The tales of food in Timor Leste

By Heidi Zajac
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Pause for a moment. Imagine that you live in a country that has been under the rule of three different nations in your grandparents’ lifetime.  In the worst moments, your fellow citizens are uprooted from their homes, their daily lives terrorised, and loved ones lost.  During peaceful times, a new religion and unfamiliar languages are introduced.

Different customs and hierarchies become a part of life along with foreign music and food.

There are some in your community who fought for the independence of your nation, some who were militia fighting to maintain existing rule, and others who migrated to Australia or Portugal.  Three generations experienced the transition to independence, and a fourth generation who is too young to know.

Whenever the dinner table conversation turns to politics, or school and work, you feel as if your future and the future of your great nation are being sketched out right there in that very moment. You live in Timor Leste and you have big plans for your country.

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Timor Leste, also known as East Timor, lies about 500 kilometres north of Australia. Papua New Guinea and Indonesia are neighbours. There are about 1.2 million Timorese, with 75 per cent of them under 30 and a significant community outside of the country. One of the most common ways to describe Timor Leste is “Asia’s poorest nation” This, of course is true and its rectification is an immediate priority for both Timorese and the international community. However my experience of Timor Leste tells another story.

In Timor Leste a great cultural tapestry influences its people: the Portuguese, Indonesian and albeit briefly in wartime, the Japanese. More recently China, Australia, America, and Brazil have been added to the mix.

I made my second trip to Timor Leste last month. This time I was writing a blog about Timorese cuisine and society through cooking with women, some familiar and some new, in their homes.

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“I realised that starting any conversation about food opened a deeper discussion of culture and identity in Timor Leste.”

I realised that starting any conversation about food opened a deeper discussion of culture and identity in Timor Leste. Discussing recipes and reviewing cafes was an easy way to reconnect with old friends and examine changes in the country since my trip two years earlier, when many of the meetings were stilted, even if just a little. Talking taro helped to distract from this awkwardness while we grew used to one another. The person I had just sat down with would rightly be wondering who I was and why I was there, what I believed were the good and bad things about the place and how I’d behave in rural communities.

But as I began to speak about writing a food blog and gently began to question cooking practices, local produce, and recipes, something started to soften.

When I met older people and men it was a noticeably smoother discussion about traditional knowledge around food. A friend introduced me to his brother in law. I was introduced as “Heidi from Australia who likes Timorese food”. The pleasantries I was used to cushioning silence with were forgotten.

There were other things to discuss. He told me about local pumpkin and how it is eaten today. I begun to probe, and a slight idea of what living under an authority who terrorises its people took shape. During conflict in the 1970s and 1990s, pumpkin was a “survival food” eaten by pro-independence fighters living in the mountain crevasses. And for anyone living in the line of fire, being on the run became a way of life. The pumpkin was hollowed out and stuffed with rice, and meat if it could be found. It was placed in a hole in the ground, covered with bark and stones, and cooked by a fire built on top. The pumpkin was left in the ground and was returned to up to four days later (although I imagine it was impossible to resist eating a little once just cooked).

The occasions when Timorese friends and foreigners told me about their favourite foods often stretched the conversation to more serious subjects. I was recording interviews with a broad group of people in Dili to gather and explore different perspectives on food issues, such as access and malnutrition. Usually this happened predictably. I would start by asking uncomplicated questions about food before moving to the heavier issues, picking up on the things raised by the person where I could. But when the conversation departed from the plan, the insights were extraordinary.

One morning, the cooking session I had planned with a friend was cancelled because water was not running. Instead, we sat on her veranda on blue plastic chairs and drank Coke. I positioned my iPhone inconspicuously next to her and recorded a short interview. When she briefly disappeared, her grandmother, known as her Avo, pulled up a chair and asked which languages I understood. I replied in broken Tetun.

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Without pausing Avo began talking to me. I caught a handful of words, hoping that my friend would return to translate. She continued to talk, fervently by then. Her eyes grew large and her gestures bigger. My friend returned and sat quietly waiting for Avo to finish. She then began to unravel the words, beginning with the very first thing Avo had said to me: As a young woman, when she refused to marry a Portuguese Officer, he broke both her legs. She was born in a rural area and sold coffee, coconut and sweet potato as a child. When Avo was seven, a buffalo killed her mother. She eventually married, and later left her husband with her two children, adopting a new family when she arrived in Dili, the family of my friend who translates for us now.

These days Avo eats a soup of potatoes and greens three times a day.

Most people would agree that talking about food and cooking deepens understanding between people. In 1999, Sonia, now 22, fled the coastal city of Bacau for Dili with her extended family as fighting spread. Living between three homes in Dili, she and family now grow vegetables and fruit. Sonia quietly explains that she is not a confident cook.

When we meet again, Sonia had spent a weekend with her grandparents, scribbling recipes from her aunt. She had devoured the details of how to cook the banana flowers in her grandparent’s backyard and stories of childhood foods from Bacau that were unavailable in Dili. On my last day she asks me what comes next in this project. She suggests we use a commercial kitchen in Dili and she and I each teach a cooking class to showcase the best local produce.

What can be said about the food of Timor Leste can be said of cultural identity in Timor Leste. Contemporary cuisine is a blend of European, Asian and modern Western flavours and recipes. Historical and political influencers have left their mark; a fusion of religious beliefs, gender roles and relations, and ways of celebrating and mourning.

Further, Timorese food is connected to everything. Every way you look at it, food can be linked to something else about Timor Leste; its climate, maternal health and how to turn a profit at the market; its infrastructure, trade or relationship with Indonesia. In Timor Leste, every matter is bound up with another. The country’s economic prospects are dependent on its youngest finding jobs, which, in turn is affected by an exceptionally young population. The identity of Timor Leste today is about who it has been and what it seeks to become.

Sitting with Avo on that veranda, I had asked after all the hardship and heartache, and in a globalised, hyper-connected world, what she expected for the future of Timor Leste. She spoke sincerely.

As long as young people remember what it took us to find the freedoms we have today, the future of Timor Leste will be bright.

Heidi Zajac is the founder of Cooking Circles, an initiative to facilitate networks between women in Timor Leste and in Canberra by cooking together. The project also collects recipes and profiles of food, makes videos of cooking and tells stories of women on its blog and via social media. Heidi travelled to Timor Leste thanks to seed funding from a Great Ydeas grant from the YWCA Canberra.

If you would like to know more take a look at cookingcirles.org or email Heidi on heidizajac@gmail.com

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