Timor-Leste’s Agora Food Studio
It’s not easy to find the Agora Food Studio. First you have to make it to Dili, Timor-Leste, then you travel up a narrow side street until you reach an English-language school tucked away behind mango and rose apple trees, and only then do you begin to climb the stairs that lead to the top floor. Welcome! The whole staff sings out a greeting to each guest who crosses the threshold.
“Agora” means “now” in Tetum, the local language, and – aptly – is a Greek term for “gathering place”. The studio was founded by two Australians, Alva Lim, 36, and her husband, Mark Notaras, 38. I met Alva to talk about her connection to Timor-Leste, a post-conflict country, and its unheralded but extraordinary cuisine. It was an impossible task to capture the Alva-ness of Alva, her thoughtfulness and generosity and gentle resolve. Here it is: Alva Lim as told to Julia Leigh.
I first came to Timor-Leste in 2011. My background is in policy and for the first few years here I took various jobs in the development sector, one of which involved promoting sustainable agro-biodiversity across the country.
When I look back at how Agora came into being, it feels like – without me knowing it at the time – everything was a step in the right direction. I started talking with friends in Dili about Timorese cuisine, partly because we rarely saw traditional dishes on a menu. In 2015 I attended Terra Madre, the Slow Food international conference in Italy. It was incredible: an entire stadium full of people deeply invested in food culture. Ligurians can talk for hours about the merits of their olive oil; I realised I’d never heard Timorese growers talking with the same enthusiasm about their own produce. I figured I could keep writing policy reports that few people would ever read or I could take the leap and put policy into practice.
We opened in 2016. It took a huge amount to get there, open the doors. On our first day, I just felt scared. Now – three years later – that fear has died down but I’m always alert, on my toes. Sometimes people are surprised to learn I don’t cook at Agora. I have such a hard time describing my job. I guess I’m more like an executive chef. A choreographer. A bridge builder. An experience creator. We serve breakfast and lunch but I didn’t want us to be called a restaurant. We’re a plant-forward studio dedicated to mentoring local food and coffee innovators.
To me, food is sacred. I’m a self-confessed obsessive when it comes to the freshness of fundamental ingredients. Food should be vibrant. It should nourish you and give you energy. Fresh food feels alive.
It’s a short drive to the studio along the beachfront, at Dili speeds of 20-30km/h. I have my breakfast at the studio; I’m partial to our cassava and black rice crepes with melted palm sugar, banana and a scoop of Bircher oats fermented in our house-made yoghurt. Our flours are also made in-house: we buy our cassava from Taibessi market – truly one of the great markets in the world; the black rice is sourced from producers in Bobonaro, west of Dili.
Usually in the morning I’ll talk with the kitchen team about the day’s menu. Today we discussed some new ingredients that we’d picked up at the market: jicama root, passionfruit leaves and moringa flowers. I’m a huge fan of the passionfruit leaves; they have the special quality of “bitterness” that is prized in Timor-Leste but less well known in European or even other South-East Asian cuisines, including the Filipino cuisine of my family heritage.
My senior chef, Arnaldo “Kelo” Araujo, suggested we could use the passionfruit leaves in a traditional dish from Atauro, an island off Dili – his childhood home. “Rotok batar tuku belar” or “popcorn stew” typically includes stone-smashed popcorn, pumpkin, black turtle beans, pigeon peas and bitter papaya flowers, but today we swapped out the flowers for leaves. And we added a little feta cheese, for acidity – a contemporary touch.
The popcorn stew is a popular staple. Mark and I run another business alongside Agora, the Timor-Leste Food Innovators Exchange. One of the things we do with our team is go out to the remote districts and meet with local growers. We’ll go to the marketplace, gather all the ingredients, document them, and invite locals to share their food stories. Fermented mango seeds, bitter melon, tamarind, jackfruit, yams, plums, little eggplants; all sorts of nuts, leaves, and blossoms… Most of the women who run homestays won’t serve local dishes to passing tourists because they worry the tourists won’t like their cooking, so instead they’ll serve up grilled chicken imported from Brazil and white rice. We once invited a group of these women to our studio just so they could see with their own eyes how much our customers appreciated the Timorese dishes. They couldn’t believe it.
Once we’ve settled on the menu, I’ll write it up, taking care to familiarise customers with the ingredients. The kitchen team will prepare in earnest. A favourite part of my day is what we call our “tasting plate”. This is when the whole staff gathers around and we taste a small sample of all the dishes we plan to serve. Each person will give a dish their score out of 10. Depending on the feedback the chefs might do some fine-tuning.
One dish was a standout today: the beef tukir. Beef and candlenut were marinated with turmeric, ginger, greater galangal, lemongrass, garlic, onion and kaffir lime, and then slow-cooked with mango leaves and Ceylon oak leaves inside a hollow bamboo that had been laid over a wood fire. The French may cook “en papillote”; the Timorese cook “tukir”. For the first time we experimented with serving the dish in a bamboo tube cut in half lengthwise. It’s satisfying to try new things.
Lunchtime… there’s a spike in our collective adrenaline.
“Are you ready?”
Once our customers begin to arrive I keep an eye on things until the orders are taken and everyone is comfortable. A large part of our clientele belongs to a “floating world” of diplomats and specialists in nutrition, health, environment, agriculture, law, human rights, economic development and infrastructure. Agora is a hub, and I enjoy bringing our customers together, making connections.
But really, the heart of Agora rests with the Timorese staff and our local suppliers. The people. Put your employees first, customers will follow – that’s a maxim of Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur who teaches “enlightened hospitality”.
Timorese culture is rules-based. For example, it’s taboo for one of our chefs who grew up in the mountains to prepare fish or food grown near the water. So there are some things he won’t be asked to do; other chefs will take over those duties. For me to effectively put my employees first, I have to be intuitive and guard against assumptions. I do my best to read the context. I have to find the right way to get the information that I need; I’m always learning.
At Agora we are all seeking the answer to a beautifully big question: “What is Timorese cuisine?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 19, 2019 as "Agora explorer". Subscribe here.