One of the biggest and most embarrassing concerns I had before I moved to Timor-Leste was about the food I’d be eating.
Big, because food is, of course, a vital and quite personal thing.
Embarrassing, because I wasn’t so worried about my health as I was about getting fat. As vain, as petty, and as simple as that.
And concern, because although Timor’s soil is eager and its topography varied enough to produce sweet potatoes, red beans, coffee, corn, pineapple, pomegranates, grapes, broccoli and rice, frequent landslides, persistent droughts and poor-quality soil see the country a food importer and many families subsisting on little more than instant noodles, white rice, and a limp green vegetable salvaged from the to’os, farm.
Dili’s a well-connected capital city, and I’m lucky to have access to several excellent supermarkets and a few well-stocked local markets here. But the burden of home-cooking, a social friendship circle, and how cheap some restaurants are has me eating out far more here than I did in Australia, and my waistline and bank balance have suffered from it.
But my mind does not. And that’s a huge breakthrough.
I’ve alluded to and outright mentioned on this blog before that I’ve suffered from an eating disorder and still find food something of an Achille’s heel. And looking through countless expat blogs, as I did in the months before I departed Melbourne, I felt fear creep up my throat as I scrolled photos of white-rice piles, greasy fried eggs, overcooked limp vegetables and cheap deep-fried roadside dosi.
How am I going to eat like this, I thought.
Marinating tempeh at home for burgers one night.
I want to stop for a minute here and reflect on how lucky I am to be thinking about food in this way. I have wealth, health and agency that means I’m to choose what I eat, and I have a figure that fits into what society accepts as healthy-looking, even though I do two gentle rounds of exercise per week and eat more hot chips than one person should. I’m incredibly privileged and I don’t take this lightly.
But, like with most of what I talk about on this blog, I’m sharing this in the hope that it connects with someone feeling the same way. If you’ve come here from googling “expat blog Timor-Leste” or found me through Instagram and are worried about getting scurvy from too many burgers and beers at Castaway, this is a post for you.
I don’t know how to eat well in Timor-Leste.
An $8.50 salad bowl and a $2 coffee makes this my most expensive Dili lunch.
I have something of an idea. I cook at home a few times a week and make full use of the in-season produce and 50c-tempeh straining the tables and spilling over the footpaths at the markets in Bidau, Lecidere and Fatuhada. Most days I eat lunch at Lili’s warung in Lecidere, where I choose at least three vegetables and the kidney bean-infused rice over plain white, and occasionally I’ll drop $8.50 on a salad at the Spa that leaves me feeling hungry two hours later but the ladies are really nice and it’s got quinoa and chickpeas in it. And for breakfast and snacks, I’ll scoop passionfruit and eat sweet local bananas with imported tahini and cut-price Portuguese bread.
Red cabbage season is like, nine months away. Counting down.
Some of the food I eat is nutritious, and I eat a good amount of vegetables, even if they’re often coated in MSG or salt.
But the thing that’s changed most about my eating here has nothing to do with cooked lunches or flavour enhancers.
I no longer care if I’m eating “well” or not.
Felix made tahu isi, or deep-fried filled tofu, just before I left Dili on my last field trip.
I haven’t quite had a sanctimonious breakthrough about how tone-deaf it is for a size-eight woman to bemoan a rice-softened waistline in a country where two-thirds of the population are subsistence farmers who endure months-long hungry seasons each year. My head’s still pretty far up my own arse there. But I have looked in the eye the reality that in Timor I can’t expect to eat the same way as I did in Melbourne, with vegan pho and five-dollar Ethiopian and organic nuts in loose bins at the Queen Vic markets, and it’s transformed my thinking about my meals.
No longer am I buying expensive frozen spinach and broccoli at the supermarket because I feel like I should eat nutritious veggies. Instead, I’m wandering out the the maun with the vegetable cart who comes by my house every evening at six and buying whatever 50c bunch of leafies sit at the top of the pile.
No longer do I drift from supermarket to supermarket sourcing hard-to-find ingredients from often-under-stocked shelves. Instead, I let what’s available dictate my recipe, not the other way around.
And no longer am I spending too much money on out-of-season ingredients wrapped in plastic on stale supermarket fridge shelves. I’m instead leaning into more intuitive, seasonal eating, even when that means weeks of cucumber.
Another Lili’s lunch. That shredded green vegetable hasn’t returned since, but it was gooood.
Eliminating my expectations around what I feel I should be eating has allowed me to follow a more intuitive eating style: I buy, cook, order and eat food that’s in-season; I repurpose leftovers because tropical temperatures spoil food after more than a couple of days; and being a wealthy foreigner in Dili gives me the financial mobility to experiment with new-to-me foods like banana blossoms, bitter gourd, and deep-fried everything.
Homemade dhal with too much salt. Classic.
It’s made eating more fun, more interesting, and more cost-effective than ever before. And that feels like I’m eating well.