Indiana has one of the largest populations of Burmese immigrants in the United States, and most live in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis.
Fort Wayne has nearly 6,000 Burmese residents, or about two percent of the city’s population, according to the Burmese-American Community Institute. That may not seem like much, but it has a big impact on the culture of the city, especially when it comes to food.
This week on NorthEATS Indiana, WBOI’s Lisa Ryan reports on Burmese grocery stores in Fort Wayne.
Hlawn Parmaung moved to the U.S. from Myanmar, also called Burma, in 1994. She studied business in Pennsylvania, and after graduating, came to Fort Wayne with her Burmese husband.
She opened the Little Burma grocery store on South Calhoun street in 2002 because she saw a need for it with the growing Burmese population. She says most of her customers are Burmese, and don’t speak English.
“They don’t need to go to a Kroger. They won’t find what they are looking for,” she said. “Here it’s like, if they are looking for something, we speak Burmese, so that is a lot like home.”
But Parmaung still shops at Kroger. She says about 90 percent of Burmese cuisine is vegetables, but her kids don’t like it.
“They are like typical American,” Parmaung said, laughing.
They especially like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which are now sold in her grocery store.
Kyaw Soe is a Burmese refugee who moved to Fort Wayne in 1993. He’s now a translator for Fort Wayne Community Schools and taught Burmese Saturday School at IPFW for 12 years. He’s a vital link between parents and teachers when many Burmese parents don’t speak English.
His wife is Thai, so they cook a fusion of Thai and Burmese food at home. He says the Burmese grocery stores in Fort Wayne offer everything he needs, but a few years ago, that wasn’t the case.
The U.S. lifted sanctions against Burma in 2012, and imports from the country grew from zero dollars in 2012 to $30 million in 2013. In 2015, imports from Burma totaled $132 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Before Burma opened, yes, I cannot find a lot of the Burmese stuff in Fort Wayne, but right now, no, I can find everything,” Soe said.
Soe says there are more than 17 grocery stores in Fort Wayne that sell Burmese products. His brother sometimes drives in from Chicago because Fort Wayne has a larger variety of Burmese products at low prices.
“Because of the competition, you know, many, many grocery competing each other,” he said. “So price here, the raw materials, and also all kind of groceries, reasonable price. You can find a reasonable price in Fort Wayne.”
Even though the majority of customers are Burmese, Parmaung gets the occasional American shopper at Little Burma, like Elaina Hughes. Hughes says one time she bought groceries from the Asian Market on Calhoun Street, and wanted to make Burmese-style fried fish with a sweet chili sauce. But when she got home, she realized she had bought a whole fish.
“Bones, guts and everything. I’m (used to) eating around fish bones, but I didn’t realize the guts were still going to be in there, and the scales, so I was a little intimidated,” Hughes said.
Despite the confusion, she encouraged other Americans to shop at the Burmese and Asian grocery stores. She says the employees have been very helpful as she explores their cuisine.
You can find many unique items at Little Burma and other Burmese grocery stores, like banana plant and bamboo. But they also mix in some American staples, like potatoes and onions, and sometimes, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.