Walk down any street in Myanmar and you’re never far from a steaming bowl of mohinga, a fish-based noodle soup recognised as the national dish. Rice noodles are scooped into the bowl first, then aromatic catfish soup with sliced banana trunk, and finally a selection of toppings that might include lemon juice, coriander, fish sauce, dried chilli flakes and fried shallots. It’s usually eaten for breakfast everywhere from street corners to hotels.
In Perth, the most authentic version pops up at the monthly Burmese Food Fete, put on by the Burmese Association of Western Australia (BAWA) on the second Saturday of each month. Set up in 1965 to assist migrants and refugees arriving from Burma, nowadays it focuses on fundraising for charitable programs, including orphanages and schools in Myanmar. The food fete has been running for the past 25 years and contributes thousands of dollars every month, thanks to the support of the community and volunteer cooks.
BAWA president Michael D’Souza [note: couldn't verify] has three words of advice for food fete first-timers: “don’t come late”. Located in the community hall at The Australian Asian Association of Western Australia, it starts at 10am and finishes at 1pm – but by noon most dishes have sold out. Visitors exchange money for plastic tokens at the entrance and then hit up their favourite stalls, set up on trestle tables with colourful plastic tablecloths. It’s incredibly affordable, which is one of the reasons locals buy enough to stock their freezers until the following month.
Fried snacks like spring rolls and samosas are $1, while mains like chicken biriyani, ohn-no khaut swei (Burmese laksa) and nangyi thoke (a noodle dish referred to as a salad) are between $6 and $8. There are also desserts like burfi (a condensed-milk slice similar to fudge), semolina cake called sanwei makin and falooda, a dessert-drink hybrid with a coconut milk base, ice-cream and jellies. But the mohinga station is the most popular.
For the last 10 years, Sharon Webber has helped her mother run the mohinga stall. They’ve gained a sparkling reputation among Burmese and non-Burmese locals who return each month for a fix. “The recipe for mohinga always has the same ingredients,” says Webber, “but everyone has a different touch, so it comes up different. Some just have more love and passion, you know?”
Her father’s side of the family moved to Perth nearly 50 years ago, but he stayed behind to marry her mother, who was known for her food despite not having a professional cooking background.
BAWA president Michael D’Souza has three words of advice for food fete first-timers: “don’t come late”.
Sharon Webber moved to Perth in 2005. Back in Myanmar, the family would cook a big pot of mohinga and donate it to those who needed it most. At the Burmese Food Fete, Webber estimates they sell around 160 bowls of mohinga in a couple of hours.
“People love mum’s cooking because she’s more authentic. Some people move here and then they change recipes to make them a more Australian way, but she’s keeping it the traditional way,” she says. “There are a lot of non-Burmese people, too. They taste it for the first time, and then they keep coming back.”
D'Souza confirms that most of the 300 to 400 people who visit the food fete each month aren’t Burmese.
“It’s a chance to see a different type of food. Even though we have a lot of influence and are surrounded by many countries, it’s a very unique flavour,” he says. Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh border Myanmar, and their influence can be tasted at the different stalls. In the motherland, even mohinga varies not just between regions, but with them – Myanmar has eight main ethnic groups, each with regional clusters that vary in language, beliefs and cuisine. “Burmese culture is unique and I don’t know how to describe it. As with every culture, you have to experience it, live it, to fully understand and appreciate it,” says D'Souza. “What is Burmese food? It’s fusion but of typical Southeast Asian food, and if you enjoy Malay or Thai or Indian Chinese food, you will enjoy Burmese food.”
10 am – 1 pm on the second Saturday of the month
A feature of Burmese cuisine is toasted chickpea flour (besan), which is commonly used as a thickener for soups or, like here, sprinkled over salads.
Sipyan, the Burmese word for curry, means ‘oil returns’, and refers to how the curry is cooked until the oil comes back to the surface.
This popular Burmese salad is packed with traditional and refreshing flavours.
This is a hearty salad full of refreshing flavours and textures, and a favourite dish in Burmese cuisine.
A long ingredients list goes some way to explaining the sweet, sour and salty notes of this complex noodle soup, one of the national dishes of Myanmar. It typically includes banana stem, but we’ve used banana blossom.