We are almost at the one year mark in Timor-Leste (WOOHOOOOO! #wemadeit), and having officially moved into independent housing means lots and lots of experimental cooking. We live on an island with seasonal availability of ingredients, sometimes no eggs for weeks at a time, and a blazing heat that can ruin most dairy products. No problem, Timor. I’ve accepted your food challenges, and here is the proof.
With the purchase of a refrigerator/freezer and a toaster oven and close proximity to the capital city, we have been able to create many of our favorite dishes from back home. Here are my top five!
1. Pumpkin Pie
I never knew how easy it was to make pumpkin pie from scratch until last Thanksgiving spurred me into desperate action (fueled, of course, by my cravings for a taste of home). Thankfully, some farmers had pumpkins available for sale at the large vegetable market in Dili known as Taibesi. This was back in November when it wasn’t really pumpkin/squash season, so I ended up with a less orange tinted cake. However, the taste was still the same—orange pumpkins are just orange squash, and really any squash you find can get the job done. You’re welcome for that information because now you can make pumpkin pie all year round, folks in North America.
Now, you can totally google the better way to make a pumpkin pie, but here is how we did it using Timorese kitchenware. First thing’s first, you need to get your pumpkin all soft and cooked up. You could do this using the double pot method mentioned in my previous post about cooking in Timor, or if you have a toaster oven like I do, use that. You want to cut the pumpkin or other squash down the middle and lay it open face down in a tray (or your double pot) with half a centimeter of water. This creates a steaming effect, which makes for more thorough cooking of your squash. Let it cook in your oven or double pot for 45 minutes, or until soft enough to easily poke a knife through the flesh.
The crust was the easy part, and any recipe online will do. We don’t have a counter or a rolling pin, so instead, we used a cutting board to serve as a counter, and a cup to serve as a rolling pin. If you refrigerate the crust before filling and baking, it is supposed to become flakier. Once the pumpkin is cooked, take a big spoon (or, for you bougie folks, an electric mixer) and blend the pumpkin flesh, condensed or sweetened condensed milk, 2-3 eggs, and your spices (we use fresh cut ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg). I am not a precise baker, I just observe the ingredients, how they are doing, and go from there, but if you want precise, the Internet awaits you.
Pop that baby in the oven and, voila! You have pumpkin pie.
2. Banana Bread
This is a go-to in my home, and the Timorese love it. I used a family recipe, but with a little tweak.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, sometimes there are just no eggs on this island. When you do find them, they are sold for 25 cents per huevo. Yes, that is USD.25 cents. Crazy right? On top of that, much baking in rural communities is done using canned condensed milk, instead of regular milk. Many cakes end up dry, crumbly, and too sweet. Banana bread skips eggs in the recipe, as well as sugar, but UHT/boxed milk is available in almost every district and easy enough to get your hands on. Worst case scenario, buy in bulk because good ole UHT milk does not need refrigerated until opened.
My recipe consists of flour, a little bit of sugar, vegetable or olive oil, baking soda or baking powder, UHT/boxed milk, and bananas (about one banana per egg that would normally be in the recipe). Mix it all together, and bam, you got yourself banana bread that is moist, not too sweet, and most importantly… banana-y.
I’ve only made this once so far, but it came out great! Making your own yogurt isn’t hard at all (though I am not sure how to make almond or other legume/nut-based yogurts… ask the Internet). All you need to start is a little cup of yogurt, easily purchased in the city, or yogurt starter, easily found in a care package. The method to make yogurt is the same for both.
For this recipe, you are going to need 2 quarts (about 1.5 liters or so) of milk, on top of the small cup of yogurt or yogurt starter. Many, many online recipes recommend using a Dutch oven. I winged it without (though you will get thicker, tarter yogurt with the Dutch oven). I used my regular old heavy pot for cooking rice and soups in.
To start, you heat up milk to just under a boil, then shut off the stove and let the milk cool to about the temp of a drinkable cappuccino from Starbucks. Take out a small cup of the warm milk and mix in some of the yogurt starter, or half to a full cup of regular yogurt. Pour this mini-mixture back into the milk pot, stir, and cover tightly. Then, in order to maintain the heat better, I stuck the pot inside my toaster oven. You let the milk/yogurt incubate this way for at least 4 hours. I think the longest is 12 hours (AKA, overnight), but just know that the longer it incubates, the thicker the yogurt gets.
When you want to make another batch, just save a cup of your yogurt, and repeat the process. Goodbye, plastic containers and foil that are totally harsh on the environment, and hello, affordable yogurt in Timor.
Recently, Shaun and I hosted a Fourth of July party at the new house. It was so fun! Here are some of the friends who came and made the day awesome:
Rather than doing the hamburger and hot dog path, we decided to go with America’s very favorite cuisine: TexMex. I should know real TexMex—I lived in Texas and grew up on that stuff! What we made blew my food thoughts, and our friends were transported back to the States via tastebuds.
Our of friends brought all sorts of ingredients from around the island, such as lettuce, beans, tomatoes, bell peppers, corn, onions, garlic, and more. We shredded the lettuce and diced the tomatoes. Shaun and I cooked ground beef using taco seasoning we found while on vacation in May, mixing the meat with onion and garlic and bell peppers. We also marinated the shit out of some chicken using spices a friend brought from the States—Lemon Pepper and Mexican Fiesta from a company called Frontier Co-Op. Needless to say, never have I put such deliciously Americanized, Mexican style food in my mouth in the last year or so. We even had shredded cheese and sour cream (for which the price is $5USD for about a cup and a half of it… worth it). Overall, a successful food experiment.
5. Mug Brownies
This is a PCV crowd pleaser when friends come over, but also amazing solo snackage. I skip on eggs to make this (again, eggs are waaaaay too expensive here) and manage to make fudgy tastiness every time. The ingredients are simple: flour, sugar, cocoa powder, milk, and vegetable oil. I sometimes add vanilla extract, too. You can eat this batter raw, but I like my brownies hot. I do this all in large ceramic coffee mugs I purchased at a Portuguese supermarket in Dili, and bake it in my toaster oven. Sometimes, I pour milk over it (hey, our diet here is basically protein and fat-free. I need to be extra) and this makes it taste almost like I’ve melted vanilla ice cream on it.
In the future, when avocado season comes back, I hope to make avocado mug brownies, to get them even fudgier and a little healthier 😉
Those are our home favorites! What food do you try to replicate when you are far away from home?