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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Timor-Leste

Historic Diet

The archipelago of Indonesia, which includes Timor-Leste (East Timor), has a number of indigenous foods common in both Timor-Leste and elsewhere today. Sugar, bananas, oranges, and breadfruit are all native to the region, while numerous additional foods arrived to the island with the earliest people to the region.

Among the indigenous and early arriving fruits and vegetables were oranges, bananas, breadfruit, mangos, guavas, taro, cassava, wheat, rice, spinach, garlic, shallots, beans, and melons. Like the diverse plant life, animals were also present, but in limited numbers on the island of Timor. Generally speaking, chicken, duck, boar, and water buffalo were in the region as a whole, although if these animals were consumed by the historic Timorese is unknown as people and animals came and went from island to island. However, it was and still is the fish and other sea life that dominates the diet of the locals when it comes to proteins. Mackerel, tuna, red snapper, anchovy, shrimp, and crab are all prevalent in the ocean and these fish today still make up a substantial percentage of the diet.

Culinary Influences

Timor-Leste was the recipient of numerous foods from nearby regions for much of its early history. These additions, including rice and wheat arrived from far off lands such as India, China, and even the Middle East.

Over the course of a millennia, from the 300s to about the 1300s, Timor-Leste was simply an island in a large archipelago, which today is primarily controlled by Indonesia. The foods that arrived to Indonesia at this time also arrived to the island of Timor. These influences came from various places, but most came from India and China via the islands of Indonesia today. With the Indians came numerous new spices and dishes; curries arrived in great numbers. The Chinese also had a large impact on the food most noticeably with the introduction of soy sauce, which is today an essential component in numerous dishes and sauces.

In the 1500s the Europeans arrived to the region with new foods. Many of these new foods came from the Americas via the Spanish, including maize (corn), potatoes, chili peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. Foods were also brought in from Europe, primarily from the Portuguese, who introduced cheeses, breads, pastries, cakes, and some dairy products, including butter. In addition to the foods the Europeans brought, the region became a center of the spice trade going east and west. This led to the introduction or the increase in popularity of spices and foods from the Far East as well as from India, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

In more recent times, Timor-Leste has continued to receive influences from all over the world. This is best seen in the country's "ethnic" restaurants, which include Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese restaurants among others.

Staple Foods

Root Crops: numerous root crops, including potatoes, taro, sago, and cassava, are popular and found in many dishes

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Batar Daan: a dish consisting of corn, beans, and pumpkin
Budu: a popular tomato-based sauce made with mint, lime, and onion
Caril: coconut curry with chicken
Feijoada: pork, beans, and chorizo sausage
Mee Goreng/Nasi Goreng: fried noodles and fried rice respectively, these dishes served with vegetables are regular items on most menus

Dining Etiquette

Eating in Timor-Leste is quite different from eating in nearby Indonesia as Timor-Leste is primarily Catholic so dining rules are very different. If you are in the company of Muslims though be sure to follow the Indonesian Dining Rules.

Before entering a house or restaurant check to see if others have left their shoes at the door; if so you should do the same then greet everyone personally, elders first. Let your local counterpart arrange the seating and many cases your local host will order food for the entire table so you have multiple dishes to try.

Prior to eating you may notice a small bowl of water on your table; this is for cleaning your fingers so follow the lead of others as you may be asked to wash your hands before you begin eating. Food is often served family style and accepting all food that is offered to you is a must. Once the host invites you to begin eating you may notice the lack of a knife on most occasions. The Timorese tend to eat with both a fork and spoon; the spoon is held in the right hand and the fork is used to push food onto the spoon. Other times the Timorese will eat with only their right hand and you should do the same. No matter what is present, only use your right hand to eat and only bring food to your mouth with your right hand.

When you finish eating, leave a little food on your plate (but finish all of your rice) then place your fork and spoon face down on the plate, with the spoon crossed over top of the fork. After the meal you may be offered a beverage (drinks are usually not served before or with meals); if so you again must accept the drink, but receive it with both hands. As you get your bill you will notice that a service charge is rarely added. Tips are not expected in most restaurants in Timor-Leste, but high end hotel restaurant servers generally expect a tip of about 10%.

Celebrations & Events

Although there are few celebrations tied to particular foods in Timor-Leste, there are numerous holidays that celebrate with family and hence the center of these events is often around a dining table. Most of these celebrations are religious in origin, including Christmas and Easter. As a primarily Catholic country, Timor-Leste brings in these events with family gathers and vast amounts of food.

Drinks

When it comes to Timor-Leste coffee and fruit juices are the best options available. The coffee tends to be on the strong side and has a distinct flavor, while the juice selection is varied and coconut milk is also available. Soft drinks, tea, and milk are all easily accessible as well.

Unlike much surrounding Indonesia, Timor-Leste is primarily Catholic so does allow the consumption of alcohol. Due to the Portuguese influence there are some ports and wines available, however these are imports and generally only found at nice restaurants and hotels. The locals tend to prefer beer, which includes regional beers like "Tiger" as well as European favorites. Hard liquors are also available in hotels and some restaurants, but rarely elsewhere.

The tap water in Timor-Leste should not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: October, 2012