Fat Rice brings Macau to Chicago

Fat Rice
Arroz gordo, or fat rice, is a traditional Macanese rice dish composed of prawns, sausage, oysters and much more.

By Nona Tepper

She is Chinese-American, from Chicago. He is Portuguese- American, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, an area with a large Southeast Asian population.

But their creation is a perfect merger of their two cultures. It’s also a reflection of their quest to show how cuisines evolve globally.

Three weeks before opening their first restaurant together, with more than 200 dinner parties played host in anticipation, Adrienne Lo and Abe Conlon finally settled on a culinary theme for their new space: Macanese, in honor of the former Portuguese colony located off the coast of Southern China.

“It’s this amazing fusion,” Lo said of the restaurant. “It’s kind of like who I am, it’s who he is and it’s the things we’ve cooked.”

Located in Chicago’s bustling Logan Square community, Lo and Conlon’s Fat Rice is one of the few restaurants in the city, and the United States, that specializes in authentic Macanese cuisine.

The two named the place after arroz gordo, which translates to “fat rice,” a traditional Macanese rice dish that includes Portuguese-style pork sausage, Cantonese-style pork shoulder, chili-stuffed prawns, tea eggs and much more.

On a recent Saturday night, there was a nearly two-hour wait to get in the place, which has been open for the last four years.

“The food itself is just really homey. It’s just like real food, it’s not pretty, but it’s tasty,” Lo said.

The desire to preserve this unique food was the primary motivation behind the duo’s recently released and extremely well-reviewed cookbook “The Adventures of Fat Rice: Recipes from the Chicago restaurant inspired by Macau,” written by Hugh Amano and illustrated Sarah Becan.

Part-cookbook, part-graphic novel and part-photo essay on Macau, “Adventures of Fat Rice” teaches hungry home cooks exactly how to replicate the duo’s delectable arroz gordo and attempts to preserve Macanese food and culture.

It’s a cuisine that might one day face extinction.

“When we went to Macau we saw how actually difficult it was to find Macanese food,” Lo said, adding: “There’s a lot of Macanese people there because they were born in Macau, but they’re not of Macanese blood, meaning Portuguese-Chinese or Portuguese-Indian.”

Indeed, less than one percent of those who live in Macau identify as Portuguese-Chinese, according to a survey issued by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

When creating recipes for the restaurant and new cookbook, Lo and Conlon travelled to Macau, Singapore, Malaysia and many other locales that have dying Eurasian communities. They visited local libraries, bookstores and community centers, and tried to translate the family recipes they found into English.

“The way recipes were written, you can’t even decipher what the recipe is exactly because the amount of the ingredient is listed in how much the ingredient cost at the time. So it’s like, ‘Fifty cents of sugar,” Lo said.

Lo and Conlon also cooked with Macanese families in their home kitchens. Many of their recipes come from Riquexo Café, a community center in Macau overseen by a 101-year-old chef who Lo calls “Donna Ida.”

“You have to go to the community center to get Macanese food because that’s the generation of people still cooking that food—the older generation, the younger generation are not. They’re not interested in preserving their heritage and their culture. So it was just kind of a shock to us and sad to see that so much rich history is just disappearing within a generation’s time.”

Lo describes the recipes that they subsequently gathered recipes as “real food,” that is homey, hearty and a mish-mash of cultures. One pie the cooks make, for example, merges fish and cheese. These surprising combinations are why Fat Rice has grown so popular, Conlon suggested.

“We offer something different,” he said. “We don’t have hamburgers on the menu, we don’t have steak tartar on the menu, we don’t do oysters.”

The duo plan to keep learning, traveling and evolving the flavors of Fat Rice. The establishment changes its menu about once every quarter, and Lo said customers should expect more flavors from Malacca, Malaysia coming soon—an area which was also once settled by the Portuguese. Eventually, customers can also expect another cookbook, Lo said.

“We’re exploring global Portuguese cuisine,” she said. “And Macau was the last place that the Portuguese were. Prior to that they were in Japan, in Malaysia, India and Mozambique and Brazil. We really are just looking back and tracing their route from Portugal to when they ended up in Macau, and it’s amazing seeing the ingredients they picked up along the way, and cooking techniques, and how things came together.”

Photo at top: Arroz gordo, or fat rice, is a traditional Macanese rice dish composed of prawns, sausage, oysters and much more. (Nona Tepper/MEDILL)