Welcome to Little Burma: a bit of Asia in Central Indiana
By Brian Garrido
Travel south of Indianapolis to Greenwood and visitors will notice – next to the donut shops and popular restaurant chains – at least a dozen restaurants serving Burmese food. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, approximately 20,000 Burmese live within Perry Township in Indianapolis, while more than 25,000 Burmese live in Fort Wayne. The combined totals show Indiana may be home to more refugees from Burma (now Myanmar) than any other state in the country.
For those residing in and around Indy, the majority arrived from the Chin state, which has historically been one of the most persecuted minorities groups in the Asian country. While most of Myanmar is Buddhist, ethnic Chin people adopted Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through the support of organizations like the Burmese American Community Institute, the Burmese immigrants to Indiana arrivals have made significant contributions to the city and continue to thrive in Greenwood. The culinary traditions of the Burmese people have remained steadfast, and these new Americans have brought delicious flavors to the proverbial melting pot.
To sample some authentic Burmese food, head to Chin Bros. Restaurant and Grocery, located in an unassuming Greenwood strip mall. Here at this culinary hideaway, you’ll find many of many of Burma’s complex and bold flavors. Rice forms the underlying staple, yet since the country borders five regions and the Bay of Bengal, the cuisine reflects flavors and ingredients from India, China, Thailand and Laos as well as its own culinary traditions.
Indeed, the national dish of Burma, mohinga, displays the ingredients and cultural elements in a fish broth thick with rice noodles, beans, lemongrass, chilis, lime and vegetable fritters. While many may be familiar with Indian samosas, an envelope of dough typically stuffed with chickpeas, those from Burma offer a smaller, lighter, more phyllo-like wrapper filled with potato and onion.
But it’s laphet thoke (green tea leaf salad), made famous in the U.S. by San Francisco restaurant Burma Superstar, that many call a favorite. Made using fermented tea leaves, cabbage, scallions, coriander, peanuts, chili, garlic and many other umami-rich flavors, the crisp and crunchy mixture offers an explosion of texture and taste unlike any other dish. The pickled green tea leaves provide an earthiness with the cabbage. The dressing, made with garlic oil, lime juice and salt, adds a tangy and slightly sweet flavor to the dish. Additional ingredients, such as tomatoes, peanuts and chili peppers add sweetness, peanuts crunch and heat to heat balance the sweet and salt.
Apart from the restaurant, visitors can also shop inside Chin Bros and pick up delicacies from the country’s rich culinary heritage: pickled tea leaves to make homemade laphet, sweet preserved plum for dipping, a variety of noodles and fish broth to make mohinga at home. Burmese music CDs and clothing also line the shelves.
For more info on Indiana’s Burmese community, check out the Burmese American Community Institute Indy.