About the Food of East Timor

I love shiny new things. A pretty necklace. Babies. Entire countries.

In the sparkling seas of southeast Asia, lies a rugged new country called East Timor (Timor-Lest). Since 2002 she’s been like a fledgling, working through the tricky business of self-sufficiency. While times are still tough, there’s beauty in watching her spread her wings, a country with possibility written all over her.

The people eat what they can farm or fish. Meals are straightforward – chicken, fish, rice – Asian with a splash of Portuguese influence.

The fantastic author, Karen Coates (former travel correspondent for Gourmet) writes about her voyage to East Timor:

No matter how the day passes, dinner will hold its own. Pay a fisherman $10; get the whole damn 8-foot tuna (or snapper or other catch of the day) grilled with garlic, butter and salt over a beachside flame [Recipe].

Incredible. I can’t imagine anything better.

If you’re still hungry after eating an 8-foot tuna, take a stroll and risk temptation. Karen tells me that vendors are happy to ladle bowls of bakso noodle soup to hungry passersby [Recipe]. The soup delicately layers simple ingredients, including meatballs (bakso) [Recipe], broth, vegetables – such as bok choy and celery – noodles, and crunchy deep-fried tofu [Recipe]. A healthy squirt of chili sauce gives the soup as much, or as little, heat as you can take.

While dessert is a luxury, coffee is not. Karen has great memories of drinking Timorese coffee, a decadent treat when served with loads of sugar and milk.

I highly recommend Karen Coates’ blog, The Rambling Spoon (she’s also on facebook). Her wonderful writing (seasoned by years abroad) and her husband’s vivid photography have won accolades from Times Online, Saveur, and more. Later this week I’ll be posting an interview with Karen.

In Karen’s words:

The vast majority of people I interview about food cook because they must. It’s a chore, it’s what they do, and despite my fascination with their creations, they frequently find nothing remarkable about them. My mother has cooked through her entire married life, and she’d rather not. Certainly, there are chefs and “foodies” and plenty of people I meet who share my obsessions with all things edible. But the Khmer woman who fries her fish and serves it with green mango? The Kuy villager who tromps through fields and returns home with a bundle of bitter greens? The Naga woman who cooks her chiles in ash and makes tree-tomato chutney? The Timorese fisherman who grills giant tunas with garlic? Inevitably, when I start asking questions, the answer is: “It’s normal, it’s “everyday food,” it’s what they do—and they eye me in a way that says they’re unaccustomed to such attention to their work. Though a little bit mystified, they are pleased with my interest in what they perceive to be, simply, life.

Photos by Canonreflex, Nick Hobgood, & Kok Leng, Maurice Yeo.


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