Participants of the cooking competition in Baucau Central Market

And the winner is … good nutrition!

By Therese Johnson, Communications Consultant, World Vision Timor-Leste. It’s a sunny Thursday morning in Baucau, Timor-Leste. Market day. On a small hill across the road from Baucau Central Market, vendors have staked their territory with plastic sheets. On top are their fruit and vegetables, carefully arranged into neat piles. Immediately I’m drawn to the little limes and chillies, the bunches of bananas, and blooming bouquets of spinach and spring onion. It’s an enticing display of fresh, local produce for sale. The market sellers are mostly women, who happily sit and chat as they scan the crowd for their next customer. Hundreds of people will pass by today. They come from all directions, arriving on foot, motorbike, pushing two-wheeled carts, or stepping off one of the colourfully decorated public buses that honk their horns and inch their way through the mass of people. Dogs are barking, chickens squawking. It’s the usual hive of activity. But today, there’s extra commotion. In front of me, ten women – in five groups of two – are busy chopping wood and stoking portable stove fires. Small tables are stacked with pots, frying pans, mixing bowls, plates, cooking oil and utensils. The women wear matching brown aprons over their striped skirts, made from tais, the traditional Timorese fabric. As smoke wafts over the marketplace, onlookers take a break from their shopping to see what all the fuss is about. They soon realise what they’ve stumbled across – a cooking competition! The contest is part of a World Vision market event promoting the agricultural production of crops that are a nutritious source of food. 
Promoted nutritious foods: mungbean, red kidney bean, tofu and orange sweet potato
The cooking competition promoted the use of nutritious foods like mungbeans, 
red kidney bean, tofu and orange sweet potato / Photo: Jaime dos Reis / World Vision
 Timor-Leste has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the Asia-Pacific. Half of all children under five years suffer from stunted growth – a result of poor nutrition in which children are too short for their age. With support from the Australian Government, World Vision is training farmers groups and parents clubs on how to grow nutrient-rich crops, like orange sweet potato and soybean, and how to prepare nutritious meals for their children. Having participated in this training, today’s competitors are ready to put their skills to the test. In their sights is a table almost overflowing with fresh, nutritious ingredients: red kidney bean, mungbean, tofu, egg, orange sweet potato, tomato, spring onion, mustard greens and moringa. Ready, set, go – and they’re off! The ten women nearly bowl me over as they rush towards the table. Hands are flying as they grab their ingredients, a frenzied free-for-all. They hurry back to their cooking stations and wash their hands with soap and water. Then they start grating, slicing, mixing and dicing. Watching on with pen and paper in hand, are the competition judges. Their criteria is very specific, with marks awarded for taste, presentation, aroma, hygiene, cooking time, and most importantly, the use of nutritious ingredients. One of the competitors, Joana, has a steely look of determination on her face as she huddles over a mixing bowl. She’s preparing a dish of Perkedel Tahu, bite-sized balls of orange sweet potato, soybean and egg pan-fried in vegetable oil. Yum. As the oil pops and sizzles, I can smell the fried goodness in the air. Joana is a mother of three who is benefiting from the project. “My kids love eating this food because it’s highly nutritious,” she told me. “Thank you World Vision for helping me learn the ingredients of the local foods that are easy to find in my village.” Joana prepares the finishing touches by chopping a garnish of spring onion and moringa. One by one the contestants bring their dishes to the judging area. First up is a tomato and moringa omelette, followed by mungbean and coconut milk soup, red kidney bean broth, fried tofu and Joana’s Perkedel Tahu. 

Delicious tomato and moringa omelette

Delicious tomato and moringa omelette / Photo: Jaime dos Reis / World VisionThe food is carefully served in clay and wooden bowls, or atop vibrant banana leaves. Wooden forks and spoons, tea pots and cups, and colourfully woven placemats adorn the dishes. One even has a lighted candle – how romantic! The women line up in a row and explain what they have cooked, while the judges make their final decision. Looking at the array of appetising meals I suddenly realise … I’m hungry! Finally the winning dish is announced: the omelette. Joana comes in third place, but she doesn’t mind. “I loved being involved in this competition because it has improved my cooking skills,” she said. My World Vision colleague, Antonia, was one of the judges. “The omelette definitely tasted the best,” she confirmed with me afterwards. With the awards presented and the crowd dispersed, it was time to go home. My stomach was grumbling, but fortunately there were plenty of leftovers. “Try some of the omelette,” Antonia said. I’m not one to leave a plate half empty, so I helped myself to some award-winning omelette. It was delicious! And it tasted even better knowing that nutritious meals like this will help children in Timor-Leste grow up healthy and strong.