Two pieces of good news for fans of the beloved restaurant and food innovation project Agora Food Studio — first, that it’s recently re-opened for coffee and snacks after a long period closed, and second, that the generation of chefs and servers it trained up are striking out on their own. Welcome to AHI MATAN, a gorgeous new restaurant operated by young Timorese entrepreneurs, who celebrate and elevate nutritious native ingredients — preserving culture, innovating with food, and feeding patrons delicious and affordable meals.
AHI MATAN is chic — all chalkboard-black walls with hand-lettered menus, minimalist illustrations of coffee pots and cups, and quotes in English like ‘food is culture, habit, craving and identity’. There’s bold black-and-white checkerboard tiles and a handful of sleek black metal-dark wood tables, named for languages in Timor-Leste: Makasae, Mambae. Food is plated elegantly and served on heavy white china, with water poured before you ask and cotton napkins at your side.
The restaurant only opened on Monday — Felix and I went for lunch on Tuesday — yet you wouldn’t have known that from our visit. Service was excellent; confident and warm. If you were a regular at Agora you’ll recognise familiar faces in AHI MATAN’s kitchen and dining room, and the same high standards of service are here: our waiter, Luchya, remembered me from the last time I lived in Dili, and was helpful and attentive with our lunch. She’s one of the members of Asosiasaun Halibur Inovadores (Gather Innovators Association), the organisation behind AHI MATAN (AHI is both ‘fire’ in Tetun and the association’s acronym). The organisation is about preserving food heritage, celebrating culture through food, and innovating with ingredients — think flatbread made with purple sweet potatoes and mango smoothies mixed with fresh coconut flesh. ‘Ahi matan’ translates to English as something like ‘the source of the fire’.
I can never go past batar daan when I see it, and AHI MATAN had it on their menu. Batar daan — literally ‘boiled corn’ — is a creamy, hearty, porridge-like stew of boiled local maize, red beans and peanuts, sometimes served with pumpkin or green vegetables simmered in. AHI MATAN’s is delicious, with a beautiful thick texture to the stew and a nice chew to the corn, topped liberally with roasted chopped-up peanuts and sliced avocado. It came with a fresh little side salad of witlof and carrot, tumeric-stained tofu that tasted fresh and homemade, and satisfyingly bitter stir-fried green papaya and its flowers, and it all cost just $3,50. Felix ate a perfectly-cooked $5 grilled fish doused in tomato, with coconut-flavoured steamed rice and the same side salad that came with mine. We both finished off every mouthful, but not because portions were small.
AHI MATAN has a generous list of beverage options — we each drank a tamarind juice — but no coffee, which is easy enough, because the restaurant is located immediately downstairs of one of my favourite Dili coffee shops, Black Box. Felix and I staggered upstairs for an espresso as soon as we could move again, and after obliging Luchya with a photo, to help promote their first week of visitors of Facebook.
I’m only sorry I’m leaving Dili tomorrow — AHI MATAN is a beautiful and important restaurant. One I’d visit regularly based on the food and service alone, and also one I’m keen to support: what a wonderful addition to Dili’s dining scene. Parabens and bimvendu.
Visit AHI MATAN
Downstairs of Black Box coffee shop in Farol: we’re on the large street that runs north-south between the lighthouse at the water’s edge and Comoro Road; it’s about halfway down on the western side of the road, very close to the school.
+670 7708 8701 or +670 7534 8651