There she was – the Godmother.
Of Macanese cuisine, that is. Only, we didn’t know it.
Hair dyed light brown and permed into a stylish pouf on her head, a pair of enormous glasses perched on her nose, and eyes roving over a Portuguese-language newspaper. Pearl jewelry hung from her neck.
Laminated photos of Macau peppered the walls – all of them in varying shades of ochre and blue, showcasing mammoth steamboats and 19th century Chinese costume. An Chinese ad for Cola-Cola Chinese featured prominently in the center – a blonde well-coiffed pinup girl accompanied by a tiny white dog.
“Is Sonia around?” Giovanni asked the lovely lady server with the amount of confidence that I could never have in my entire life, in that way that people always look and sound when they look at you smugly and say, “I know a guy there.” You know, like people do when they go to the same local joint for decades. Like Arthur Read and the Sugar Bowl. Or Friends and Central Perk. Or Lorelai and Rory and Luke’s. Or – ok, you now all know when I was born.
G nodded towards the slip of a woman sitting at the table next to ours – the one with the mug full of pens, notebooks, obliviously reading the newspaper, and whispered “That’s probably the mother.”
Only we’d never met Sonia, and I’d only pulled up her name in a National Geographic article about Macanese food a moment earlier. “You don’t know Sonia!” I imagined one of those smiling servers would say pointing a finger accusingly at us; or worse, Sonia herself walking in and squinting: “Do I know you?”
“Sonia comes after 6:00,” the server said.
G looked at me. Then at the woman. “They’re looking for Sonia,” the lady server said. “Don’t forget to take your medicine.”
“Sonia comes in the afternoon,” the woman who I was slowly beginning to realize was Aida de Jesus said.
“Your food is really good,” I croaked.
“It’s delicious. It’s sooo good,” I said, too enthusiastically, and now horribly aware of my own Americanness.
Aida smiled and said, “I’m Sonia’s mother.” She cracked a smile. “I’m one hundred and three.”
G had had some stomach issues for the past couple of days, but I’d already decided that we would eschew popular Portuguese dishes feijoada and bacalhau for minchee and African chicken, choosing plates that were negligibly more digestible for the system but perhaps more digestible for the mind (read: I would rather have subjected a queasy stomach to pork and chicken than a thick stew and dried salted cod).
I hadn’t heard of minchee (免治) before I’d done my research for dishes to eat in Macau – but one thing that struck me was the easy comfort of such a dish. In recipes for minchee that I’d seen online, repeat ingredients are minced beef and/or pork, soy sauce in their various light and dark forms, Worcestershire sauce, a sweetener like sugar, onions, potatoes, and optionally – eggs. A bewilderingly and charmingly simple list of ingredients, all of which are uncomplicated and available in most kitchens, and certainly even more so if you keep a Chinese-leaning pantry.
At Riquexo, minchee is served dry: the familiar colors and textures of soy and minced meat, with enough black pepper and salt to add a beautifully sharp textural accompaniment to the plates of white rice served alongside the meal. The one aspect rather pleasantly surprising was that the minchee was studded with nibs of fried potato – a comparative rarity in Hong Kong cuisine, and such nuggets of joy in a dish that represents Macanese home cooking at its homiest. I spooned minced pork and rice into my mouth with an enthusiasm previously only reserved for scrambled eggs and rice or hot dogs and rice (hey, I was a child of simple pleasures).
African chicken (非洲鸡), on the other hand, is pioneer of fusion food. The history of it and its birth on the shores of Macau stretch to when Macau’s garrison from as early as the 16th century – with ties to both Mozambique and Angola. The earliest versions likely make reference to the easily recognizable piri-piri chicken, although Galinha a Africana, as its name in Portuguese is, is now a veritable total mix of everything delicious in this world: piri-piri spice, rich coconut curry, peanuts. Riquexo’s version is an intimidatingly-sized chicken cutlet, served skin on, and a ladle of curry on top – shoestring fries on the side, which pleased my inner child to no end. Curries are themselves an entire genre of food – but the one here was made sharply and pleasantly piquant by fresh sliced chilis, rounding itself out with n deep coconut flavor. Despite my inner voice (ha, that’s wishful thinking) pleading with me to abandon the monstrosity of a cutlet – or at least to eat less of the rice, please , I watched my fork move of its own volition to spear determinedly at the chicken pieces I’d neatly cut and bring it to my mouth. No chopsticks in this joint. No, my stomach screamed. Nooooo more. Inevitably, it was at this point when I remembered I once tried to be as vegan as possible, and resolutely pushed that chapter of my life out of my head.
Shortly thereafter, a lady with silver-white hair sat in the table adjacent to Aida’s, and began a conversation with her – in Portuguese.! Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, the conversation went. Then…
“How do you know each other?”
G, taking one for the team, as always.
The lady took another bite of her food. “We grew up on the same street – sometimes we still go back to Portugal!”
Incredible Superwoman Matriarch Aida shook her head. I, cowering in awe, was too at loss for words to mumble something other than, “You’re famous! You’re in the newspapers!” I mean, I’d be reasonable happy if I were in Nat Geo or Vice – which have gloriously and prominently featured Aida, her knowledge, and her prowess at food much more adeptly than I have.
And true to report, Aida remains the soul Riquexo, which, we found, was the beating heart of local Macanese home food. Aida may be one hundred and three – but her age is a testament to the vitality of the culture that she’s preserved with her family during all of her adult life. You may not see a veritable Iron Chef when you take in her pearl ring and her thick glasses – but Aida, Sonia, and their team are a force to be reckoned with. Until Riquexo is no longer, catch this living legend of Macanese food at one of the most comfortable and wonderfully unassuming restaurants of Macau.
And, on recipes: “No recipes. The whole family cooks – this was before helpers, you know? I don’t cook anymore, but Macau has everything: Portuguese. Chinese. Macanese.” She smiled again. “I like everything.”