"Once you’ve exited the Martim Moniz metro station, head down Rua do Benformoso and let your nose lead you to your destination...” I find myself grappling with the inadequacy of this set of instructions supplied by Ignacio Pinto, a friend who is hosting me at his Lisbon apartment on my short trip to the Portuguese capital.
It’s already 8pm. Way past my dinner time. The only smell that’s perking up my olfactory senses, and thereby, exacerbating my hunger, is that of a certain smokable, dried leaf that isn’t tobacco. But I’d been suitably warned of this, too. For, the artsy neighbourhood of Mouraria that I’ve just been propelled into, is widely considered to be Lisbon’s hotbed of counter culture and subversion.
Once the city’s Moorish quarter, the gritty, graffiti-strewn Mouraria of today is located a stone’s throw away from Lisbon’s famed, hill-topped Castelo de São Jorge. Fittingly, this is also where the iconic Portuguese Fado music scene was birthed and flourished at the turn of the 20th century. It was made popular by Mouraria’s most famous resident, Maria Severa.
But my quest today has more to do with Mouraria’s multi-ethnic identity, one that sees the neighbourhood providing a safe haven for scores of recent immigrants—from Cape Verde, Mozambique, West Bengal and, more pertinently, China.
I’m in Mouraria to check out a unique concept that has existed since the mid 2000s: Chinês clandestinos. Literally translated as ‘clandestine Chinese’, these are secret underground restaurants run by enterprising Chinese immigrants, akin to an American prohibition-era speakeasy of sorts.
There are believed to be at least a hundred such places scattered around Lisbon, but mostly concentrated in Mouraria. These are born out of both homesickness and as a means to earn a living for the immigrants, offering some very affordable, wholesome—if a tad inauthentic—Chinese fare.
Unnamed and deliciously clandestine, they are often makeshift establishments fashioned out of living rooms, mostly on the upper floors of rundown and ramshackle old apartment buildings along streets like Rua da Guia, Rua do Capelão and the aforementioned Rua do Benformoso that I am currently loitering around. Eateries that can only be found via word of mouth. Or, by some serious food sleuthing.
Number 59, Rua do Benformoso, my Chinês clandestino of the night, is one such establishment. It can only be identified by the bright red Chinese lantern that hangs from a second story balcony of a decrepit, almost tenement-like building. I cautiously make my way up the rickety flight of stairs.
Almost identical in concept to the famous paladares of Havana, Cuba—small, family-run restaurants, usually in a converted part of a home—these Chinês clandestinos operate in a somewhat quasi-legal manner, with little or no adherence to the rather lax safety, hygiene and indoor smoking laws put in place by the Lisbon municipality.
All this is rather apparent as I’m ushered into a dimly lit, graffiti-bedecked living room, shrouded in a veil of cigarette smoke. The stale fetidness intermingles with the delicious food aromas wafting in from the attached kitchen. Besides the omnipresent graffiti, the interior ‘decor’ features tacky, modern chinoiserie decorative tchotchkes like those ubiquitous good luck waving gold-painted plastic cats, tattered posters of the Great Wall, etc. Almost everything in varying stages of decay.
I’m handed a dog-eared, illustrated menu card by my server. In broken English, she tells me that she’s the niece of the proprietor and a student from the erstwhile Portuguese colony of Macau, here to learn Portuguese literature. I’m also given a slip of paper and pencil to tick out what all I’d like to try. Now, this seems like a herculean task. The menu is huge, to say the very least. And nothing is over 5 Euros a portion!
The menu features dishes that fall into two broad categories. One is full of ersatz versions of some of Chinese cuisine’s greatest hits like Peking duck and youpo chemian (biangbiang noodles), among others. The other is the kind one sees when Chinese food is appropriated and adapted to suit the local taste, much like our very own desi brand of Chindian or Peru’s Chifa cuisines.
The Sino-Portuguese dishes that I plumb for take the form of excellent appetisers like ravioli frito, which are the Portuguese version of fried pork dumplings and the tongue-numbingly spicy tofu picante mapu (an iteration of mapu tofu). For mains, I tempt fate once again and am rewarded with a tasty fusion-style curried prawn dish from Macau called camarão de Macaense. I mop this with pão frito, the Portuguese riff on a Chinese bun that is fried instead of steamed.
Eschewing dessert, I chase these with a few glugs of port wine, curiously served out of tiny Chinese porcelain cups. And yes, in keeping with the character and vibe of the place, the cups are chipped and worn out. But no, I couldn’t care less!