaries in ways I never imagined.

But, despite the overall enthusiasm of the group, there was a heavy tension building at some of our meals. Whenever we went to a small restaurant that sold unpretentious Chinese fare, I noticed overarching discussions about how weird some of these foods were. It wasn’t a reaction I’d expect from a group of people who travel the world for a living. Our trip was explicitly about food and uncovering Macao's incredible culinary scene, yet we had professional writers repeating phrases that felt dangerously close to xenophobia. “I can't believe you would eat that!” “But why would anyone want to eat this?” “Isn’t this exceptionally cruel?”

Table filled with a variety of drink and partially eaten Chinese dishes

Sherri Gardner

The first murmurings came halfway through the trip. It was a hot day in late September, and it was approaching lunchtime. We were in Coloane, a quieter part of Macao, to see the Panda Pavilion's star residents and sample some world-famous egg tarts. The pandas were great, if a bit sad-looking, and I was starving.

The restaurant was billed as “Macao local cuisine,” which, once you realize that Macao local cuisine could be any combination of Portuguese, Cantonese, and Macanese fare, didn’t mean much. Called Nga Tim Café, they offered two menus, one for Portuguese dishes and one for Cantonese dishes. Ken ordered for the group, and while we waited for the food, he offhandedly mentioned that he ate field mice, specifically the feet. His wry smile gave away the joke, but my travel companions were still horrified at the idea.

Like every other meal, we had more food than seemed possible for all of us to eat. There was pork with skin fried so crisp it shattered, stir-fried beef on a bed of crispy noodles, a plate of sauteed clams, grilled langoustines, pieces of fried, white fish with tiny, tiny bones meant to be swallowed, and a ceramic dish of what could best be described as a worm casserole garnished with fresh cilantro. That last dish sat on the table, untouched, beckoning to us like a challenge.

When Ken finally asked the group if anyone wanted to try the worms, I volunteered. (“You can’t say you don’t like something if you don’t try it,” my parents always said.) The taste was unremarkable, and if I closed my eyes while chewing, the most prominent flavor was egg, which I do not like unless the eggs are fried, soft boiled, or poached. I went back for at least another bite, but every time I looked at the ceramic bowl and saw the shape of the worms, my stomach did a little flip. I think I was the only journalist who sampled the mysterious dish.

"You can’t say you don’t like something if you don’t try it"

On our last full day in Macao, we visited the three-story Red Market. To say I was excited is an understatement. I love grocery stores, and I make a point to visit one in every destination I visit. I wanted to know more about how Macanese people shopped and ate in their daily lives. We spent an hour exploring the market with its neat bundles of produce. But it was at the lower level’s butchery stalls where I was most fascinated. Here, you could buy an assortment of organs or a whole pig's head if you pleased. There were rows and rows of fresh fish waiting to be cooked and even a large tray of the fat red worms I ate the day before. While I leaned into all of this grocery goodness, a few members of the group pulled back. One woman didn’t even enter the market (the idea of raw or undercooked food made her feel queasy), and there was a vague sense of relief when we had to leave for our next meal.

Our final lunch in Macao was a veritable feast of Chinese food. There was sesame pudding plated to look like yin and yang, a pork chop sandwich, braised pigs' feet, bowls of noodle soup, stir-fried noodles, multiple types of fried chicken, and the stars of our conversation: shark fin soup and bird's nest pudding.

After days of pointing out the dried fins or boxes of nests, it was time for us to give the delicacies a try. The pudding went over well enough—it was tasty, and the bird’s nest was added almost as a garnish. The nest was all texture with no taste, resembling crumbling gelatin. The soup, however, sat untouched despite Ken’s assurance that no sharks were tortured for the dish. Eventually, he asked if anyone wanted to try, and again, I volunteered. I wouldn’t have ordered it on my own, but it was already on the table, and when else would I have the opportunity? 

And honestly, after all that fanfare, I wouldn’t say I liked the soup at all—but if I never tried, I’d never know.

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  1. Humane Society International. "Shark Finning."