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July 12, 2023

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Far more than an Asian Las Vegas, Macao ranks among world-class gastronomic cities designated by the UNESCO Creative City Network. Centuries before UNESCO’s foundation, however, Macanese cuisine became one of the world’s first “fusion foods,” a fact deeply rooted in the former colony’s unique history as a leading contact zone for imperial China and the West. Originating in local Portuguese and Creole families in the 16th century, Macanese dishes have evolved continuously to fuse Cantonese, Southeast Asian, Indian, African, and even Latin American ingredients and cookeries, with every taste taking the eater back in time to the once global Portuguese empire.

A white plate on a checkered tablecloth with a metal spoon. On the plate are pieces of chicken, covered in chili peppers and an orange sauce, with a side of French fries.

In the former Portuguese colony of Macao, the taste of empire lingers in the cuisine.

When the pandemic locked me in China last year, Macao remained a rare gateway to foreign and exotic things, reminding me of its similar role in history. Wandering into a Macanese restaurant near the maritime museum, I was intrigued by one main course “Galinha à Africana/Grilled African Chicken/非洲辣雞,” the only dish “à Africana” on the whole menu. It was a must-try for a student of African history like me. I was served with a half chicken, roasted with smoky brown skin, doused in a thick sauce with a curry-like aroma, topped with large chili circles and garlic granules, and accompanied by French fries. After the first bite, my mouth filled with vibrant flavors—first the pungency of paprika and turmeric but quickly balanced by the tenderness of peanut butter and coconut milk. Could this dish be a flavorful Macanese impression of Africa dating back to the colonial era?

Later I came to know that this poultry dish is quintessential Macanese cuisine, despite bearing an “African” name. It is served at virtually every restaurant in Macao but almost never elsewhere, not even in neighboring Hong Kong, just an hour’s ferry ride away. Nevertheless, there is no standard recipe for Galinha à Africana, since creations by different chefs vary in appearance and taste despite using similar ingredients. Some simply barbecue the chicken with salt and top it with a textured yellow sauce for a “classic” fiery and dry taste. Others marinate the bird with spices before grilling it and float the chicken on a mellow sauce in which the taste of coconut dominates. Still others make it a stew, with pieces of chicken swimming in a rich curry-like sauce. The chicken could be served whole, as a half, thighs, or just chunks, accompanied by boiled potatoes, fried potatoes, French fries, or even rice. All these versions, however, bear the unified name “Galinha à Africana,” a signature dish for Macanese gastronomy.

There is no standard recipe for Galinha à Africana.

One shared feature of these diverse variants is a hearty sauce blending more than 10 kinds of spices, starring peri-peri pepper for an iconic fiery taste rare in other Macanese dishes. Peri-peri (or piri-piri), the Swahili word for “pepper,” refers to a Portuguese cultivar of the Brazilian malagueta pepper, mainly grown in southern Africa before spreading to the East Indies, an edible reminder of the Columbian Exchange. Also known as the African bird’s eye chili, it is used widely in marinades for its distinctive heat with a sweet and smoky undertone—two to seven-and-a-half times hotter than Tabasco on the Scoville scale. Besides the peri-peri from Africa, nearly every place once under Portuguese rule has lent trademark flavors to the Galinha à Africana sauce: Portugal itself (olive oil and bay leaves), southern China (oyster sauce and five spice powder), Southeast Asia (coconut milk), and India (turmeric powder), together with the global influence of contemporary American cuisine (peanut butter and French fries). For some the peanut in the sauce is also an African character. As a melting pot of global ingredients, this Macanese dish is reminiscent of the early modern Portuguese spice trade and colonization east of the Tordesillas line, which resurrected Sino-African contacts suspended after Zheng He’s voyages in the early 15th century.

Just as with most Macanese dishes, the precise origin of Galinha à Africana is a mystery, but all theories invariably attribute it to Macao’s colonial memory, although each refers to a different period. Some consider it a homemade dish passed down for centuries through local families with African relations, while others believe it to be merely developed in restaurants in the first half of the 20th century. Anecdotes in local culinary circles credit hotel chef Américo Ângelo with its invention, inspired by his travel to Mozambique in the 1940s. It is alleged that the first place to offer the dish was his hotel Pousada de Macau, now long demolished but then located on the waterfront close to the colonial government buildings. As Ângelo died in 1979 without ever fully divulging his recipe, few have been able to recreate his original dish, although many have attempted to.

What makes Galinha à Africana special is how it preserves historical linkages between Macao and Africa.

In another creation story, Portuguese Army officers become the protagonists. Since the 1940s, battalions of African troops began to join the Macao garrison, mostly drafted from Mozambique, Angola, and even Portuguese Guinea. Following the Carnation Revolution of 1974 and the subsequent Sino-Portuguese rapprochement, Portuguese forces in Macao shrank to a token presence for liaison and support purposes. Some officers eventually retired from the service in situ and opened restaurants that served foods related to their overseas experience, including the Galinha à Africana.

As a typical example of colonial gastronomy, Macanese dishes are largely concoctions of Cantonese roots, Portuguese legacy, and Southeast Asian (sometimes Indian) influences in different degrees. What makes Galinha à Africana special is how it preserves historical linkages between Macao and Africa, even if only a general stereotype of the continent as seen through imperial eyes. The “hybridity” (following postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha) of this dish connotes not only the widely discussed hybridization between the colonizer and the colonized (like European and Chinese cultures, in this case) but also little-known interactions of different colonies once under the same flag (e.g., Macao and Portuguese Africa). Macao’s hybridity, formed by its colonial past, has chiefly shaped its intermediary position between China and the Lusophone world since the handover in 1999. And even today, Macao’s connections with Africa remain clear. Of the four consulates-general now in Macao, African countries account for half (Angola and Mozambique), echoing the historical connections that the Galinha à Africana represents.


A white plate on a checkered tablecloth with a metal spoon. On the plate are pieces of chicken, covered in chili peppers and an orange sauce, with a side of French fries.Galinha à Africana, a home version
(From Annabel Jackson’s Taste of Macau)

1 small chicken (approx. 1 kg/2¼ lb)75 g (2½ oz/⅓ cup) butter, softened and divided12 cloves garlic, finely chopped and divided1 teaspoon salt2 bay leaves, crushed4 small chilies, chopped1 can (165 ml/6 fl oz/¾ cup) coconut milk1 teaspoon corn flour (optional)1 tablespoon chicken stock (optional)

  1. Using a sharp knife, cut through the backbone of the chicken lengthways. Score the breastbone lengthways until you can press the chicken flat on a plate.
  2. To prepare the marinade, mix 50 g (2 oz/¼ cup) of butter, eight cloves of chopped garlic, salt, bay leaves and chilies into a paste. Spread paste over the chicken, cover, and leave to marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
  3. To make the basting sauce, combine the remaining butter and chopped garlic. Add the coconut milk and stir well.
  4. Place the chicken in a roasting tin and set under the oven grill for about one hour. Baste regularly with the coconut milk mixture. When ready, the chicken should be blackened on top but still soft underneath.
  5. Before serving, stir sauce thoroughly and, if necessary, thicken with corn flour dissolved in a little chicken stock.

Isaac Boqiao Yan is a PhD student in African history at Peking University. He tweets @IsaacBoqiaoYan.

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