Marlar Boon’s journey back to her Burmese roots has been one that she’s had to navigate for herself. Like many other second-generation diaspora children, with no mentor or guiding hand, the flavours she remembers from her childhood have been cobbled together through trial and error. But that’s very often how it is for the children of immigrants — every little link and connection can bring you closer to home. Or, at least, what home means for you.
For Marlar Boon, co-owner of Mabel’s Burmese Eat and Drink Shop, life is full of strange little connections. There’s the building in which she and husband Ian opened their Burmese restaurant, for instance, which reminds her of colonial-style buildings in Yangon, and the cook she hired who had a connection with the Buddhist temple her grandmother co-founded; she sees everything held together in a tightly woven mesh. A large part of that is thanks to her grandmother, and namesake of her restaurant, Mabel. “She was a bit of a hustler,” Marlar laughs.
Born in 1918, in what was then Burma, Mabel emigrated to New Zealand in the mid-70s as a single mother with four adult children. Anglo-Burmese, she was fluent in English but couldn’t cook, until eventually an Indian friend in Mt Cook taught her to make Burmese curries.
After almost two years in New Zealand, in 1977 Mabel opened the Monsoon, New Zealand’s first Burmese restaurant. Much more than just a restaurant, it was a hub for the community, because Mabel was much more than a restaurateur. A devoted matriarch, she was a pioneer, a community leader, a provider, and integral to Wellington’s Southeast Asian community.
When the Monsoon closed after a successful decade trading, Mabel wasn’t satisfied with retirement. A devout Buddhist, she started Bodhinyanarama monastery in Stokes Valley, along with a Sri Lankan and Thai friend. She dedicated her life to providing for the monastery, encouraging her sons to volunteer for the community, and helping raise her grandchildren.
And she still cooked, for the monastery’s fundraiser food fairs, held at the back of the Wesley Church on Holland Street, which Marlar remembers vividly. She recently found a drawer full of 90s-style flyers, inviting passers-by to come for “Asian food!”, complete with Enter the Dragon-style font and chopsticks graphics.
Though her grandmother died in 2002 when Marlar was only 12, Mabel was a strong, fierce presence in her life. When she was growing up, they lived on the same street, surrounded by family; Marlar still lives on that street today with her husband and their two young children.
Marlar knows the importance of family, community, and connection, but it wasn’t until 2017, when she and Ian returned to Myanmar on holiday, that it really hit home.
“Going back for the first time since I became a mother really changed my perspective and perception of the country and the culture,” Marlar explains. “I suddenly had this desire to provide and cook.”
But cooking wasn’t her forte, especially not Burmese cuisine. In fact, it was Ian who encouraged her to learn for their children and their cultural heritage. “It was really important to him that our kids know just as much about their Burmese side.”
Marlar dove in head-first, getting her hands on as many cookbooks as she could — UK-based Burmese food writers MiMi Aye, and Emily and Amy Chung aka the Rangoon Sisters were particular favourites — watching YouTube religiously, tasting dishes her mother made and trying to recreate them, and cooking at home. Her cousin taught her most of the basics, as they cooked together for their children.
It’s a common misconception that Mabel taught Marlar all about Burmese cuisine, and that the restaurant is part of the Monsoon’s legacy.
“As much as I would love to say that my grandmother taught me to cook, that’s not the case. By the time I was born, the Monsoon had already closed, and so to me she was always just my loving grandmother.”
In fact, even naming the restaurant after her was something that took a while for her to wrap her head around. “It was really a natural progression as we considered what was ‘Burmese’ for us. Eventually, they realised that, for them, Burmese meant family and community, and at the heart of it was Mabel.”
Just as the Monsoon was a hub, so too is Mabel’s. There are plenty of regulars who knew Mabel and the Monsoon, including a group of diners who call themselves “The Monsoon Munchers”. Since the opening last year, many diners have regaled Marlar with stories of her grandmother. Their kitchen hand, whom all the staff call Auntie and who makes their staff meals, once worked at the Monsoon.
“One of the reasons we decided to centre the story of the restaurant around Mabel is because of that connection. When people walk past and see the sign they go, ‘Wait, is that Mabel from the Monsoon?’”
Marlar doesn’t come from a hospitality background and never imagined she would open a restaurant. But, with the encouragement of her late uncle and repeated visits to Myanmar, she and Ian decided to embark on the project, in the hope of bringing a new experience to Wellingtonians and to share Burmese flavours.
Luckily, Ian could supply some know-how — he owns Wellington bar Crumpet — but things really came together when a friend returned from the UK after lockdown and came on board as head chef. Though he was classically trained and had worked in fine dining throughout his career, learning to cook Burmese food was a whole new experience.
“There are certain things that don’t translate well. Like when you cook a Burmese curry — the oil has to be heated until it ‘floats’, but that doesn’t really make sense in English.”
The menu, Marlar tells me, was a collaborative effort with her whole team. They’re tight-knit, and it’s important to Marlar that they’re proud of what they do and feel connected to it. Some of the staff are Burmese, and a couple are students who won scholarships to come to New Zealand.
“We have one young guy — he’s so sweet — and we had to really teach him what ‘service’ means. He just didn’t get it, because it’s different in Asia — you don’t go over to a table unless they ask you to. But now he’s thriving and we’re so proud when we see him out there, working the floor and talking to customers on his own.”
Marlar didn’t want Mabel’s to be just a curry house, because there are so many Burmese curries out there, but also because they wanted to offer a well-rounded view of Burmese cuisine.
On the menu you’ll find curries, salads, noodle bowls, and a selection of fried goods, including their “BFC” (Burmese fried chicken), on the menu. Also included is mohinga — a fish and rice noodle soup, the national dish of Burma.
Salads are also a huge part of the cuisine — the textures and flavours are unlike anything you’ll have tried before. Think pickled young green tea leaves, served with tomato, crispy fried garlic and onions, dhal, and dried shrimp (laphet thoke), or Burmese chickpea tofu, tossed with coconut vinegar, and crunchy garlic, shallots, and peanuts (tohu thoke, see page 74 for the recipe).
New this year, they offer a thali option at lunch. The platter with a selection of curry, rice, salad, broth, roti, and condiment is the perfect introduction to Burmese cuisine. And it has resulted in a healthy increase in their lunchtime trade.
Most of the dishes can be enjoyed as a group, family-style, or solo. Attention to and care for their customers is just part of Marlar’s life, just as it was part of Mabel’s.
And what about her kids, I ask. How do they feel about Burmese food now? She smiles. “They love it. You know they said to me the other day, ‘We’re so glad we have an Asian mother, because otherwise we wouldn’t know good food.’”