Burmese Culture Influences Fort Wayne Restaurants

Feb 2, 2016

WBOI's Lisa Ryan reports on the growing presence of Burmese culture here in Fort Wayne, which is due to the large population of Burmese refugees and the culinary traditions they bring to the region in this week's segment of NorthEATS Indiana.

It isn’t always obvious that a restaurant is operated by a Burmese owner, especially since many of the restaurants provide a variety of food.

Nawarat on Anthony is a blend of Thai, Indian and Burmese food. Mahnin on Calhoun calls itself an Asian restaurant and serves Thai and Burmese dishes.

Kyaw Soe, a Burmese refugee who translates for parents and teachers at Fort Wayne schools, says Akaungzarr, Taste of Thailand and Bangkok were all Burmese-owned. But those have closed down. 

"She love to cook, and when she cook, she (isn't) thinking about ... how much the money she going to make."

Mahnin Root has owned Mahnin Asian Restaurant for almost seven years. She describes the difficulty of owning a business in a country where she doesn’t speak the language. “Her weakness is because she don’t speak English and she don’t understand the rule,” says Pinpa Brookshear, an employee at Mahnin who translates for Root.

Root says it’s hard to navigate business regulation in the U.S., and she’s made some mistakes along the way. She lost nearly $2,000 paying money to people who told her they were they electric company and that her bill was past due. It wasn’t, but by the time she realized it was a scam, she had already paid. She’s had many setbacks, but continues because she loves her job.

Root was born in Burma, but spent 14 years in Thailand, which is why Mahnin’s menu is a mix of the two cultures. Her friends loved her cooking so much, they crowdsourced the funding for her to start the restaurant.

“She love to cook, and when she cook, she don’t thinking about ... how much the money she going to make, she thinking about it’s going to taste good for customer to satisfy,” Brookshear translates.

Root says her love of cooking is the secret to her success. She says it’s been a lot of hard work. She and her husband will stay late into the night making food for the next day.

“This is dehydrated, chopped-up fish, with a combination of peppers,” said Elaina Hughes, an American employee at Mahnin, describing one of the carry-out meals in the refrigerator. 

Curries and noodles are popular in Burmese cuisine
Credit "Meeshei" by Wagaung at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

She says the food is very authentic, which scared her at first. But once she started trying dishes, she couldn’t get enough.

“I’ve never had anything I don’t like,” Hughes said. “The coconut noodle soup is my new favorite thing and I don’t even like coconut.”

Root prides herself on not Americanizing the menu. She says everything is authentic, made from the same ingredients she used in Burma and Thailand. She worried that she wouldn’t be able to find the same ingredients in the U.S., so when she left her home, she packed a suitcase filled with food.

“She bring ... noodle packet, instant packet, bunch of them, but once she get here, she realized, oh my God, only her mom and dad that she cannot bring,” Brookshear translates. “Because they have everything here.”

Root says many of the ingredients here are even better than the food she cooked with in Burma and Thailand because only the best is imported to the U.S. And part of the reason there are so many options is because of the large Burmese population in the city.

Root loves living in Fort Wayne, but it hasn’t been easy. Her advice to anyone wanting to open a restaurant, Burmese or not, is to love cooking and to be dedicated, despite the challenges.