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Do you have something to say about food, Timor Leste, or gender equality? Get in touch with a us through the contact page and include a short pitch about your piece. Visual media is also welcome. 

Guest Bloggers

Sonia Guterres

David Lipson

Karl Zajac (Dietician)

Sarah Burr (Agriculture and Development Masters graduate)

Jeanette Purkis

Opinion piece on food in contemporary Timor Leste

IMG_0882by Sonia Guterres

Sonia is a energetic 21-year old woman, living in Dili with her family and studying law at university. Find her story under Women’s Profiles here on the blog.

Food has been an essential part of our lives in Timor Leste and shapes our modern day gastronomy. Without nutritious food, we can’t grow to be healthy or even survive. The first time I worked with Mana Heidi was a unique experience, especially when talking about food and how much she loves the food in Timor. In the first few weeks of our conversation about food was fantastic and for Heidi, the food in Timor Leste is something special. Trying out the food in a restaurant in the corner of Dili provided us a delicious meal, and gives tourists like Mana Heidi the opportunity to taste local food.

I am particularly inspired by the quality of the food that grows in Timor Leste. The types of food and the way they are grown can help make our society a healthy one, and contribute to the sustainability of our country. Timor Leste has a wide variety of foods, which are often organic, pure rich and nutritious, and free from pesticides. As half the population survives on their own grown agriculture products this contributes to the health of the population and sustainability of the country’s food produce.

In this piece I am going to talk about what values I have inherited within my family that create my special interest in food. I will also convey my personal opinion about some critical issues in contemporary Timor Leste, such as the lack of appropriate food distribution that causes some rural communities to experience malnutrition.

In general, Timor Leste is a country that has a rich diversity of foods which contribute to people’s daily lives. Most of the population does live from the produce they grow, and the majority earn their living from agriculture. In my experience, to have good food, is very dependent on the cook, and how he or she can adapt it in various ways in cooking. In my family, we have a sort of belief that, when we cook with anger, the food will not give us as much flavor as we like, but when we cook with positive thinking and a good sense of values, the food will be good and very nutritious. For some of us, we believe that to grow good food it is important to have the intent to cook it properly and have a good sense of what we are cooking.

I admire how food has been very important for friends abroad who note how Timorese food are so healthy and organic, and yes, it is true! In my family, vegetables and meat and rice are consumed most days. Based on these sorts of food we eat almost everyday, in my opinion what is special about Timorese food, it that it is simple, green, nutritious and healthy, whenever families in Timor Leste eat this way as most do. Many Timorese grown foods that are traditional to the country are of high quality in nutrition and of production.

At certain time, due to some season interchanges with the climate, sometimes most crops do not produce as well as expected. This can lead to malnutrition in communities, and at least affects the quality and diversity of food available to the community. Hence, it is important for experts to conducted research about improving crops to make informed decisions about what particular things need to be done to prevent communities being badly affected by lack of food.

Food is an inclusive dynamic part of life worldwide that shapes values in a community and society. One of the problems that has occurred in Timor Leste to date is malnutrition among children and babies. This has happened because many parents do not understand what is needed for good health of their children. I worked in a non-profit organization health clinic called Bairo Pite in Dili a couple of years ago. I observed observing high numbers of malnourished children aged under just 5 years of age. It is a reality for most children who live in rural areas due to the limited foods and resources to make meals nutritious ones. Malnutrition has been a huge problem for rural communities for the past 10 years. However, since this ongoing poverty has been becoming understood around the world, the people of Timor Leste can encourage the Timorese Government and Non-Government Organisations to help the children in need.

– September, 2014

Road Trip

IMG_0821by David Lipson

David Lipson travelled with Heidi to Timor Leste in September 2014 and is her much adored partner. David loves to travel and when he is not away on an adventure, works as a journalist in Canberra.

As I lie on my bed and stare at the corrugated iron ceiling I can almost see the ripples of heat radiating downwards onto my face. I’m sweating. The pigs and roosters (always roosters) just outside my window don’t let me sleep. Somehow though, when I think about paying good money and using up precious holidays to get here, I smile.

I’m in the ‘New City’ of a town called Bacau in Timor Leste. I’ve come here with Heidi, yes, to help with Cooking Circles, but also to have a break from it all. To experience a country I should have known a lot more about. I’ve been lucky to have travelled a lot, mostly to developing countries in Asia. But Timor feels different. Like a prisoner that’s been set free after a life sentence – somewhat damaged by the experience – but mostly hopeful, thankful, with eyes wide, ready for the road ahead.

We’re staying with the relatives of our host family. A gorgeous family of 6, they’ve given up their bedrooms so we can have separate rooms, since we’re not married. I don’t know where they all slept.

We finish yet another mountain of food for breakfast. We giggle as we take selfies with the kids (have we really been here just one night?). We say our goodbyes, climb into the rental car and head for the hills.


We’re due to meet another family for more Cooking Circles goodness. They live in Venilale, which was a known supply town for rebels hiding in the hills during Indonesian occupation.

It’s a beautiful drive. Dodging roosters, counting churches, skipping from town to town, through open hillsides and terraced rice paddies.

As we come around a bend, there’s a group of people gathered around a pile of rocks and debris over half the road. The other half of the road has been washed away in a recent storm. There is nowhere to go. I stop the car and look over the group of about 30 young men. There is no one over 40. Some look like they’ve been drinking. In my mind, the serenity turns sinister. I’ve heard enough stories to know these “roadblocks” don’t always end well.

One craggy looking guy approaches the window. As I put on a stern, but friendly face, I’m simultaneously calculating how much cash we have, whether the Rav-4 could make it over the debris at full throttle, what I’d say if they asked Heidi to get out of the car…

“Five dollars.”

A wave of relief.

I hand over the cash. He gives a signal, a path is cleared for us and we drive through.

Over the next 30 minutes, Heidi and I scare ourselves witless as we talk over the other ways it could have gone. But as we roll into town and meet our next Cooking Circles family, a wave of hospitality promptly washes it all away.

We’re fed to the gills, eyes and tastebuds popping, as we attempt communication with 3 different generations in 4 different languages: Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia, Tetum and English.

After a few hours it’s time to say our goodbyes again. We beep the little Rav4 horn and wave out the window as we drive away.

And then remember – we have to get back through the roadblock again to get home. The sun is getting low.

I imagine the young men talking over the past few hours about how they let us off easy. How they could take an ‘appropriate’ fee when we return.

Heidi and I discuss tactics and outcomes as we stay on the dusty tail of another car, driven by locals. Safety in numbers.

Around a bend and there is the familiar clearing. The roadblock. The group of men. The car in front stops. We can see the conversation between the craggy man and the driver getting animated. After a full five minutes, money is exchanged and the car drives off.

We’re alone again.

The craggy man approaches my window and peers in.

And then smiles.

A broad, friendly, toothy smile of recognition. We’ve already paid the tax. He gives the signal. A path is cleared.

As I drive through I see a man with a spade mixing cement in a pile of sand on the side of a road. Another is carrying rocks to the part of the road that’s been washed away.

It wasn’t a shakedown. They weren’t bandits. It was just East Timor’s version of road-works. Without help from Government to repair the road, they had to do it themselves. And without enough money to buy the materials themselves – they had to collect their own toll, from the drivers who used it.

It’s classic Timor. There’s a somewhat hard undercurrent. An inescapable feeling that its people have seen and experienced far worse than any should have to. But there’s an ingenuity. And a hopefulness. And inevitably, a broad, toothy smile.

– September, 2014

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