Fusion cooking is hardly a modern conceit. While recent fads like kimchi tacos and ramen burgers may strain its plausibility, fusion cuisine happens whenever cultures mingle. And it can dazzle when the combination is organic and unforced. Right now, Chicago's sizzling-hot Fat Rice—featuring food from the Chinese peninsula of Macau—is fusion that works magically well, in part because the Macanese mashup has been centuries in the making.
Macau's cuisine mingles the bold-flavored cooking of its ancient traders and colonists, including Portuguese, Chinese, Malaysian, African, and Indian. One of Fat Rice's signature dishes, Po Kok Gai, is like history in a pot: a baked, bubbling chicken casserole with coconut curry, Portuguese sausage, olives, and lemon. Chef-owners Adrienne Lo and her husband, Abraham Conlon, fell in love with Macau on a trip there four years ago, but their emotional connection to the food made sense on another level: Lo's family is Chinese, and Conlon's is Portuguese. "We wanted to connect back to our ancestors and show what they did," Conlon says.
Still, opening Fat Rice in 2012 was a risky move. On the plus side, they'd largely be free of competition: "Macanese restaurants" won't turn up much on Google. But novelty cuts both ways. "We were scared that nobody would get it or understand it," Lo confesses.
They got it, alright. Fat Rice quickly became one of Chicago's toughest tables to land. Guests wait patiently in long lines for the hearty, homey food that Lo and Conlon execute with finesse and technical precision. These are abundant dishes served up family-style, a wholly satisfying blend of the exotic and the familiar. Consider their namesake dish, Fat Rice (Arroz Gordo). Reminiscent of paella or jambalaya, it amounts to a clay pot loaded with tomato-scented rice with olives, sherry-plumped golden raisins, chicken skin "croutons," shredded duck, clams, giant prawns, barbecued pork, and linguiça. Lo and Conlon's version is traditional, but to add even more textural appeal, they crisp up the bottom layer of rice à la Korean bibimbap in a hot pot.
"It's not just some haphazard, hare-brained fusion," says restaurant critic Mike Sula of the Chicago Reader. "It's a natural harmony of disparate cuisines from three different continents that grew out of the indifferent forces of commerce and colonialism. A silk purse out of a sow's ear. Not that Fat Rice doesn't do wonderful things with pig ears. Abraham and Adrienne are heroes for bringing it to Chicago and for continuing to move it forward."
Lo and Conlon extensively research Macanese cuisine to present it as authentically as possible, but they experiment, too. One example: Dry-Fried String Beans, a simple but potent dish of Chinese-style wok-seared beans, tiny dried Southeast Asian fish, Portuguese linguiça, and Goan preserved lemon. "This dish may not exist in Macau, but it could," says Conlon. "We're not just trying to preserve the cuisine but aid in its evolution."