The Powers of a Diverse Diet

Eco-gastronomy in Timor-Leste can teach us many lessons

By David Szanto

What makes an ecosystem healthy? Natural environments resist impact when they comprise a wide range of species and biological redundancies. Human bodies stay well when we vary our diet, exercise the different parts of our minds and bodies, and keep our immune systems lively with lots of beneficial microbes. And food cultures? Perhaps they, too, remain resilient when diversity is a key characteristic.

On a recent visit to Timor-Leste, a sovereign island country just north of Australia, I witnessed a place exploding in biodiversity. Plant species abound, including many types of tropical fruits, vegetables, roots, legumes, and grains. Coffee, honey, cacao, and spices are important Timorese exports, while sago is a local source for palm wine and flour. The equatorial island is just 15,000 square kilometers in area, yet among the 1.2 million inhabitants, nearly 45 distinct languages and dialects are spoken.

Many of us know this place better as East Timor, a country that was wracked by violence from the 1970s to the 1990s. A former Portuguese colony, Timor was invaded by Indonesia shortly after declaring independence in 1975, one year after Portugal abandoned its interests there. Today, after a period of UN peacekeeping, the nation is reconstructing itself, and food plays a key role.

A significant player in this process is Eugenio (Ego) Lemos, a well-known musician, educator, and food activist. He has succeeded in getting a local food curriculum inserted into the primary school system, and his songs focus on pride and pleasure in Timorese gastronomy. Ego is a storyteller and a catalyst for change, and a founder of the non-profit, Permatil, which teaches kids about permaculture and organic gardening.

Alva Lim is another force for food in Timor. Born in Australia, Alva came to Timor a few years ago as a development worker, along with her husband, Mark Notaras. Now the two are setting up a café and food lab where they will promote local products and flavours while experimenting with fermentation and other international influences. Their idea of “development” is about crossfertilizing commerce and storytelling, cooking and politics.

During my too-brief visit to Dili (Timor’s capital city), Alva and Ego took me to the Taibessi market, a concrete and corrugatedplastic temple of food. The scale of the place is astounding; by comparison, the Jean-Talon market looks like a dépanneur. Products range from lemongrass to long pepper, lettuce to citrus, chiles and spices, and at least four varieties of avocado. Giant bitter melons and betel nuts were arranged next to cracked corn and three types of passion fruit. On and on it went.

On my way back to Montreal, I wondered about our own food culture, as well as our heritage of colonization, invasion, and political tensions. Certainly these things are not at the scale of Timor’s history, yet the parallels raise questions about the resiliency of québécois gastronomy. How can we celebrate and increase the diversity of our communities, agriculture, and cuisine? How can Timor-Leste teach us to be stronger and more healthful, through the diversity of our food?

David Szanto earned his PhD in gastronomy from Concordia University. During 2016, as part of an ongoing research project with Italy’s University of Gastronomic Sciences, he is traveling around the world to learn about local food systems and practices.


Summer 2016, Vol 8 N°3

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