Authentic taste of Asia

Businesses: Stores and restaurants offering Asian foods are trying to appeal to non-Asian customers.

August 12, 1999|By Zanto Peabody | Zanto Peabody,SUN STAFF

In some areas of Howard County, it's been almost as easy to get an egg roll as it is to get a double cheeseburger. Several new Asian restaurants are making it that much easier.

A maturing community of eastern Asians is spreading its cultural influence through its younger generations. They are doing it in Howard County, home to suburban Asian-Americans who had been driving to Northern Virginia to get the Asian version of down-home cooking.

"We would drive 40 or 50 miles and think nothing of it," said Don Lee of Columbia. "Everyone likes Chinese food or Korean food, but you could not make it at home if you didn't know where to buy the ingredients."

The new round of Asian restaurants in Howard County has evolved from the storefront takeout place. While takeout is common fare for shops such as Hunan Family in Harper's Choice, a number of the new restaurants serve diners who want more than one from column A and two from column B.

"Takeout in those square boxes with the metal handles was, like, this cultural thing back home [in New York City]," said Melody Johnson, who has moved to Columbia and sampled the fare at Asean Bistro. "But it's good to come in, eat Asian food and chill with friends like you would at Bennigan's or somewhere."

A Vietnamese Bennigan's might not be the taste of the town, but Seung Shin believes its day is coming.

Shin, president of Top Travel agency in Ellicott City, said more and more Asian restaurants, stores and other service-related businesses in Howard County will focus on appealing to non-Asian clientele while retaining their authenticity. That decision, he said, is rooted as much in cultural change as it is in business knowledge.

"Some of the places you see opening are owned by older people who owned smaller shops in Virginia, Pennsylvania or somewhere else in Maryland," Shin said. "They have been running very small and somewhat successful shops. Now their children don't want to work in those small shops.

"They want to define their own cultural identity. So they either do something that appeals to Westerners or they just move on."

Shin considers himself in the "one-and-a-half generation" of those who were born abroad but have lived most of their lives in the United States. He and a group of one-and-a-halfers last weekend opened a minimall in Lotte Plaza in Ellicott City, off U.S. 40 east of Route 29.

The minimall includes restaurants serving Korean, Chinese, Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese entrees, an electronics outlet, clothing store, bookstore and Shin's travel agency. The owners are positioning themselves to take advantage of the heavily Asian customer base of Lotte Plaza Oriental Market.

The 23,000-square-foot market, open since April, is the largest pan-Asian supermarket in Howard County. General Manager D. J. Kim estimates that 90 percent of his customers are shopping for ingredients to make their native Asian cuisine. The other 10 percent, he said, are non-Asians who have developed a taste for authentic Asian food.

A pyramid of Korean dried olives is stacked to the side of registers and under displays with no English writing. In aisle three, there's Chinese rice, and in aisle two, dried Japanese seaweed. Though all the store's managers speak English, checkers call for price checks and page over the public address system strictly in Korean.

Katherine Cade wants Fuji apples.

"Now, I know what this is -- I can see it and it's written in English," said Cade, picking up apples in the produce section. She's a native of Baltimore whose Chinese vernacular is limited to won ton and General Tso. "I know I don't understand everything said in the store or everything on all the packages. But I am making egg rolls, and I want to make them like they make them in China."

Kim said he believes the store will gain non-Asian customers as Asian culture and food become more visible. A store he previously managed in Rockville began with a nominal number of American-born customers. Now, he said, the store boasts a more than 30 percent Western clientele.

"We would still focus on the Asian market," Kim said. "But more non-Asian people will come for Asian food for the taste or because they are looking for healthy food."

The increasing interest in Asian culture goes beyond looking for good lo mein. From the Asian American Artist Group Exhibition at Oella Mill Gallery to Chinese language classes, non-Asians in Howard County are becoming more and more exposed to culture from across the Pacific.

The Chinese Language School of Columbia, one of two in Howard County, began with 10 families in 1975. Now, more than 100 Chinese- and English-speaking families take classes on Chinese language and culture.

"I think what we try to do is not to influence culture in Howard County but to build a bridge of understanding," said Yang Song, a teacher and past principal of the Chinese language school. "Culture from the majority is no problem for us to learn; we get it all the time from television, newspapers and radio.

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