Creating change through cooking – Heidi Zajac

Heidi Zajac is the founder of Cooking Circles, a unique, grassroots project that connect women to each other in Timor-Leste and in Australia through communal cooking, sharing meals and starting conversations (amongst other things!). That simple description doesn’t really do this project justice though – Cooking Circles is the kind of project that is constantly evolving, that is responsive to new opportunities, and that is innovative according to the needs of the women involved.

Heidi recently won an Encouragement Anti-Poverty Award for Cooking Circles, and I thought it would be a great time to catch up with her to find out more about the project, what’s in store for the next few months, and what drew Heidi to Timor-Leste in the first place.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I’m a keen bush walker and I love to read fiction. I grew up in the Blue Mountains just west of Sydney so that’s possibly how those interests emerged! I grew up with my mum and dad and younger brother. Dad was born in Poland and I’ve two older brothers there today.

I love to travel – exploring places and meeting people has always been something I’ve found energises me.

How do you describe Cooking Circles to someone who is hearing about it for the first time?

That’s a good question. I like to emphasise the relationships aspect of the program – it is about building connections between women and we use the process of cooking as a tool to build relationships.

Although Cooking Circles runs in Canberra and Timor-Leste, the two projects operate independently of one another. The Canberra project is inspired by Timorese women. Canberra draws inspiration from the ways they cook together and use cooking as a means of socialising, passing down knowledge, and staying connected to their culture and community.

What made you interested in supporting women in Timor-Leste?

I grew quite fascinated with the county when I first travelled there in 2012. There were a bunch of reasons I was compelled to visit the place, and one of these was the suffering the Timorese people had endured particularly during the later years of the Indonesian occupation. Timor-Leste is one of Australia’s nearest neighbours and yet I knew so little about the people, so I knew I needed to know more.

It had been over a decade since the worst of the conflict that left one third of the population dead from malnutrition, disease and violence. During my visit, the people I came to know, mostly women, expressed frustration that their lives and culture were perceived by foreigners as inferior. At the same time I was falling in love with the country and I wanted to portray this positive and strong side of Timor that was less recognised.

The Timorese women including Berta and her nieces who I lived with in 2012 and again in 2014,  adopted a big sister-type relationship with me and so I came to share stories and eventually recipes with the women. Growing up I’d always been encouraged, ‘do more of what you love’, and so pursuing these burgeoning friendships and my love of travel, reading and writing, cooking and social justice seemed to all fall into place to create Cooking Circles.

When did you first visit Timor-Leste, and what was it like? Was it like what you expected it to be?

My first visit to Timor-Leste in 2012 surprised me with the complex ways culture and politics interacted; and I was surprised by how quickly I warmed to people I’d just met. The beauty of the country was unexpected too – the country is very mountainous making for some stunning views, and the oceans and beaches are clear and cool.

I was taken quickly by the food and cooking methods in Timor. While the kinds of food available are not unremarkable for Asia Pacific countries, to me the combination of ingredients and flavor was alluring. The country’s 400-year history of Portuguese colonial rule, followed by Indonesian and now a diverse international community have all shaped the ways that produce grown and caught across the land and oceans is cooked. Cooking by fire is typical in Timor, and from one region to another differing with cultural tradition and terrain, the way a fire is constructed and what can be cooked varies. In central Timor where the country is especially mountainous, for instance, pumpkins were cooked by being stuffed with nuts and leaves and roasted in a hole in the ground covered by hot stones.

I really did love the country from this first trip. Some of my reaction is based on perfectly typical factors! The beauty of the country and the way of people are reasons Lonely Planet lists when promoting travel to Timor. But there was something else about Timor-Leste for me, something I cannot explain any more than charm.

How has Cooking Circles progressed so far? What are the cool things you’re doing with it at the moment?

18 months have passed since winning a Great Ydeas Grant from YWCA Canberra to kick start Cooking Circles, and I’ve been really pleased with the progress so far. I used the grant to pilot Cooking Circles in Timor-Leste in 2014, and from this trip came a blog with lots of content such as recipes and profiles of women. The trip also gave me ideas of what Cooking Circles might do in the future in Timor – run cooking classes with a Timorese friend for women, to highlight local, organic produce; and conduct research of existing NGOs and projects that target food, cooking and women’s health, wellbeing, and social capital and community connectedness. In the meantime, I’m finishing the blog with content from last year’s trip and pursuing sponsorship for the next trip.

There are lots of cool things happening at the moment! One of the things I love most about Cooking Circles is the capacity to be creative in responding to new opportunities that come up with the women and our partners.

Recently we began a project running Cooking Circles in a community kitchen with weekly lunches and monthly dinners. The Centre provides in-kind support with the use of the kitchen, and doing so allows women to come and pay for the cost of ingredients and admin ($5 for lunches and $10 for dinners) and feel a sense of ownership of their group.

We have 16 women from diverse ages, cultures, (dis)abilities, and economic backgrounds attending lunches, and the support of four volunteers who blend in to the group. Our dinners have evolved to be special events that fundraise and highlight issues affecting women.

In September a fundraiser for Timorese local NGO the Alola Foundation was held, and it was extra special to have the organisation’s founder, long time Timorese activist and former First Her Excellency Kirsty Sword Gusmao speak at the fundraiser. October’s dinner was held in partnership with local Canberra campaigner Alisa Draskovic about This Is Not A Wife Beater, raising awareness of violence against women.

It has been an extraordinary year for the program really, because of the strong interest and passion that so many of the women bring to events, cooking, and most recently, an organising Committee. I’m full of plans and enthusiasm ready to tackle next year!

Congrats on your Encouragement Anti-Poverty award! How did it feel to be selected?

Thank you Zoya! I was thrilled to be selected for an Anti-Poverty Award. I had a lot of encouragement and support from the community of Cooking Circles and friends and family, and this is important because I feel that the award is something we have earned together through the many conversations and hard work to develop projects in Canberra and Timor-Leste.

Poverty has a unique and disabling impact on the lives of women in Timor-Leste and in Canberra, and anywhere in the world – it differs from the way men’s lives are affected when it comes to health, self-esteem, social wellbeing, education, and employment. Recently The Conversation published a piece on the impacts of climate change on women’s health and wellbeing, finding that the affects of climate change are more detrimental to women. Already we are seeing this happen, for instance of the 150,000 killed by a cyclone in Bangladesh (one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change), 90 percent were women.

The Anti-Poverty Awards are national and so the award has brought with it some broader recognition and input from women around the country. The prize was a $1,000 cheque to Cooking Circles, and it is wonderful to have funds that we can use in 2016 to take a few different projects forward.

What exciting things do you have planned for Cooking Circles coming up? 

I can’t say too much yet…! But a team of us are working on project ideas for how Canberra Cooking Circles can target specific cohorts of women. We are planning a series of events to fundraise for work in Timor-Leste in late 2016.

There is one more event in 2015 ­– a women’s panel exploring the topic of intergenerational connections. All Canberra women are invited to The Galley, Tuggeranong Arts Centre, on Wednesday 9th December from 6pm. Cost is $15 and all funds raised go to Cooking Circles work in 2016. RSVP or contact Heidi at

Find out more through Facebook or on the Cooking Circles website

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