Timor-Leste does dendeng

A couple of weeks ago, the culturekitchen foodlab was asked by the Republic of Timor-Leste’s Embassy here in Canberra to represent Timorese cuisine at its Multicultural Festival debut in 2015. We are honoured and humbled by this request.

Our own history with Timor-Leste is long but always punctuated by one constant: food with our friends. Food in Timor is not abundant, and perhaps because of its scarcity, it is relished and always enjoyed among company. My own memories are intertwined with food:

Minutes-old tuna fish served with air manas (chilli sauce) cooked on a BBQ thrown together with fallen branches – somebody is fanning the flames while simultaneously battling smoke in their eyes on a beach in the country’s far east. Batar (BBQ corn) drizzled with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and Ketupat (compresed coconut steamed rice served in a little pouch made from woven banana leaves) on the Dili beach front at sunset to gossip. Koto (bean soup) in a farmer’s house high up in the hills of Maubisse who is so proud of his household’s crop of red beans doubled that season. Tukir (smoked meat in bamboo tubes) and intricately layered salads with cos lettuce leaves as big as a plate with perfectly sliced tomatoes served at a wedding party. And I will never, ever forget the smell of freshly baked Poun (small bread rolls) sold in a tiny little tin-shed ‘corner shop’ as the morning mist lifts off the road in Los Palos.

Food serves as moments of connection to our pasts, presents and futures.

The community of young Timorese nationalists who fought for independence from Indonesia’s 24 years of oppression was forged over shared bowls of supermi (Indonesian brand of instant noodles). These Indonesian-speaking Timorese nationalists were once referred to as the supermi generation by their Portuguese-speaking elders. The term stuck and defined the haves and have-nots of access to state power and decision making in the new nation’s first decade.


Young Timorese who studied in Indonesia during the 1990s described to me the pleasures of eating dengdeng rusa (dried deer meat) and instantly feeling at home back in Timor-Leste. The meat had been brought from Timor by a 13 hour bus ride to Kupang, West Timor, before boarding a 12 hour Pelni ship ride to Surabaya and a further 10 hour journey by train to Yogyakarta, smuggled in a fellow student’s or family member’s backpack. The story of the meat’s journey was relished as much as the meat itself.

Over the coming weeks, the culturekitchen foodlab is going to introduce Timorese cuisine to you. So, Get.Ready