I have lunch once a week with my boss. Last week at lunchtime, we both had to go to the airport, a short drive from our office (me to farewell a friend and pick up some books; he to drop a Christmas gift), and he suggested we go together and eat lunch at the airport’s warung, the little Indonesian-style restaurant. “It’s one of the only places in Dili where I can find batar daan,” he explained. Batar daan, boiled corn, is a traditional Timorese porridge-like dish, usually served with shreds of carrot and mustard greens and something crunchy, perhaps peanuts. Delicious and filling.
A couple of days ago I posted on Instagram asking what people would like to know more about with my life in Timor-Leste. One reply was about traditional Timor-Leste food, which I’m considering as two questions: one, what have people in Timor-Leste been eating for generations, and two, what do Timorese people eat now?
Traditional crops in Timor-Leste
To understand the meals on Timorese plates, it’s necessary to first consider its geography, climate and agricultural production: what foods are grown here.
Around 70 per cent of Timorese families live in rural areas, and around two-thirds of families are subsistence farmers or close to — growing the food that they eat, perhaps occasionally selling small surpluses in the local market or by the side of the road, but for the most part, reliant on the soil, sun and rain for food. Due to the poor health of its soil and its challenging mountainous terrain, Timor-Leste has some of the lowest crop yields in Asia, which goes some way to explaining why around half of all families suffer the burden of under-nutrition, and many face a hungry season of two or three months per year of inadequate food supply.
(I remember in an excellent Timor-Leste blog I read, very likely Pat and Pip’s, a line like, “Timor-Leste has been too busy warding off starvation to develop a sophisticated national cuisine”, which I understand, and to that will also add warding off colonisation).
Despite this, Timor-Leste’s agriculture benefits from lying halfway between the Javanese rice culture and the Melanesian root-based culture, with staple crops from each growing here: rice, maize, sweet potato, cassava, common beans, mung beans, peanuts, and other root vegetables (at snack breaks at meetings and workshops, you’ll always see giant platters of boiled sliced cassava, purple sweet potato and taro, with homemade ai-manas, or a tomato-chili salsa, or budu tasi, fibre-y, tree-like local seaweed mixed with small local shallots).
I suspect that 500 years ago, before the Portuguese explorers arrived to colonise the country and spread the good gospel of soft white bread, Timorese families in flat areas ate rice and sasoru, rice porridge,and families without flat land for rice cultivation ate boiled roots and tubers.
Timor-Leste has profound plant diversity — after the Indonesians left land was parcelled into ludicrously small, two-hectare plots, but even on such a tiny piece of land you’ll find farmers growing papaya and banana trees, crops of corn and cabbage and sweet potato, raising chickens and a pig, growing forest trees and leguminous trees for cattle feed — and in the markets in Dili there’s a veritable rainbow of locally grown produce: watermelon, carrots, tomatoes, soursop, gnarled root vegetables, eggplant, onions, garlic, bananas, plantains, cucumbers, leafy green vegetables — mustarda, lakeru dikin, or pumpkin vine, kangkung, or water-grown spinach, bayam, spinach, papaya leaves and cassava leaves (you must boil twice or they have a horrible bitter taste, my boss told me as we peered hopefully into the counter at the warung and saw naught but a vat of cassava leaves; the batar daan was hotu, all finished, the lady told us. No boiled corn for us that day).
Foreign influence on Timorese food
As a close neighbour and former colony of Indonesia, Timorese cuisine was always going to be really heavily influenced by popular Indonesian food. It’s easy to find here nasi goreng, mi goreng, soto ayam, fried tempe and tahu and streetside cabinets of pisang goreng, and Timor-Leste has adapted the big bain marie point-at-your-food etu ho modo, rice and vegetables, I see in Indonesia (when you cross the land border between Timor-Leste and West Timor, a province of Indonesia, the warungs are identical either side). I just asked Felix for some examples of traditional Timorese dishes, and one he offered was modo fila, or stir-fried vegetables — perhaps a local re-naming of cap cai.
Something Indonesia has that Timor-Leste doesn’t is the practise of eating rice for breakfast — perhaps Portugal got in first. It’s common to eat chewy, tasty, white bread rolls for breakfast (with luminescent Indonesian pineapple jam, or with a fried egg), but Timor-Leste does have its own rice porridge: sasoru, a white-rice porridge made with ginger, carrot and mustard greens. It’s delicious and comforting and the reason why so many of my colleagues wake up at 5am each day; they feed the babies sasoru and grab a roll or small bag of pisang goreng for themselves. And the traditional Portuguese dish feijoada has a well-established home in Timor-Leste — the potatoes and carrots and common beans that grow so well here, with rich Portuguese sausage meat, served as a thick soup or stew.
What we eat in Timor-Leste now
(I had written that heading as “what do Timorese people eat” but thought it a bit presumptuous; all I know is what I’ve seen and what I eat myself). Because Dili, where I live, has such a large foreigner population and comparatively low rate of poverty, there are all sorts of foreign cuisines available and many people with the disposable income to eat out — and historically, foreign food has been seen as sexier, more unusual, more interesting. If you were a Timorese person eating most often at home, I could imagine you’d eat bread, paun, or sasoru for breakfast; rice with a stir-fried vegetable and some chicken or beef for lunch; and then something similar for dinner, perhaps with a classic Timorese salad, too — green coral lettuce, tomatoes sliced in rounds like a Big Mac ad, ringed onions and lashings of salt, pepper, oil and vinegar.
At home, Felix and I eat pretty malae food, foreigner food — I eat muesli or toast with banana for breakfast (he skips breakfast but often eats pisang goreng at morning tea time); for lunch we both go to warungs, where I think I choose excellently — tempe, green leafy vegetable, eggplant and rice — and he chooses terribly — mystery cow innards and baria, bitter gourd, officially the worst of all the vegetables, sorry Felix — and for dinner we’ll either make something like dhal or pasta or go out, where he’ll always always eat a steak or similar; he’s a very understanding carnivore living with a domineering vegetarian, and I’ll eat dumplings or tofu salad or pasta or my embarrassing malae favourite, a curry vegetable pie from Castaway Bar.
Something that I think is emerging in Dili and what I’ll be incredibly excited to come back and see in a few years’ time is an re-ignited curiosity in and respect for local ingredients and traditional ways of cooking. Agora Food Studio and Dilicious restaurants in Dili both do an excellent job using local ingredients, buying from local farmers, using traditional staples in interesting, intriguing ways, and particularly in Agora’s case, creating space and opportunities for creative young Timorese chefs and food researchers to test new and different things (case in point, if you’ve ever tried Julio’s purple sweet potato flatbread). Agora also has a project called Timor-Leste Food Innovators Exchange — a food research and storytelling project funded by the Australian government’s InnovationExchange program, which is painstakingly documenting the ingredients and methods used for generations in Timor-Leste.
And people, like my batar daan-loving boss, who has dedicated 15 years of his career to working in agriculture in Timor-Leste, are working to connect farmers with markets, improve soils and crop yields, reduce malnutrition and household hunger — setting up the systems, structures and behaviours for a local Timor-Leste food economy to really thrive, and for Timor-Leste’s traditional food to shine.