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A food history of Moonah

A food history of Moonah

Moonah is a residential and industrial suburb, north of central Hobart, in Tasmania. It is part of the traditional territory of the Muwinina people. Once the site of extensive orchards, Moonah began attracting migrant families in the second half of the 20th century, with its affordable housing, factory work and close proximity to central Hobart. A vibrant blend of culinary traditions now defines the local food culture.

Warehouses, businesses, housing and Mount Wellington beyond the kitchen garden beds of Moonah Primary School, March 2014.
Warehouses, businesses, housing and Mount Wellington beyond the kitchen garden beds of Moonah Primary School, March 2014. Photo: George Main.

Hmong migrants

In 1991, farmers Chai Vang and Por Ye, members of the Hmong community, arrived with their eight children in Australia from a refugee camp in northern Thailand, where they had escaped persecution across the border in Laos. They settled in Moonah, where hundreds of Hmong people had arrived throughout the 1980s, and their younger children attended Moonah Primary School. The Hmong are an internationally dispersed ethnic community without a common homeland or country. Since 1975, hundreds of thousands of Hmong people fled the political and economic fallouts of the Indo-Chinese and Laos civil wars and have resettled in countries including the United States, Australia and France.

Chai Vang and Por Ye leased a block of land across the river from Moonah, where the couple established a market garden. Each Saturday, Chai Vang and Por Ye drove into central Hobart and sold their produce at the popular Salamanca Market. The National Museum of Australia holds a significant collection of traditional tools and other items that relate to the market gardening practices of Chai Vang and Por Ye.

Chai Vang selling vegetables at Salamanca Market.
Chai Vang selling vegetables at Salamanca Market, Hobart, August 2005. Photo: Alison Mercieca.
Por Ye in the family’s Hobart garden.
Por Ye in the family’s Hobart garden, August 2005. Photo: Alison Mercieca.

Traditional tools

A wooden crossbow.
Chai Vang’s father made this traditional Hmong crossbow, of the type kept as a good luck charm in many Hmong family homes. Chai Vang used the bow to eliminate brushtail possums that were eating plants, particularly the parsley and coriander, in the market garden. Por Ye regularly cooked and fed her family possum stew. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

Click on the image below to zoom in for a detailed view of the planting dibble and Hmong knife

The Museum's collection also includes a knife made by Chai Vang’s father in Thailand, to a traditional Hmong design. In Tasmania, his son used it to make this timber dibble by stripping the bark from the long stem of a Tasmanian hardwood sapling, and sharpening both ends. Chai Vang and Por Ye used the dibble to make holes in the ground while they stood, for the planting of leeks. Chai Vang and Por Ye collection, National Museum of Australia. Photo: Jason McCarthy.
A close-up of indentations in a knife blade.
This close-up image of the traditional Hmong knife blade shows indentations which resulted from Por Ye's attempt to carve a frozen chicken, soon after she arrived in Australia. The family was unfamiliar with the concept of frozen meat. Chai Vang and Por Ye collection, National Museum of Australia. Photo: Jason McCarthy.
Chai Vang harvesting radishes.
Chai Vang harvesting radishes, Hobart, August 2005. Photo: Alison Mercieca.

Multicultural feast

In Laos during the 1970s and 1980s, Chai Vang and Por Ye ran a small farm. They grew opium poppies, bananas and rice. After war drove the family to Thailand and then Australia, Chai Vang and Por Ye produced bok choy, lettuce, silver beet, parsley, radishes, tomatoes, spring onions, carrots and other vegetables in their Hobart garden.

Most Hmong families lived at Moonah and adjacent suburbs, where rent was cheap and the large backyards allowed for big vegetable gardens.

Today, Moonah is a favoured suburb for migrants arriving from Nepal, Bhutan, Burma and Afghanistan.

In November 2013, Moonah Primary School hosted a multicultural feast, to celebrate the rich and varied food traditions of the suburb.

Click below for photographs from Moonah Primary School's multicultural feast

Shellfish and orchards

Risdon Cove lies on the Derwent River, opposite Moonah, at the end of valley where Chai Vang and Por Ye ran their market garden. Since 1999, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community has owned and managed the cove, and about 100 hectares of surrounding land. Deep middens of shells, bones and charcoal along the banks of the Derwent River record the cooking and consumption of many meals, and the long habitation of the Moomairremener, Muwinina and other Aboriginal clans.

A sign that reads 'Risdon Cove, Aboriginal Land'.
Risdon Cove, March 2014. Photo: George Main.
A native cherry tree on a hillside.
Native cherry (Exocarpos cupressiformis) on the hillside above Risdon Cove, March 2014. Photo: George Main.

Native species replaced

When British colonists began establishing farms at Risdon Cove, conflict soon erupted.

In May 1804, a group of about 300 Aboriginal men, women and children appeared at Risdon Cove, hunting a mob of kangaroos.

An argument erupted over a kangaroo shot by a servant, before the military commandant in charge of the settlement, Lieutenant William Moore, ordered the shooting of muskets and the firing of cannons filled with broken bottles and iron shards.[1]

The deadly attack provoked a reprisal a few days later, when Aborigines used stones and clubs to chase away settlers collecting oysters from the riverbank.[2]

Across the hillsides of Moonah in the 19th century, British settlers replaced bush food plants once harvested by the local Muwinina and other Aboriginal people, like the native cherry and native currant, with imported species.

A view towards the Derwent River from a Moonah orchard.
A view towards the Derwent River and Risdon Cove from a Moonah orchard, Moonah, Tasmania, about 1924. State Library of South Australia, B41019/259.
Dr Harry Benjafield, about 1910.
Dr Harry Benjafield, about 1910. Courtesy Jane Armstrong.

Imported species thrive

By 1900, the Moonah area had more land devoted to orchards than any other part of Tasmania. In springtime, the blossoms of peaches, apples, pears, apricots and plums coloured the slopes beneath Mount Wellington.[3]

Dr Harry Benjafield, who settled in Hobart in 1873, had extensive pear and apple orchards at Moonah, and was a pioneer of the Tasmanian fruit industry.

Benjafield opened a store to sell fruit and vegetables cheaply to the people of Hobart. He believed passionately in the benefits of healthy eating:

'Apples, pears, and other fruits are just lumps of sunshine—creatures of the sun—with beautiful sun-painted cheeks, and crammed full of luscious juice, nectar fit for the gods, which contains some essence which is nearer akin to the life in our blood than is anything else I know.'[4]

 A label that has an image of an apple. Text reads: 'Tasmanian Fancy Apples. Tasma Vale. E. Benjafield. Australia.
Eric Benjafield, Harry’s son, established the successful ‘Tasma Vale’ orchard, on the Tasman Peninsula, southeast of Hobart. LINC Tasmania.

At Moonah, Benjafield built substantial cool rooms to store fruit, and he pioneered the export of pears and other produce to Britain.

King George V and his guests enjoyed pears harvested from the Benjafield orchards at a sumptuous banquet following his coronation in 1910.[5]

Benjafield Park

Benjafield Park in Moonah is named after Dr Harry Benjafield. During the 1990s, when hundreds of Hmong people lived in the area, they often gathered at Benjafield Park for lunches and traditional celebrations.

Since 2011, the Taste of the World Festival in Benjafield Park has allowed the people of Hobart to sample the variety of cuisines and cultures present in the Moonah area.

To see photographs of a kitchen garden stall operated by Moonah Primary School students at the inaugural Taste of the World festival in Benjafield Park in 2011 visit the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation website.

Hmong families lunching in Benjafield Park.
Hmong families lunching in Benjafield Park, about 1992. Photo: Margaret Eldridge.


[1] John Pascoe Fawkner, Reminiscences of Early Hobart Town, 1804-1810, Banks Society, Malvern, 2009, p. 24.

[2] Alison Alexander, The Eastern Shore – A History of Clarence, Clarence City Council, Hobart, 2003; John Owen, Risdon Cove, 3 May 1804, Macleay Press, Sydney, 2010, p. 32; and Lyndall Ryan, Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p. 49.

[3] Ian Terry, Glenorchy Heritage Study, Glenorchy City Council, Hobart, 1994.

[4] ‘Values of Foods’, Mercury, Hobart, 24 April 1915, p. 3. 

[5] ‘A wonderful crop of pears’, Mercury, Hobart, 29 March 1913, p. 10. 

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