Welcome to a city where you buy three blocks of tofu for 50 cents.
I don’t eat meat, I avoid dairy, and I’ve had the easiest time eating in Dili over five years — both in restaurants and when cooking at home. But there’s not a lot of information available online about being vegetarian or vegan in Timor-Leste, what’s there is unspecific or outdated, and, if you’re anything like me, it’s helpful to have a bit more narrative around restaurant recommendations than what an algorithmic list can provide. So, this post is my attempt at helping: giving a little more information about cooking, eating, and living as a vegan or vegetarian in Dili, Timor-Leste. Looking for restaurant recommendations? Find some here.
A brief overview
Good news: in general, eating as a vegetarian in Dili, either out or at home, is very easy.
The foods I’ve come to know as traditional Timorese produce are extremely friendly to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Here, there’s a lot of locally grown lentils, root vegetables, garden vegetables like tomatoes, leafy greens and carrots, and hand-made tofu and tempeh all sold very cheaply in the markets.
And in addition, Dili is a small-but-mighty international city with a restaurant for every cuisine. Your meals may be of varying quality, but here you can easily find Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Hakka Chinese, Nepalese, Indian, Bangladeshi, Italian, Portuguese, Turkish, and Australian pub food here — with menus in English and staff who speak the language.
If you have a question, restaurant recommendation, or think there’s something I’ve missed, I’d love to hear from you — here’s where you can get in touch.
Eating the local produce
There’s a lot to choose from in Dili if you’re cooking for yourself.
Timor-Leste has fascinating and abundant geography, which fills markets and supermarkets with beautiful, varied, locally grown fresh produce. I think knowing what grows here helps you imagine what you might be buying, cooking, ordering, and eating once you’re living here.
At the coast, you have beachside fresh fish markets, and tropical fruits growing wild in gardens — coconuts, mangoes, bananas, papaya, soursop, custard apple, jackfruit, breadfruit, pineapple, passionfruit, rambutans, dragonfruit. Then mountains rise steeply into the middle of the country — the highest point, Mount Ramelau, is 2,986 metres above sea level, and temperatures in the country’s centre can drop to as low as 10 degrees — providing a climate that grows many colder-climate crops. That’s lentils like kidney beans, mung beans, soy beans and peanuts, vegetables like carrots, eggplant, cabbage, pumpkin, cauliflower, choy sum, and even delicate plants like strawberries and rocket (arugula) — which are then driven down to Dili’s markets. (Taibessi Market is the biggest and best, but almost every street has a collection of produce stalls, or a local seller with a wheeled cart who comes around at dusk).
Many Timorese families are subsistence farmers, growing many different crops on small plots of land. Common household staples are corn (maize), cassava (including the leaves), taro, potatoes (again, including the leaves) and rice. Crops are grown with little, if any, chemical fertilisers, sold in-season and soon after harvesting, and rarely cost more than $2 per item (things like avocados, tomatoes and onions are portioned out in little plates at market stalls).
At the moment, I love local pineapple, eggplant, cucumber, red-skinned bananas, chillies, tofu, and the vine-y leaves of potato and pumpkin plants — and am excited for the jackfruit season that’s about to arrive. You can learn more about farming and agronomy in Timor-Leste here, if you’re interested.
That is all to say — at the local produce markets dotted around Dili, and in its supermarkets, you’ll be spoilt for choice. It’s very easy to find nutritious and varied produce, for very low prices. Not every market sells every item, and supermarkets have produce stock out regularly — but things always come back in, and you won’t go without.
Shopping and ordering
It’s similarly easy finding vegetarian and vegan options in supermarkets and restaurants.
I haven’t yet found specialist vegan products — there’s no egg replacements, vegan butter, dairy-free ice cream, vegan burger patties etc — but every supermarket sells canned and jarred lentils, some sell homemade hummus and soy milk, and Quilina even sells nutritional yeast; Dili’s getting there. I’ve been very spoilt arriving in Dili from Melbourne (a large, progressive, and multicultural city very friendly to veganism), and while I miss my Sheeze brand coconut-based vegan cheddar from home, I’m sated here with dark chocolate and the ingredients I need to make white bean hummus.
In cafes and restaurants, I can always find a vegetarian option — and in a couple of the very foreigner-friendly Australian-run restaurants I’ve even seen options indicated on a menu (try Beachside, which has vegan salads and avocado toast, Rolls and Bowls, with vegan pho, or Castaway Bar, which can make an egg-free fried rice). I haven’t tried to order food as a vegan (I eat eggs and will stomach dairy if I really have to), so I don’t know how easy or difficult that is — but in general, I haven’t had a problem explaining “I don’t eat meat”, or “I can’t have milk” to wait staff. People understand.
(A specific tip here: ordering breakfast, expect your toast to come pre-buttered, with real dairy butter, unless you request otherwise. Use the Portuguese word ‘manteiga’ for butter, and just say, “la tau manteiga” or something similar.)
Explaining and abandoning
A couple of times, usually in rural areas outside Dili, I’ve had to explain that I don’t eat meat when someone’s offered me some.
For me, it’s always felt like a question that comes from curiosity, nowhere sinister, and I feel like my explanation has been generally accepted, if unpersuasive. Sometimes I simply say, “I don’t eat meat”; or “just vegetables for me”; other times, I say, “I couldn’t kill an animal, so I can’t eat them”, or “it’s my belief”.
For many people in Timor-Leste, some foods are sacred, or lulik — I once met a boy in Dili who couldn’t eat red-skinned bananas, because they were lulik for him; I’ve also been in a community in Maliana that couldn’t harvest sandalwood, because it’s lulik for them — which leads me to think there’s a baseline level of understanding of avoiding certain foods for reasons of belief. My vegetarianism had never been met with resistance in Timor-Leste.
At times, though, I’ve chosen to temporarily abandon it for a meal. I won’t get too deep into this here, but a large part of why I’m vegetarian is in protest at the particular way animals are farmed for meat and dairy for the mainstream market in Australia, where I’m from. That means in Timor-Leste, where some of the meat you’ll eat is wild, free-grazed, locally raised, and caught or slaughtered by hand, I’m less staunch in avoiding it — particularly if it’s offered by the fisherman or family who raised the animal.
An inexhaustive list of the times I’ve eaten meat in Timor-Leste includes: when a cow and a goat were slaughtered at a tara bandu ceremony (their spilt blood enshrines land use regulations and makes the ground sacred) and I was offered first bite of the cooked meat; when Felix’s friend hosting us for dinner stirred shredded lamb through a rice dish without realising I was vegetarian; when my boss ordered me bakso for lunch and I didn’t know what it was; when the fisherman came in from Jaco with the day’s fresh catch; when we were on the way home from Com and grilled fish was a dollar and my stomach rumbling. Sharing these moments to flag when you might need to be more on guard than me.
Colonisation and cuisine
Something I found helpful in framing my understanding of the food you can find in Timor-Leste is learning about the country’s colonial history. Timor-Leste has had long relationships with Portugal and Indonesia, leaving the cuisines of those two countries over-represented in Dili’s culinary choices today.
Timor-Leste was colonised by the Portuguese in the early 1500s, who brought coffee crops, red wine, and chewy white bread (but little in the way of infrastructure, education or health services) to newly settled Portuguese Timor. In 1975, when Portugal’s anti-fascist Carnation Revolution saw it rapidly shed its colonies, Timor-Leste enjoyed nine days of independence before the Indonesian military forcibly invaded over the two countries’ shared land border. The invasion was bloody and brutal, and up to one-quarter of Timor-Leste’s population tragically lost their lives during the 24-year-long occupation.
Timor-Leste’s full independence was restored in 2002, and the country now has good relations with both Portugual and Indonesia. But with such an extensive, brutal, and recent colonial history, it’s almost impossible to talk about anything in Timor-Leste today without acknowledging that context — including when talking about vegetarianism in Dili.
You’ll find a lot of Indonesian- and Portuguese-influenced food in Dili. In my experience, the former is very friendly to a vegetarian or vegan diet, and the latter is less so.
It’s very common in Dili to eat lunch in an Indonesian warung, where you’ll add vegetables, tofu and tempeh from a bain marie to a plate of rice for just a couple of dollars. (I just published a list of my new favourite places to eat in Dili, which includes two warungs, and I ate lunch at a warung this afternoon.)
Vegetables are cooked in canola oil, not animal fat, and it’s uncommon to see meat and vegetables combined in the same dish (it’ll be very visibly meaty if they are combined). I feel confident in saying every single warung in Dili will serve at least one cooked vegetable dish with rice, and most will have at least two vegetable options — but for choice as a vegetarian, go to one of the larger warungs, like Lili’s and Starco in Lecidere, Mama Resto in Farol, or Linivon in Akadeiru Hun.
Portuguese food is a little trickier. I’ve found it generally fairly meat-heavy, and prone to combining meat and vegetables in the same dish. Portuguese bakeries sell Dili’s best bread — I love Padaria Brasão in Bidau and at Timor Plaza, and there’s a particularly dense roll sold at the back of Pateo Supermarket — but beyond, that, I tend to steer clear. My sole exception here is Pau de Canela, which puts on an excellent, if slightly pricey, vegetarian lunch option every single day.
A brief conclusion
In five years of living in, and visiting, Timor-Leste, I’ve never had a problem cooking or eating as a low-dairy vegetarian.
There’s good local produce to buy and cook, varied restaurants serving cuisines well-suited to plant-based diets, and — at least in Dili — a reasonable understanding of vegetarianism, and my not eating meat has never been a problem.
Dili’s supermarkets don’t have specific vegan products, or stock wide ranges of things like cheese, cream, and milk — but they have at least an option for every item (there’s at least two different brands of tahini and four companies importing packaged cashews and walnuts). You won’t miss out on much here — and in fact, in a city of $2 organic vegetables and plastic-free hand-made tofu, three for 50 cents, you’ll have a great time.