The very first host family I lived with since being in Timor was located in a subsistence farming community in the mountains. Being that the electricity regularly goes out (hello, candlelit dinner, reading, going to the outhouse…) cooking here is done in a very traditional manner, with a few modern twists. That said, my first host family’s kitchen was a small, non-ventilated bamboo hut behind the main house, where three cinder blocks elevated a large wok over a crackling fire. There were two wooden tables and a low bench for crouching by the fire to cook. Basic add-ins listed the table on one side—things like salt and garlic and onions and umami powder. The other table had a bucket of water and a rag to wash off dishes. Besides the giant wok, cooking supplies included a giant machete (often carried to and fro by the seven-year-old daughter), a large metal spatula, and two pots with lids.
Let’s just say that my experienced camper of a husband ended up doing most of the helping in the kitchen—much to the confusion and delight of our hard working host mom. In that kitchen, we were able to cook carbonara, rice, stir fried veggies, meats, soups, doughnuts, roast coffee beans, make coffee and tea, small cakes and more. Most of these things you wouldn’t know how to do without an oven or a stove or fancy utensils and cutting boards. But the Timorese have figured it all out—and have quickly humbled what I thought were great cooking skills for a twenty-something year old like myself.
Fast forward to now, nine months into my service, and my husband and I are about to embark on our next adventure in Timor—moving into our very own home! I know, I know, our first home together is going to be a cinderblock house with a rusty tin roof in a developing country. We are just the coolest. With this move, of course, means purchasing a few furnishings for our new home. While Peace Corps does not allow volunteers living alone to cook over a fire, we do get to use a large gas stove (thank God, though, because cooking over a fire is not my forte). Whatever else we decide to buy is up to our discretion. Our kitchen will luckily be an indoor area of the main house, but unlike back home it won’t have a stove, oven, counters, or cabinets. Here is a list of what we are getting for our kitchen, with some ideas for people back home, too.
Two Pots and Lids
Out here in Timor, small to medium sized toaster ovens are becoming popular but aren’t always accessible (plus we don’t have a budget for one…yet). You can easily create an oven by boiling water in a larger pot, and placing a smaller pot with your batter inside. I’ve helped make flan/custard pudding this way with my current host family, and it works in a pinch. The baking may take longer, but you still get to have a cake when you are done. (*EXTRA, EXTRA* down below with how to do this!).
This is one of the most popular appliances available in Timor, being that boiling water quickly can kill much of the bacteria that can make water unsafe to drink. Timorese also love their coffee and tea, so having one of these guys around makes preparing hot water an easy task. Of course, a great alternative is to just boil water in a pot, but what can we say, living here has influenced us!
Cutting Board and Knife
I know that back home these things are a given, but I have never seen a real kitchen knife or cutting board in anyone’s house here in Timor. The usual way to prep veggies involves using large machetes or small box cutting blades, which while cheap, just isn’t safe. Having just one, medium sized chef’s knife around and a small cutting board can make a kitchen so much more accessible and safe, and cost very little when furnishing your own kitchen.
Shaun and I don’t plan to get one of these for a while, but it is a staple in the Timorese kitchen. The staple food here is white rice, so of course, most people use these rice cookers to cook, well, rice. But you can also use rice cookers as slow cookers. My current host family has made many a bean and potato stew in their medium sized rice cooker, and it is easy and delicious. I have a friend who has also used a rice cooker to bake, and she used hers to make brownies. Rice cookers = the cheap, electric alternative to stoves and oven everywhere.
I’ve never experienced the joy that comes with drinking your coffee grounds until I came to this country, because traditionally brewed coffee here can sometimes mean coffee grounds being mixed with hot water like Nesquik. While one hopes the grounds will settle to the bottom, having a French press around to give you a better cup of Joe(anna) is a little bit of bougieness in a life of very little in the way of bougie.
Two Buckets and a Rag
In the same way a kitchen here is very simple, so are the cleaning facilities. Dish soap is pretty available in bigger, more city-like areas here, so we can get our hands on that. However, one thing that is very hard to replace in a Western kitchen is the sink. Oh, do I miss doing dishes in a sink. However, we’ve picked up on a pretty efficient way to do dishes here using two buckets of water—one to scrub, the other to rinse and put away in the sun or a drying rack. Works pretty well!
We decided to treat ourselves to this beauty because when it comes to making some good ole American classics, a big deep wok just isn’t going to do it. Think omelets, pancakes, grilled cheeses (really, grilled anything). Maybe it is from living here for a while now, but just being able to have a flat pan hanging around makes me smile ear to ear.
*EXTRA, EXTRA* Baking a Cake, Oven-Free
-2 pots, one with a raised bottom*, one to act as your ‘dish’ for the cake
-Open fire/gas stove/electric stove
- After preparing your chosen batter (brownies, pound cake, custard, etc), set aside in a bowl.
- Fill the larger pot with water, up until the level of the raised bottom. Set it over your fire or stove and bring the water to a rolling boil.
- Butter/oil/nonstick your second pot, pour your cake batter in, and set inside of the larger pot.
- Maintain a relatively high simmer, lowering for a slower bake (depends on the type of cake) and put the lid on the big pot to create your ‘oven’.
- Check in on your batter every 15 minutes, until your cake is cooked through. Then you’re done!
*If you can’t find one of these, use a pot with a built-in strainer, or place a raised metal rack in the bottom, like a grille.
Your kitchen can literally be a table with appliances on it to replace stoves and ovens, and buckets to replace sinks. So when you are trying to get creative in your lackluster kitchen, try using a rice cooker as a slow cooker (if it is cheaper) or two pots to create a water oven if you don’t have a regular one. that you can make very little do wonders—we definitely have been able to here.