Refugees’ experiences shape restaurants’ flavors

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The first Burmese refugees arrived in Fort Wayne more than 25 years ago following the 1988 national uprising in Myanmar (also known as Burma). In the last decade, several Burmese restaurants and groceries have popped up in the city to serve this growing population as well as welcome customers of all backgrounds.

Today, the city’s Burmese population is estimated at more than 6,000. In addition to the refugees who have made their homes here, Fort Wayne has also been a destination for “secondary immigration,” as many Burmese immigrants have moved here from other parts of the United States where they were first settled.

Showcasing diversity

The Burmese restaurants in Fort Wayne reflect the diversity of the local Burmese population. Myanmar, which shares a border with India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, is home to more than 100 ethnic groups with more than 60 languages spoken. In addition, many immigrants lived in refugee camps in Malaysia and Thailand for years before arriving in the United States. These experiences have shaped the flavors found here.

Several of these restaurants and groceries have opened for business on the southeast side of Fort Wayne where many of the city’s Burmese population have made their home.

Burmese-style coconut noodle soup at Mahnin Asian Restaurant is comprised of lo mein noodles in a coconut milk broth with chickpeas, onions and soft boiled eggs. It’s topped with crunchy fried soybeans. BRIDGETT HERNANDEZ

Mahnin Asian Restaurant, located on South Calhoun Street, offers a wide variety of southeast Asian menu items from pad thai, a Thai food staple, to Burmese-style coconut noodle soup. Lo mein noodles are served in a coconut milk broth with chickpeas, onions and soft boiled eggs. The dish is topped with crunchy fried soybeans.

Nawarat, located on South Anthony Boulevard, offers Burmese, Thai and Indian dishes with menu items like beef with basil, samosas and Burmese-style fried noodles.

There is also a growing community of Burmese families in northwest Allen County. Family Power, located at 5205 Decatur Road, offers a Burmese and Asian fusion menu. (Family Power and Nawarat also offer halal options.)

Fort Wayne’s newest Burmese restaurant, Nine House, has opened up just south of Huntertown, where, in a local subdivision, about a dozen Burmese families have moved onto the same street with more families expected to follow.

The restaurant has been getting rave reviews from its regular customers since it opened. Its menu offers both daily specials and regular items. There are eggrolls, chicken dumplings, Thai noodle dishes and Burmese curries.

Nine House offers Thai and Burmese dishes, including beef and basil with rice, egg rolls and dumplings. BRIDGETT HERNANDEZ

 

Nine House has table and chairs for dining in, but most of its business is catering and carryout orders.

A gathering place

Earlier this summer, Ezra Kokonaing opened the restaurant and catering business with her husband, Gabriel.

Ezra’s father came to Fort Wayne as a refugee. She followed when she was 17 years old and graduated from South Side High School.

“I was born in Burma, raised in Thailand and grew up in America,” she said.

Brother and sister ZZ and KK Kokonaing prepare a carryout order for customers at Nine House. BRIDGETT HERNANDEZ

“(Kokonaing is pronounced) like coconut, but ‘nine’ instead of ‘nut,’” said ZZ Kokonaing, a junior at Carroll High School, who helps his parents out at the restaurant by taking carryout orders and working the register. His sister, KK, a freshman at Carroll, helps in the kitchen.

Ezra does all the cooking in the tidy open kitchen. She uses mise en place to throw together complex dishes that use several ingredients in just minutes.

She admits that the food she serves is not exactly the same as what you might eat in Burma or Thailand. She’s had to adapt to the ingredients that she can find here. It’s a concept that she learned from her father and that she’s teaching her own children.

“That’s one thing I learned from my dad. When you cook something, don’t wait for stuff from the outside. Use something close to you,” she said.

As a cook, it’s not just important that the food she cooks is delicious. She wants to be transparent about what’s in the dishes and how they are made.

For her, using local ingredients is also a matter of health. She wants her customers to know that she uses ingredients that are made in the U.S.A. and approved by the FDA. Many dishes are organic.

“It’s so hard to find some things and there are a lot of (packaged foods) from different countries and we don’t know what they’re made of. The ingredients are sometimes not even listed on the bag,” she said.

Ezra Kokonaing prepares a dish in the kitchen at Nine House. BRIDGETT HERNANDEZ

In addition to providing a healthy and delicious option, the Kokonaing family wants to share Burmese culture and food with the community.

In fact, before Nine House was a restaurant, it was a gathering place for the local Burmese community, Ezra said. Most of the children can speak English fluently, but their parents sometime struggle. The space provided a place where students could get help with their homework.

“We’re here to serve others,” Ezra said.

This story originally appeared in Summit City Eats, a guide to eating locally in Allen County. To read more stories like this, pick up a free copy at your local newsstand or visit //bit.ly/SummitCityEats.