by Lauren Cahoon
When I was about seven years old, I decided to become a vegetarian. My motivation was firmly rooted in my adoration of animals, and not even my father’s sizzling bacon or the family’s steak dinners could sway my resolve. A few years later, though, the resolve started swaying. I started with the gateway meats--fish and chicken—and wound up where I am now, 25 and unable to resist a steak.
Those who can resist the red meat I respect. Those who can resist the white—both bird and fish—are impressive. But those who actually eschew any and all animal substances: cheese, milk, eggs…I’m reduced to a state of disbelief and awe I normally reserve for professional magicians; “How the hell do they do that?”
My doubts about real, live vegans faltered somewhat upon entering Grasshopper, the all-green (both in décor and dogma) Asian-vegan restaurant in Union square, Allston. The place was suitably bustling for a Friday night—full of people pouring over menus and scooping up vegan victuals. I’d soon find out that eating here was a mix of the sapid and the insipid.
Some diners may appreciate Grasshoppers’ modest approach to veganism—the wait staff was uniformed in crisp white clothing and no dreadlocks, and there are no proclamations on the menu about animal-friendly fare. In fact, a diner may not realize the place was vegan if it weren’t for giveaway menu items like “Vegi-Squid” and “Scallion-Lobster.”
I was a tad nervous of soy or vegetables posing so brashly as meat, so I opted for more traditional vegetarian dishes—the House Special Assorted Appetizers—a combo of dumplings and spring rolls--and as an entrée, the stir-fried tofu with curry coconut sauce and assorted vegetables.
Vegetarian and vegan diets supposedly do a lot of good things for the body; keep weight off, lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and several kinds of cancer. Still, there’s a reason why humans evolved as omnivores—certain vitamins and minerals are much harder to come by in plant products. One necessary vitamin, B12, comes from animal products only—which means without diligent supplementation, vegans may suffer from B12 deficiency, which can lead to anemia and nervous-system damage.
While a vegan diet may tread the tightrope between healthy and risky, Grasshopper’s food teetered between appealing and not. The food’s texture was spot-on; the fried wonton combined the delight of deep-fried crunch and creamy filling; the fried dumplings had a satisfying, springy chew, and the curry coconut vegetables were stir-fried to perfection. Unfortunately, the flavors didn’t follow suit. The appetizers, mild and unsavory to begin with, didn’t improve after a dip in the three provided sauces. The entrée’s coconut curry sauce seemed to be missing the two titular ingredients, and I suspected the thin, soggy strips of tofu might have skipped the wok.
My dining companion, wary of vegan food to begin with, wasn’t won over by his “Kale & Gluten Supreme”, but I found it much more appealing than my own dish. The fresh kale, seitan and juicy bell peppers swam in a savory black bean sauce—the first food to successfully satiate the taste buds. That, combined with a complimentary kettle of piping green tea, made the meal pleasant rather than plain.
It’s got to be tough, being a vegan restaurant. Despite the bad press on factory farming and the environmental evils of eating red meat, most Americans still demand their pound of flesh. Or, at the very least, their dairy and eggs. To draw in a non-vegan diner like me takes true culinary invention. I’m guessing that for a vegan, Grasshopper’s cooking would be a delight. But for an unschooled omnivore, it’s the virtues, not the victuals that will truly appeal.