My boss and I were in the four-wheel-drive, heading back to the office after a mid-morning meeting, when he asked if I had a minute. I replied yes, and he pulled the car curbside and parked, gesturing to the restaurant we’d stopped outside of as he said, “I want you to try something.”
We squeezed through clustered chairs and plastic-tableclothed tables crowded with bottles of soy and chili sauce, to the counter at the back of the warung, where a tired-looking woman waited behind a basket of bread rolls. “You eat meat?” my boss asked, and I hesitated. “The inside of a cow,” he continued, without waiting for my answer. “Have you tried it?”
A fit of thoughts flooded through my mind as I paused, then, scrambling for words, told him I don’t usually eat meat, but “hau koko” – I try.
He ordered with the waitress and we sat down briefly, before she came to the table with a tray carrying two bowls of soup, two plates of rice, a saucer of cut lemon, two glasses and a dripping bottle of cold water. Into his soup my boss squeezed lemon juice and dumped salt; I watched and copied, and then followed as he scooped some soup, a fragment or two of a dark limp green and a few large, beige flaps of what I assumed was the beef into his rice. Then, I tried.
The meat was good – it tasted like pork, sweet and fatty – and I liked it with the rich meaty broth soaking into the rice. My thoughts continued swirling, but I enjoyed the lunch, and as my boss sat back, napkin in hand, I returned his question – bosu? full? – with the same word, confirming I was, too.
Later I let my thoughts spill on the meaty meal I’d just eaten.
For a couple of years I’ve been dancing round calling myself a vegetarian – but, truthfully, the beef wasn’t all that unfamiliar to me. I’ve eaten fish twice since I’ve been in Timor (once by accident; I thought it was potato), and on the night I left Perth to come here I shared, joyfully, in one last Raynor family roast dinner (a standing Sunday tradition). But besides that, and a few guilty Christmas prawns, I haven’t eaten meat since I moved to Melbourne 18 months ago, and before that, ate it in Perth just once a week at family roast.
But it was still a departure from the way I usually like to eat, which is a reflection of my ethics – so, the bowl of soup was as much a moral dilemma as it was a filling lunch.
In a split second I attempted to weigh against each other my decision to not eat meat with my desire to comply with my boss and my curiosity to try something uniquely Timorese.
In Australia, I choose not to eat meat largely because I could – I had the budget, the range of supermarkets, and the access to supplements that meant I could nourish myself without eating animals. My decision to avoid meat was an entirely emotional one, divorced from economics or health – I ate to avoid harm to animals and to do my small part to disempower unsustainable and cruel factory farming production. And, in Melbourne, it was just about easier to avoid meat than it was to eat it – I was spoilt living one suburb over from Australia’s vego mecca, Fitzroy.
In Dili, I’ve so far found it similarly – and surprisingly – easy. Tofu and tempeh are cheap and available here, I can buy 12 free-range eggs from my beachside brunch restaurant for $3.50, and with rice and vegetables offered at every warung next to fried chicken and murky pork stews, I never feel like I’m missing out. I even had the best mashed potato of my life the time I tagged along to a steak restaurant with some new Portuguese friends.
But when meat means more than lunch, I falter.
And, right now, I think that’s ok.
I was glad to have naan teen – the beef soup – with my boss today, because I was honoured to share lunch with him, and interested in trying Timorese cuisine. I felt initially uneasy, but then good – and I successfully pushed any image of soft-eyed cows out of my mind.
I don’t want my relocation to serve as an excuse for sidestepping my ethics, but I also don’t want to barge into a foreign country draped in the trappings of my academic, elite, privileged Melbourne life: not everyone has the agency to pick and choose food like I do; not everyone has the privilege of eating on ethics over supply; and I’m in no way better than anyone who does eat meat for the simple reason that I often try not to.
And what’s more important right now – lunch in a warung with my Timorese boss, or saying no?