When we think of protecting certain food as an important part of a country’s cultural heritage, we assume that the food is tasty. We assume that people have enjoyed eating it throughout its history, and enjoy eating it still in the current day. Can this ever be an erroneous assumption? Do certain dishes and their cooks have to work very hard to please historical and current day palates? Does UNESCO care that the food it inscribes to its list of heritage cuisines is good food.
To think through these larger questions, I want to share some stories about a Macanese dish called porco balichão tamarinho. These stories spin together tales of how this dish is thought about, how it is cooked and eaten in various settings in Macau. As the title of the dish may suggest to Portuguese speakers, the principle ingredients of the dish are pork (belly), shrimp paste and tamarind, although there are myriad variations on subsidiary ingredients or methods of preparation, a diversity that is celebrated by cookbook authors, television producers and various state projects. It is a complicated dish with multiple identities, and is also known by other names; porco balichão tamarindo which is the Portuguese rather than Macanese Patuá translation of tamarind or porco balichang tamarindo to signal potential Malay origins. The taste of porco balichão tamarinho is described in separate accounts using adjectives such as ‘bitter sweet’ , ‘tangy’ , ‘dense’ , all of which suggest a surfeit of flavour and perhaps a challenging complexity. In fact throughout my ethnographic field research, the dish polarises its cooks and its eaters unlike many other foods in Macau, with few people thinking of it as unequivocally tasty.
Yet it is a staple in the Macanese culinary repertoire, a maquista dish and a product of violent, sticky colonialism, of money and artisanal produce. And as such porco balichão tamarinho is part of a larger ongoing project. This project is led by the Confraria da Gastronomia Macaense (CGM), a movement of cooks and culinary advocates, and the state-run Cultural Institute of Macau to seek wider recognition for the cultural heritage of Macanese cuisine firstly in China, and then the world.
This is the first part of a talk delivered at the SOAS Postgraduate Food Research Workshop, entitled ‘What is Good Food?’ in June 2017. Please get in touch if you would like the full paper.