Fusing pan-asian cuisine within a grassroots community movement
I chose to write about OVO Simply veggie, a pan-Asian, vegan restaurant right on Route One. I admit that this was slightly lazy on my part. I worked there for almost a year, beginning about a month after it first opened. In my defense, I would argue that it is helpful for an ethnological analysis. Over an extended period of time, I was able to observe first-hand the varied demographics that patronized the restaurant and the patterns in their behavior over time: reactions ot the menu, ordering habits, and commentary relating to the authenticity and expectations.
On any given day, at least one set of customers would walked in looking confused (especially after the restaurant was featured in The Washingtonian). They knew there was supposed to be a vegetarian asian restaurant here, but were confused by the minimalimist decor. The monochromatic space [when I worked there, the tables were white] is sparse except for a few zen details: fake grass accents and a standing waterfall machine. The empty, wall-mounted boxes that once held pastries are attached to mahogany-colored bamboo shoots that come out of a small, lighted rock pool. The reasoning behind it is not deeply artistic, although it does invite multiple interpretations behind it’s meaning.
The restaurant’s simple austerity reflects the owner’s personality and business style: the food and it’s presentation speaks for itself, it is the focus of the experience, whereas the actual space serves a utilitarian purpose. As it should. The use of plant-based proteins to emulate meats are easily substituted into classic Asian disses, served next to a neatly-plated half-dome of rice. When serving, conversations frequently halted to alway comment on the presentation: blooming flowers in clear teapots gave couples something to gush over, the most popular item, battered enoki fries were overwhelming in size and presence. Customers always anxiously awaited them, watching every plate that came from the kitchen like a hawk.
The enoki fries–enoki mushrooms spread, battered, and deep fried–are a great example of “fusion confusion” and the difficulties of catering to multiple niches. An old Japanese couple in awe explained that they had eaten enoki all their life but never thought to fry it; an angry woman criticized the restaurant for claiming veganism when one of the dipping sauces had mayonnaise in it. Why wasn’t this disclosed with every order? Why wasn’t vegannaise used instead [budgetary constraints was not a satisfactory explanation]? And for every appreciative herbivore, came at least four fickle dietary problems: what was gluten free/raw/low-calorie/low-sodium/oil-free/peanut free but not sesame-free (this last one in particular references to one person who continually chose the only option that had peanuts in it).
In terms of authenticity, the majority customers were decidedly American. I learned to warn patrons from China that one meal in particular was not what they would expect; the chef had to change the recipe to appease American tastebuds (what Ming Tsai would refer to as “whitening”). Foodies from other areas would come in on the weekend, asking when a location in Rockville or Bethesda was going to open up, telling me to be sure to let the owner know he would do exceptionally well if he came out there.
The “neo-orientalism” of the restaurant is worth considering, although it’s concept makes sense to me. The owner of the restaurant had worked in the industry for most of his career, as a manager at Panda Express before he went rogue. He has been a vegetarian for over a decade, and this was his dream. Asian cuisine is easily adaptable to vegetarianism; cattle are mainly used for cultivation, not dairy, and is thus more of a delicacy than tofu, vegetables, or seafood. To appease that last desire, Ovo offers Seaweed Yuba: Tofu skin wrapped in seaweed and fried. Fusion as a concept is criticized for it’s authenticity, but Ovo speaks to my personal experience as a vegan Asian American. The ingredients are used in a traditional fashion. The fusion occurred in the selection of ingredients. The selection was filtered by vegetables and grains, but were still those that are cross-cultural staples within Asian cuisine.