15 December 2008

Dog-be-Gone: Canine Cuisine in East Timor

26 October 2008 - Sam Vincent is left barking up the wrong tree at a village feast.

As we enjoy lunch in his hometown of Tutuala, my guide Julito asks me: "Senhor Sam, you eat in the dark?" - at least that's what I think he asks. His English is good but it comes in a strong East Timorese accent. What does he mean; am I able to eat in the dark, or am I a nocturnal diner by habit?

For the past week we've been exploring his country by motorbike. We've snorkeled pristine reefs, lazed on impossibly white beaches and hiked in a rainforest with former guerillas. Now we're in Tutuala in the country's far east, perched on a cliff above the glittering sea. The bike is being repaired and it's time for lunch.

I'm ushered into a half-built house shaded by a flapping UNHCR tarpaulin, a common roof in East Timor. Inside, it isn't particularly dark, so I'm further confused by Julito's question.

Twelve men smile at me and I am formally welcomed by the village chief or suco. Everyone is very friendly, especially the guy wearing a T-shirt that reads: "Let's cheer up! Hold a bond of friendship you."

A woman appears from another room clutching a giant basket of steaming rice and a pot of aromatic stew. Laden plates are distributed, as are glasses of local palm wine, known as tuaka. The stew is delicious, with chilli, lemongrass and cloves flavouring chunks of tender brown meat. Goat perhaps?

A chicken forages under the table for scraps, tickling my feet. In the first world such a role would be played by a dog but none are to be seen here. I greedily wolf down the stew and am serving myself seconds when Julito nudges me in the ribs.

"So you do eatin' the dark!" When I ask what he means he simply points to a scrawny pooch now waiting at the door. Now I get it. His initial question had nothing to do with eating in the dark but rather, eating the dog.

I've often wondered how I would react in such a situation and assumed I would cause a scene, spitting out the local "delicacy", fleeing, and generally being pathetic.

But I don't. I shake my head in disbelief and keep "eatin' the dark". I'm hungry and besides, declining such a feast in desperately poor East Timor would be akin to mounting the table and dropping my daks.

After the dog dishes have been licked clean, we down shots of tua raki, a spirit made from coconut juice. At this point the chief, having so far kept quiet, declares in English, "Fifty per cent alcohol. Very good." Clove cigarettes are passed around and I am teased for not smoking - just like high school all over again.

Amidst a plume of smoke I lean back in my chair and chuckle. On my family farm we vaccinate our dogs against hydatids, a cyst produced by a tapeworm found in raw meat and commonly occurring in the gut of dogs. When I get home I think I'd better take a tablet.
Source: The Sun-Herald

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