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Eating and talking fish in Timor-Leste

Cooked fish with limes, chilli paste and small parcels of rice on a bed coconut leaves
Timorese cuisine: Barbecued fish with katupa rice parcels and chilli pickle. Photo: Joctan Dos Reis Lopes

Every afternoon, as the sun dips closer towards the horizon and its blazing heat begins to soften, the beach in Bebonuk comes alive with activity. Gaggles of kids roam the shoreline, chasing crabs to take home in their cut-off plastic bottle containers. Young men jog along in pairs, some stopping to join a football game at the back of the beach. Fathers sit watching toddlers play in the sand; mothers with babies gather in the shade under the roadside trees.

Just offshore, in the gentle swell, fishers in small dugout canoes scan the surface for signs of schooling fish, put out their nets and wait. One fisher turns to shore and starts paddling back to the beach. Fish traders with buckets emerge from nearby huts and wander down to the water’s edge hoping for a good pile of fresh fish to sell to hungry evening customers. The canoe glides through the waves, surfs onto the sand and disappears into a crowd of people gathered to inspect the catch.

This is an extract from Cooking fish and seafood in Timor-Leste: recipes and stories of traditions and livelihoods, a new book which celebrates Timorese fisheries and food.

In Timor-Leste – a small country located 600 km to the northeast of Darwin – fish and other aquatic foods are fundamental to the livelihoods of many families. Depending on the season and tide, fishers try their luck from paddle canoes and small motorised boats, throw cast nets from shore, or collect seaweed, crabs and octopus from exposed mudflats and rocky reefs. In inland areas, a growing number of small-scale aquaculture farmers raise fast-growing fish in freshwater ponds. Once harvested, fish traders sell and distribute the fish around the country: riding house-to-house by bicycle or motorbike, setting up roadside stalls, or transporting larger quantities to urban centres. Big fish, octopus and mud crabs may be taken to restaurants, while small fish are mainly sold directly to consumers, fresh, or sometimes barbecued with parcels of rice and a delicious chilli pickle.

Full of protein and micronutrients, fish and other aquatic foods are essential in Timor-Leste, where around half of all children under five are chronically undernourished and a quarter of adults are underweight. Whilst most Timorese enjoy eating fish, fish consumption is relatively low compared to neighbouring countries such as Indonesia. It can be expensive for families to buy and can be inaccessible, particularly for inland communities. In addition, fish and fisheries are often left out of conversations on improving health, nutrition and food security, and are not adequately integrated into the country’s food policy.

Cooking fish and seafood in Timor-Leste is a new book of stories and recipes that aims to start conversations on fish and fisheries in Timor-Leste – from encouraging Timorese to eat more fish and have pride in their local foods and cooking methods, to raising the profile of small-scale fisheries with government, aid agencies and other organisations. It has been written by Agustinha Duarte from WorldFish Timor-Leste, together with Hampus Eriksson (also from WorldFish) and myself, Kim Hunnam, a PhD candidate at the Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods (RIEL) at Charles Darwin University, based on stories and recipes generously shared by women and men from around Timor-Leste.

Aerial view of beach with people and boats, mountains in background
Fishing vessels line Bebonuk Beach, Timor-Leste. Photo: Wade Fairley

I first met Agustinha in 2017 when I started fieldwork for my PhD on Timor-Leste’s small-scale sardine fisheries. WorldFish generously allowed me to work from their Dili office, and Agustinha and I became good friends. Born in a village on the south coast of the island, Agustinha is passionate about food from her home country. Trips with her to the rural districts inevitability entail returning to Dili with bags of mandarins, mangos and peanuts, bunches of yellow and red bananas, sacks of tamarind pods, strings of fish, numerous live chickens and occasionally, even a goat!

Over the past two years Agustinha and I worked closely together to turn her ideas and interview notes into engaging stories and easy-to-follow recipes, written in both Tetun (the lingua franca of Timor-Leste) and English. There were challenges – deciding on compelling story angles and titles that made sense in both languages, taking food photos that actually looked appetising, and working with a meticulous editor and a patient publisher with the added challenge of no automatic Tetun spell-check! Luckily, it also involved plenty of laughter and some delicious meals (of course) as it all came together. Now, we are looking forward to sharing our newly published book with the world, but particularly with those individuals and community groups whose stories and recipes feature.

As Agustinha writes in her introduction to the book, it is hoped “…this book will inspire all Timorese, especially the younger generation, to eat healthily, eat more fish and seafood, take an active role in cultural activities, write more books in Tetun and about Timor-Leste, and take pride in [local] food...”

WorldFish has launched the book to coincide with United Nations World Oceans Day on the 8th of June, which this year is celebrating ‘The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods’. This book has been produced under the WorldFish program on fish-based livelihoods in Timor-Leste and as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems (FISH). It was funded by SwedBio, a program at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and has been published by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). It is freely available as an online book or can be downloaded as a pdf.