Vegetarians in Macau: First, the good news. Chinese Buddhists have a tradition of vegetarianism among monks, and many lay people eat vegetarian food on holy days.
Now, the bad news. Other than occasionally substituting fish for other types of meat, Portuguese Catholics have no such spiritual tradition.
Since Macau was shaped primarily by those two cultures, vegetarians travelling in Macau may feel that all-too-familiar anxiety – How do I ask for vegetarian food, and how will I know it’s really vegetarian?
Aside from packing an entire suitcase of raw nut bars, vegetarians have a few options when travelling in Macau. You can go to a regular restaurant and ask for a dish to be prepared vegetarian. You can go to a dedicated vegetarian restaurant. Or you can subsist on snacks and packaged foods with the labels clearly indicating what’s inside. The first option is most convenient, but you’re more likely to accidently eat something you don’t want to. Going to a vegetarian restaurant is safer for the purity of your diet, but may be impractical if hunger strikes when a veg café isn’t close by. Snacks are good to stave off hunger, but aren’t that satisfying.
Where you eat will also depend on your travelling companions. If you’re alone or travelling with other vegetarians, it’s likelier that you’ll plan your day around being close to a veg restaurant at mealtimes. But if you’re travelling in a pack of omnivores, your high-maintenance dietary ways may frustrate and annoy them.
Here are a few types of restaurants vegetarians can find in Macau, and snacks that will provide necessary calories in between meals.
Chinese cuisine is known for not letting any parts of animals go to waste. But there’s also a tradition of Buddhist monk food featuring vegetables and mock meats made from wheat gluten and soy. Macau has many vegetarian Chinese restaurants. For a memorable experience, visit the restaurants at Pou Tai Un Monastery. The monastery has long featured a reliable budget vegetarian eatery. Now there’s also a second, more upscale restaurant at the monastery, with uniformed waiters and a menu written in English.
If no monasteries are handy, any regular Chinese restaurant should be able to make you a simple vegetarian dish of rice and vegetables. Whether they’ll understand your request is another matter. Try asking for “Buddhist monk food.” If your English doesn’t seem to be getting across, show them this phrase and trying saying it. 我食齋 (ngóh sihk jāai).
Some of the Chinese vegetarian restaurants offer dim sum, that fun dining style of mixing and matching small dishes. For a very upscale and modern dim sum meal, try the M Bar at the Mandarin Oriental. It offers both veg and non-veg dim sum for lunch, and boasts a terrific view of Macau’s skyline. Be forewarned that they have a dress code.
I also had exquisite vegetarian dim sum at the Treasure Palace at the City of Dreams resort and shopping center. This is one of Macau’s top restaurants. Vegetarian dishes are clearly marked on the menu.
Juice bars and raw dining
The global trend of organic juice bars has reached Macau. In Taipa, The Blissful Carrot offers a rotating menu of local and organic food, including many vegan and raw options. Come here for your pressed juices, elixirs, salads, tempeh sandwiches, smoothies and vegan fudge. It’s mostly a takeaway spot. Thursday through Saturday they stay open until 11 pm.
Ever since 2009, when the India International Film Academy held its awards ceremony in Macau, Indian tourism has accelerated. The Macau Government Tourist Office pumped money into a campaign to draw more Indian tourism to the island, and the number of Indian visitors has increased at least 5% every year since. This is good news for vegetarians, since about 40% of Indians don’t eat meat. Indian restaurants are a reliable source of veg food. The Golden Peacock restaurant inside the Venetian has even earned a Michelin star. Look for Indian restaurants owned by Aruna Jha, the longstanding curry queen of Macau. At press time, escalating rents were seriously threatening her restaurant empire, but when she rises again she will cook you the best Indian vegetarian food in Macau.
Big hotel breakfast buffets
Tanking up at one of the massive hotel breakfast buffets is another strategy for vegetarians. When I stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, the morning buffet had a staggering amount of breads, pastries, fresh fruit, eggs and other suitable foods.
One of the drawbacks of being vegetarian traveler is feeling left out from trying the local delicacies. But I managed to try a few Macanese treats.
Visiting a tofu specialty restaurant was a very fun cultural excursion. The sign on the front of Macau’s most famous tofu joint says Firma U Tac Hong, but the restaurant is also referred to as Lee Hong K E Tau Fu. Whatever you call it, this hole in the wall shop is small and crowded with people making and eating tofu. The tofu-making process involves lots of plastic buckets and drains. The specialty here is tau fu far, a bowl of smooth, freshly made tofu topped with evaporated milk and sugar syrup. As someone used to eating savory rather than dessert tofu, it was a bit odd tasting, and a little went a long way. But it was great fun to go to such a locally treasured place – it’s been in business more than 60 years — and see the tofu being made.
Almond cookies are a more familiar taste for many visitors. I had no problem eating a lot of them. This is a very popular souvenir of Macau, so visitors generally have many chances to see almond cookies made, sample them and buy them as gifts. But beware. Some almond cookies are made with lard. Look for the label that says, “Suitable for vegetarians.”
For a very fresh sweet drink, look for one of the old-fashioned sugar cane juice stalls. You’ll recognize them by the huge piles of drained sugar cane stalks.
I’ve managed to never go hungry in Macau. Vegetarians and vegans will find plenty to eat. But it never hurts to pack a few granola bars, just in case.