mmmmacau: lai kei, wong chi kei and tai lee loi kei
The Chinese really like their kei’s. It’s almost like the Cantonese version of the Japanese attachment of ‘-san’, except there’s a greater sense of closeness and familiarity when tacking ‘kei’ onto the end of something. It’s casual and homely.
Like snippets of a daydream, my recollections of my trip to Macau this August are hazy. But one look at the photos I took there and like some Pavlovian puppy, I start to salivate. How embarassing. Here are three of the best places I went to (though I only went to four, Solmar wasn’t really worth mentioning even though it claims to be the best, and the oldest, Portuguese restaurant in Macau).
Lai Kei Ice Cream
The thing about Macau is, it’s bloody difficult to navigate if you are like me – that is, if you are directionally challenged, can’t read much Chinese and can’t differentiate between one Portuguese street name after the other. Finding great places to eat in this unique little SAR (special administrative region, like Hong Kong) was soon left up to serendipity.
I was looking so hard for Lai Kei, and just when we gave up and started wandering around aimlessly outside of the tourist hubs, we came across it. A dash under the half-closed shutter gates and the parting of 4MOP (Macanese pataca) later, we were happily gulping down our hard-earned treats outside the shop (after the obligatory photo, of course). We’d just caught it minutes before closing.
It was well worth it. You can see that tradition still runs rife in this small ice cream shop/cafe. Lai Kei hasn’t changed their packaging for decades – if you’ve been reading my blog before, you’ll know that I’m a sucker for nostalgic things, and Lai Kei’s waxed paper wrapping was at once charming and a reminder of a simpler past.
I don’t know how many people are familiar with red bean ices, but they’re an amazing antidote to the heat-induced fatigue that inevitably comes with being lost in a hot foreign land. Clean flavours – there isn’t an excess of sugar and I’m almost tempted to say that it’s all natural by the way it tasted, but you can never be too sure these days. Refreshing, faintly sweet red bean with a creamy and slightly grainy texture that slid down the throat in the most peculiar way. It was gone within minutes. Sometimes getting lost can be pretty great, wouldn’t you say?
Lai Kei Ice Cream
No. 12, Av. do Conselheiro Ferreira de Almeida
2. The Fat Pang hangout
Feeling like it was a bit of a cop-out, seeing as we were in tourist central (Senado Square), we ducked out from the simmering heat of the city and into the cool, dark wooden interiors of Wong Chi Kei (Noodle Specialists). We were ushered to the mezzanine and seated (though I didn’ t know at first) under a candid photograph of Chris Patten (‘Fat Pang’), the last British governor of Hong Kong and whom was much loved by all, enjoying a hot bowl of crab congee. Which we ordered, along with another Wong Chi Kei specialty – egg noodles with dried shrimp roe scattered on top, which came along with an amazingly aromatic broth.
I have to admit I was baffled by the soup – was I meant to dip the noodles in it and eat it a la soba? Or drizzle spoonfuls of it over the dry egg noodles, to liven it up or something? In the end it was a mixture of both and I regret doing it – as delicious as the soup was, it stripped my noodles of all the precious, tiny shrimp roe as I picked them out of the bowl of broth. I ended up downing the bowl of soup just to get to the little buggers, and it wasn’t the same. Alas.
For one reason or another (please, enlighten me) water crab congee (水蟹粥) is extremely popular in Macau – though there are branches of Wong Chi Kei in Hong Kong, the dish is rarely ever seen on the menu; nor is it common in many of Hong Kong’s other congee shops.
I love crab, and I love congee – so it was the perfect marriage and oh boy was it satisfying. Silky and fresh, yet complex. There was half a crab in the bowl, chopped up and waiting to be enjoyed slowly. And now I see how this particular crab got its name – the flesh was so succulent and juicy – the sweet crab flavour running out of the claw when I cracked it open. Quite simply, unforgettable.
We were sure Mr. Patten shared our sentiments.
Wong Chi Kei 黃枝記粥麵
Travessa de Cinco de Outubro 51, R/C, Macau
+853 2892 2271
Basically in Senado Square
3. The Lemming magnet
I have a confession to make. When I announced my trip to Macau that month on this blog and wrote how I was ‘totally craving a pork chop bun from Tai Lee Loi Kei’, I had never actually had this ubiquitous snack from this particular establishment. No, my shocked readers, I had only heard of Loi Kee through word of mouth and the drool-inducing pictures that appeared in my guide books, and it was the first thing on my hit-list. It was the ONE thing I had to have no matter what.
The second day, and an averted crisis later (I had unknowingly asked the taxi driver to take us to the other Loi Kee, on the other side of the frikken island, but he knew better and obligingly transported us, effectively, into oblivion), I finally got my grubby little hands on one.
And this is where the title comes in my friends. When all you’ve heard about the place are the endless reams of praise and the stories of the kindly lady selling all her made-with-love pork chop buns within half an hour of opening (every day from 3:00pm), you can’t help but wonder if the ‘amazing taste’ come largely from the idea of exclusivity. And boy, were we smug, standing in line as one of the first 20 people lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time – that is, near the kitchens – before other people waiting like hawks in the adjoining dai pai dong got the chance to spring to their feet before 2:45. Within minutes, after a nearly imperceptible nod from an elderly waitress that signalled the okay to storm the front of the hut and block all entrances, Loi Kei was surrounded by hungry packs of lemmings. Lemmings like me, who wanted in on the famous and ‘get it before it runs out’ adventure of the Loi Kei pork chop bun.
Vantage point from the front of the queue – you can tell the locals are all the ones who are sitting calmy at the tables, probably laughing at all of us silly tourists clambering over each other in the heat to buy a slab of deep-fried pork stuffed into a bun.
And it was good. Freshly cooked to order, the pork chop was golden brown and perfectly crunchy on the outside, concealing the juicy white flesh inside. The bun was its carbohydrate doppelganger – crunchy crust giving way to my eager incisors, the blow softened by airy, pillow soft bread. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if a lot of the “OMG THIS IS SO AMAZING” sensations going through me were a result of a big fat psychological conspiracy and not really from a genuine application of my taste buds.
Tai Lee Loi Kei 大利來記咖啡室
Largo Governador Tamagnini Barbosa 18
Near Cunha bus station, but best to take a taxi if you’re travelling from the main island, it costs around 40MOP (approx 3 pounds) for the journey.