When food was hard to find, they’d eat nuu-tein, the roughed-up flesh of dried coconuts, with cassava and papaya fruit and wild moringa leaves. Francisca, a farmer, was a young mother of three when her husband passed away. With money tight and mouths to feed, they’d turn to the land for food. In tiny Bikeli village on Atauro Island, 35 kilometres north of Timor-Leste’s coastal capital of Dili, Francisca and her family live like thousands of others in the largely rural country, whose 1.2 million people have survived on their land throughout a convoluted history of occupation, conflict and rebuilding – and who are now looking to food, nutrition and agriculture to drive development and propel an estimated 40% of the population out of poverty.
“Even though we see that this food is nearly lost, some generations don’t eat like this anymore. There is hope,” said Safira Guterres, a 20-year-old food storyteller with Timor-Leste Food Innovators Exchange (TLFIX), which catalogues and preserves indigenous ingredients and traditional ways.
On a trip to Atauro last month, Guterres sat with Francisca and learned the story of nuu-tein. She posted a photo on Facebook with the caption “Come and discover local food.”
“We eat that with kumbili,” came a reply, referring to a local yam-like tuber. Another commenter suggested cassava, and another suggested dry rice, pickled chilli and a cup of palm wine. Guterres’s colleague mixed nuu-tein with coconut oil and called it chocolate brownies.
Beneath the experimentation and curiosity is an urge to understand how people have nourished themselves and how Timor-Leste can build a thriving food economy after decades of oppression.
One tragic consequence of Timor-Leste’s liberation from occupation is a loss of tradition and obfuscation of cultural practises. Four hundred and fifty years of Portuguese colonial rule saw valuable native sandalwood forests razed and trees processed into oil to pay administrators’ wages and fund remittances. Coffee crops replaced the sandalwood, and the health of soil and trees was neglected in fierce pursuit of greater and greater yields. Portuguese paun, or bread, swapped out traditional corn and tubers on plates – then two subsequent decades of Indonesian occupation after a brief independence in 1975 saw Timor-Leste transition to a white rice-heavy diet, which children were soon taught as being the Timorese way. Food imports climbed as families were displaced by occupying forces attempting to isolate resistance guerrillas holed up in Timor-Leste’s steep mountains, curtailing the traditional slash-and-burn mobile agriculture and sending crop yields tumbling.
Now, in independent Timor-Leste, the vast majority of households – between 75% and 85% of the rural population – lie along the continuum between subsistence and aspiring commercial farming households, dipping in and out of the cash economy as their circumstances change. On small farms and in home gardens on steep mountain slopes and sandy flats, they grow pesticide-free organic food, feeding themselves and occasionally selling small surpluses – often reinvesting some of that cash into imported price-inflated sacks of rice, packages of Indonesian instant noodles and crinkly sachets of MSG seasoning.
“Children are addicted to imported food, fast food,” said Guterres. “They just want to eat quickly.” She listed Indonesian cup noodle brands favoured by the children: “SuperMi, IndoMie, PopMie.”
Luis Pereira, a researcher with the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, agreed: “Why don’t we like eating the food we grow? Families grow cassava, a lot of cassava, but import rice.”
With unyielding soils, unproductive crops and problems storing food year-round, it’s understandable why families are turning to packaged products. Crops on average yield 2.2 tonnes per hectare, while global averages are around 5 tonnes per hectare. As much as 40% of crop yields is lost after harvest.
“Farmers lose a little at each stage of the process, so they don’t realise there is such great loss,” said Pereira. He heads up an innovation department that is training farmers on storage procedures and researching aflatoxins, the group of fungi that plague corn and peanut crops. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries partners with an A-list of international donors dedicated to improving seed varieties and crop yields, intensifying the nutrition of local crops and encouraging communities to serve diverse vegetables in dishes.
While rural development and economic diversification have been repeatedly identified by the government as requirements for economic growth, opportunities remain elusive for rural families – and economic lethargy starts at home.
Guterres has done ingredient research with Agora Food Studio, the experimental food incubator-cum-sleek Dili brunch spot favoured by embassy staffers and aid workers. It’s one of the few high-end expat restaurants in town serving dishes based on local ingredients – think smoked black-rice salad, fire-roasted corn and fresh tamarind-turmeric juice – and perhaps the only one in masquerade: Agora Food Studio’s founders see the place as a social venture, one that unlocks the skills and curiosity of a new generation of Timorese chefs and eaters, rather than merely a place where hungry foreigners can part with their money.
Pride in local food is key, said co-founder Mark Notaras, for local people to transcend the poverty historically associated with native ingredients and for visitors who are nervous about culinary unknowns.
“A lot of people come to Timor and they bypass the local markets,” he told Dirt Online in an interview last year. “There’s a fear factor involved in getting local products – fear around health and safety, knowing what things are, how to cook them, how to use them, not liking to bargain. Then, a couple years before they leave, they regret it. What we’re trying to do is cut out those two years and get people when they arrive, give them information – so they can demand more local products for themselves.”
Restaurants often rely on imported food, which is likely due to Dili’s aid-buttressed economy, a large foreign population that prefers global dining options, limited local food processing and underdeveloped market links for farmers. The pineapple on the Hawaiian pizza at expat-friendly Castaway Bar comes from a can even though the fruit grows wild in Timor-Leste’s tropics.
Despite the clear difficulty of finding reliable commercial supplies of ingredients, many do try. Restaurateur Cesar Gaio feeds local fish, beef and rice to patrons at his Dilicious restaurant in the central Dili suburb of Bebora. Rice grows well in Timor-Leste’s irrigated flats, but small yields don’t yet compete with international import prices. Gaio said local flavours taste better without costing more.
“Our food, meat, vegetables, all foods are fresh, so we charge the same price as other restaurants,” he said. “I’m a person with a big passion for local food.”
A thriving food economy is a complicated web of strong local production, reliable market links and demand for nutritious and abundant food sources. Agriculture research suggests untapped potential.
Australian project Seeds of Life saw an extra $1,000 to $2,000 per year flow to farmers because of improved seed varieties for mung bean, red bean and soybean. The US-funded Developing Agriculture Communities project helped 500 farmers earn an extra $2,000 per year growing horticulture crops – the first rows of the broccoli, cauliflower and bok choy now common on Dili supermarket shelves. And that rice so loved by Gaio could help farmers triple their income: Recent modelling by the Australian government showed that farming families in rice-growing areas can increase income from less than $1,000 to $3,000 per annum by diversifying and improving their farming systems.
But Guterres reminds us that economics is just one part of the story: “When we don’t know about food, we also don’t know how to cook it, prepare it, innovate with it. Food connects with language, culture, tradition. We will lose it if we can’t document it.”
Guterres said young people are growing increasingly interested in old food and stories, perhaps representing a challenge to the idea that subsistence agriculture is for the old, poor and hungry, and that youth are lazy, bored, disengaged.
“My friends now start asking me about these foods,” she said. “They ask me, ‘Why do you like it?’ I speak with them, I tell the story, tell them how to cook it, invite them to my house to try.”