I recently published a long post on being a vegetarian in Timor-Leste — how I cook and eat here as a person who doesn’t eat meat, and who avoids dairy. In that post I promised a list of vegetarian-friendly restaurants and cafes in Dili; here it is; 10 of my favourites, in no particular order.
Dilicious is my favourite and perhaps most frequented restaurant in Dili. It’s owned and run by ebullient Timorese chef Cesar Gaio, who respects and celebrates his country’s local produce — on his menus you’ll find stir-fried foraged mushrooms from his hometown of Baucau, hand-made snack-sized coconut-sago pancakes, local maize and mung beans cooked into creamy porridges, and quality local fish and beef. The vegetarian curries at the restaurant’s large location at Dili port — choose from pumpkin or eggplant — cost less than $5 and use no dairy; there’s also a fried rice you could request egg-free. And its second location, at the UN House staff canteen, is even more affordable — spend $2.50 on rice, tofu, and two different vegetables.
The elegant Korean restaurant in Pantai Kelapa is a long-time favourite of mine, and I’m impatiently waiting for its 1 February post-Christmas re-opening for an overdue dinner date. Overall, it’s not a very vegetarian-friendly menu, but all you need is one good option, and Nari’s tofu salad delivers. Expect a generous, piled-high plate of shredded cabbage, bean sprouts and carrot, with fat chunks of good-quality tofu and a beautiful, thick, sesame-soy dressing. It’s filling enough to satisfy me, a greedy eater, at dinnertime, with a little cup of warm soju on the side. From memory the salad is $10, which is at the upper end of my price range, but for the attentive service and soothing open-air environment, it’s worth it.
The Spa Cafe
The cafe next to the spa that is named The Spa is another long-time favourite of mine. Warm, friendly service, reliably good and fresh food, that beautiful heavy wooden bench, subtle and welcome fans, and fresh coconuts in the fridge. The first time I lived in Dili I would visit Lili’s warung nearly every day for lunch, and then cross the road to The Spa Cafe for an espresso over ice — The Spa’s food at times felt over-priced and not filling enough; but remember, I’m a greedy eater. Since returning on a salary, not a volunteer stipend, I’ve had more money to spend, and have spent lots of it at The Spa. Crunchy salad bowls topped with chickpeas and grilled zucchini, homemade falafels with hummus inside warm pita, the optional addition of tofu to most meals.
Rolls and Bowls
An easy, run, and reliable lunch favourite — the Australian-owned Vietnamese restaurant serves vegan pho, tofu bánh mì and rice paper rolls, and some of Dili’s best barista coffee. A bowl of pho by itself costs $5; the restaurant also offers combo deals, where $8.50 gets you soup, one rice paper roll, and a drink. I’m mourning the closure of the convenient Colmera location; find it now in the corner of the Timor Plaza food court.
Pau de Canela
While we’re at Timor Plaza, another mention of Pau de Canela — the chic Portuguese cafe I mentioned in that initial vegetarian in Dili post. Better for vegetarians than vegans, it has a solid breakfast menu, where $9 will get you a coffee, juice, and your choice of toasted sandwich or omelette, in decent portions. At lunchtime, one of the plates of the day is always vegetarian and perhaps vegan, depending on the dish. Lunch is also $9 — again, at the top end of my budget, but a filling, tasty and nutritious meal that makes the cost well worth it. Access it from the carpark, near Cheers bottleshop and Padaria Brasão.
Everest Coffee House
The unassuming Nepalese restaurant inside the Pateo complex is, to me, one of Dili’s best and most underrated restaurants. A large but useful menu offers vegetarian momos (steamed or fried), curries with vegetables, eggs, or paneer, vegetarian biriyani, and all the regular samosas, rices, breads and sides you’d expect. Portions aren’t massive, but are satisfying; deeply aromatic, rich, and flavourful, and prices hover below $5 per dish. The Pateo bar also sells Everest’s vegetarian samosas; I like ordering one with a can of beer for a knock-off on a rainy wet season evening. Visit Everest for lunch or dinner, or both.
Another one of my long-time Dili favourites is Kaffè U’ut — another casual, Timorese-owned business curious about local produce and named in Tetun after ground coffee. A small but reliable menu offers salads and paninis containing the same ingredients: order the vegan salad, which comes with lettuce, tomato, corn, shredded carrot, a vinaigrette dressing, and the same purple-sweet-potato patty you’ll find inside the vegetarian panini (which, unfortunately for vegans, comes with cheese). For vegetarians, try the omelette, which is actually scrambled eggs inside a panini — creamy, salty, delicious — or for dessert, the chocolate mud balls, which are rich, dense, and disgustingly good.
Beachside is a popular and reliable foreigner-friendly cafe with chairs in the white sand at Areia Branca, near the base of the Jesus statue. I bet you a coconut you go here in your first week in Dili. Service is excellent — staff still remember my name two-and-a-half years after leaving — and since a management change a few years ago the already vegetarian-friendly menu has expanded. Vegetarians will be overwhelmed for choice (my favourite choices are the Mediterranean pressed sandwich, the avocado toast with no feta, add one poached egg, and one of the veggie burgers and I can never remember which one), and vegans will like the new-to-me salads, which are huge, and crammed full of the chickpeas, quinoa, tofu, and rice you need for a salad to feel worth its price.
Another long-time Metiaut favourite is Little Pattaya, the hybrid Thai-Lebanese restaurant. I have to admit I only ever order from the Thai section, and don’t know if you can still get hummus and tabbouleh, here but both menus are extensive and between them you can find enough vegetarian options. The vegetarian curries are generous and tasty, and the new Bali-resort-style seating on the beach has a separate menu with a fried tofu snack option.
I’ve written before about Queen Tundriee — the Bangladeshi restaurant in Palapaso with salty, tasty, and extremely affordable food. Its meat-free menu is longer than the meat options — you can order a thali, or choose from a long list of dhals, vegetable curries, samosas, rices, breads, and pickles. Portions are large and rarely top $3. If you’re cutting costs or need an easy dinner, this is a great place to start.
The big warungs
A bonus item to finish off this list — if you’re looking for a vegan-friendly lunch in Dili, you won’t go wrong with one of the bain maries in the bigger warungs.
As I wrote in this post, every warung in the city will offer at least one vegetable option, but in smaller places there may only be one choice, and it can finish quickly. But the bigger the bain marie, the broader the choices, and at places like Lili’s, Starco, Mama Resto and Linivon you’ll choose from leafy greens, oily eggplant, banana blossoms, sweet tempeh, different types of tofu, boiled-and-fried eggs, and more I can’t recall. I order three with rice, pay $3, and need to unbutton my pants after eating.
A couple of heavy hitters left off this list — Dili actually has a designated vegetarian restaurant, Bistro, which is located almost inside Qulina Supermarket in Pantai Kelapa, and a social enterprise training restaurant called Pro-Ema, in Bidau Mota Klaran, which regularly has vegetarian options on a Portuguese-y menu. I’ve actually never been to Pro-Ema, so can only repeat secondhand that I’ve heard the food is good, and I’ve had a nice vegetarian budda bowl at Bistro, but I actually prefer the lentil salad and ocean view at Castaway, so left both off the official list above as a compromise with myself. Options abound, though, and I’d love to hear your favourites.