Macau | Photo Credit: Stefan Magdalinski [flickr]

Macau | Photo Credit: Stefan Magdalinski [flickr]

By Chef Dylan Benoit

This is the first day since we arrived in Hong Kong that we didn’t have dim sum for breakfast and my brother Lucas is visibly annoyed with me that I’m disrupting his five-day dim sum streak. However, I promised him dim sum for dinner at Tim Ho Wan, the world’s first Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant, located in Kowloon Bay. I also assured him the dumplings we were going to have for lunch were worth the cross-border mission. The plan was to leave Hong Kong, clear customs, hitch a ride to Macau, clear customs there, grab some lunch and return in time for dinner. After a bit of a later start than we were aiming for (Hong Kong has a way of keeping you up at night), we hopped on the ferry around noon.

As we crossed the South China Sea, the skyline of Macau became visible long before we reached its shores. Massive skyscrapers, hotels that look like they belong on the set of Aladdin, and bridges and skyways shooting in every direction. Dubbed the “Vegas of the Orient” Macau is an island of excess in the middle of the ocean. It is a truly magnificent place to behold, much like Vegas, but in a league of its own. Formerly a Portuguese colony, it is now considered a “Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China”, just like Hong Kong. This means China watches their back, but Macau keeps its own police, legal system, monetary authority, as well as customs and immigration policies. When you land, you notice the European influence immediately in the older architecture, colonial-style buildings and churches. All of the road signs are written in Portuguese, Cantonese and English.

Bak Kwa | Photo Credit: Soon Koon [flickr]

Bak Kwa | Photo Credit: Soon Koon [flickr]

Armed with nothing but a vague recollection of the area and a photograph of the storefront that was still on my phone from my previous trip, we hit the streets trying to find the small alleyway off of a pedestrian side road that is home to a dumpling shop. We wandered around taking in the sights, sounds and smells. Hundreds of tourists shopped for Gucci purses, IWC watches and Versace dresses, carrying countless bags through the streets while dodging Bentleys, taxis and Ferraris at every corner.

As you walk the streets of Macau the mouthwatering and unmistakable aroma of bak kwa (dried meat) emanate from the storefronts. This dehydrated meat product is the Asian cousin of jerky. It's sweet, salty and usually made from beef, pork or mutton. A basic bak kwa meat is finely chopped and seasoned with salt, sugar, spices, and soy sauce, and then dried. There are numerous stores dedicated to bak kwa, and countless flavours, and we were hell bent on trying them all. 

After sampling around 30 kinds, with no intention of buying any to take with us, the gentleman behind the counter chased us out of his store shaking his fist in the air. Apparently he didn’t take kindly to us trying every single sample. So we carried on, but this amuse bouche had us salivating for something more. We walked in circles until we came across a recognizable landmark, an old church façade I had seen on my previous trip. The church sat atop a hill and was beautifully haunting with no walls or roof, just a front with a small monument behind it, surrounded by perfectly manicured hedges and beautiful flowers. I ask Luc if he wanted to climb the stairs to see it.

“See what?” he asks.

“The church. Do you want to go up and see it?”

“I can see it from here,” he says, obviously ready to move on. “Let’s eat!”

"Okay. Fair play."

We consulted a map of the area in vain. Luckily, after years of traveling, I have managed to turn off the voice in my head that says, “you’re a man, you don’t need directions,” and we asked a store clerk standing outside of his bicycle repair shop where we might find these delicious dumplings. After hand motions of scooping food into our mouths and showing him the photo on my phone, he unenthusiastically pointed up the hill, saying something undistinguishable under his breath and going back inside his shop. The trail wasn’t cold after all! We wandered around the corner and down the cobblestone road, checking every alley and side street on either side. We walked past one alley that looked very narrow and dark, not at all familiar. Without missing a step, we kept on walking... then BAM!! Like a boxer coming back to consciousness when his coach gives him smelling salts, we were lambasted with the aroma of onions and fried dough. Complete olfactory overload. We spun on our heels. Across the street and back one alley there was the dumpling shop with a big green sign and white letters barely illuminated in the daytime sun - Loja de Comidas Sio Seong Hoi.

Loja de Comidas Sio Seong Hoi | Photo Credit: Trans World Productions

Loja de Comidas Sio Seong Hoi | Photo Credit: Trans World Productions

My mouth watered instantly. This mom & pop shop has a simple roll-up corrugated metal door with a counter in front. On the counter are two large steel plates around three feet in diameter used to sear the dumplings to golden brown perfection. Like most places on our travels, the menu is limited to a few items. Ones they do really well. Not knowing what the menu says, we point to the dumplings in the metal plate and signal for two orders. 

We sat on a small curb running the length of the building next to the shop and very quickly devoured three dumplings each.

The dumplings here are quite small, about two bites each, or one bite if you’re my brother. They are hand-made from the most delicate flour dough and stuffed with chopped pork, perfectly spiced and seasoned. They are boiled until cooked and pan-fried to order, as if to torture you with the aroma before you are allowed to eat them. There are no plates here, no knives, no forks, no tables, no chairs. The middle-aged woman with short black hair is flipping the dumplings and puts three pieces in a small white plastic bag, pierces it with a bamboo skewer and hands it to me across the counter. To the left is a small metal container containing a delicious roasted chili paste. My previous tour guide Chad had shown me the drill and I passed along the same knowledge to Lucas. Place the desired amount of chili paste in the bag with the dumplings, twist the bag up and shake to evenly coat the dumplings with the chili. Untwist and enjoy. Simple and insanely delicious.

We sat on a small curb running the length of the building next to the shop and very quickly devoured three dumplings each. We ordered another three and a couple of scallion and sesame fritters. These are also golden brown and salty, with a dough so moist and buttery it’s like a non-flakey croissant. The scallion and toasted sesame seeds create a depth of flavour one might not imagine possible in something so simple as a fritter, accentuated by the lingering heat from another completely unique chili paste. The taste, the smell, the location and company all combined to create another memorable dining experience. One Lucas and I won’t soon forget.

Time check -- it’s just after 3 pm and we have less than an hour and a half until our ferry leaves. It’s just enough time to hit The Sands Casino to see if Lady Luck would be on our side.

3 Beco da Palha, Macau | T: +853.2835.5039

Author and chef Dylan Benoit with his brother Lucas

Author and chef Dylan Benoit with his brother Lucas

Dylan Benoit

Benoit is the chef overseeing the restaurants for the Market Street Group in Grand Cayman, which includes Craft Food & Beverage, Mizu Asian Bistro, Waterfront Urban Diner, Duke's Seafood and Rib Shack, Fidel Murphy's Public House and Lone Star Bar and Grill. Originally from Toronto, he trained with some of the top chefs in Canada, like Mark McEwan, before moving to Halifax for a few years. He took a short hiatus and travelled to Central & South America and eventually made his way the Cayman Islands.

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