Kindred Spirits: Don’t Miss DaijoubuMart, an Extraordinary Asian Market
The pop-up combines sensational food and drinks, cultural expression and giving back
By Laurel Miller
Photographs courtesy of Samuel McCracken
“They’re evil geniuses,” I thought, taking another sip of my Phuket on Acid (that’s Jägermeister, coconut oil fat-washed St. George Green Chile Vodka, pineapple fried rice syrup, pineapple and lime) before devouring the rest of a naan croissant slathered with “pizza wave honey butter.”
The geniuses in question are Caer Maiko and Sharon Yeung, the bartenders behind Austin’s Asian American cocktail pop-up Daijoubu, and chefs/bakers Deepa Shridhar and Sakif Khan of 33 Tigers, an Indian pop-up/bakery/supper club (formerly known as Puli-Ra) that has generated legions of fans.
On August 20th, Maiko and Yeung launched a month-long collaborative pop-up called DaijoubuMart: Super Asian Provisions, at Last Straw where Maiko is – under normal circumstances – bar manager. The other food partners involved in the endeavor are Gan Bei Gals, a pop-up dinner and event company that integrates Asian American culture, and Onigiri Corner, a prepared food business that operates within Japanese market Asahi Imports.
I first met Maiko and Yeung at The Roosevelt Room (where Yeung is bar manager and Maiko a former bartender) while researching a 2019 tiki story for Kindred Spirits. The duo launched Daijoubu in March 2019. At the time of our meeting, they were preparing to start their first statewide tour. Traveling in an Asian-themed mini-school bus named Bruce, Daijoubu popped up at notable bars in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio.
After experiencing their magic, I became a little bit obsessed with Daijoubu. It makes me nostalgic for my years living in the Bay Area, when one of my favorite pastimes was exploring Asian enclaves in search of regional foods. I’ve also backpacked extensively through parts of Asia, and Daijoubu has provided me with a way to armchair travel and learn more about this diverse part of the world.
We live at a time when claims of cultural appropriation – valid or not – have become the knee-jerk reaction to cross-racial interloping. I decided to ask Maiko, what’s the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?
“We love it when people of other races enjoy our food and drinks. I think the issue is less when people participate and more when they try to own it,” she says. “Appropriation is an issue of power, just like racism, and we’re also not here to ‘show-off’ Asian flavors to non-Asian people. That’s already happened. We just want to celebrate our culture. The only issue I’ve ever had with other cultures participating in Daijoubu is with the fetishization of Asian culture. We love Sailor Moon because it was as close as we got to representation growing up. If we wear clothes similar to that (at pop-ups), it’s not because we want to play into an anime fan fantasy. It’s because we want to emulate the heroes we had as Asian American kids.”
Maiko and Yeung have also created a space for Asian American bar professionals, themselves a minority within a predominantly white industry. Daijoubu, which loosely translated means, “It’s Fine,” in Japanese, started out a place for Maiko and Yeung to be unapologetically “super Asian” and create culturally relevant drinks.
“After moving to Austin, we couldn’t find a space to express our cultural identity, so we decided to create one,” says Maiko, who is half-Japanese (and Yeung is Chinese American). The result has become a source of unity and unabashed fun for Texas’s Asian American communities, as well as a platform for visiting Asian American bartenders and artists, who provide installations at the pop-ups.
Then there’s the cocktails, featuring a global array of spirits and authentically Asian ingredients. The drinks often incorporate savory applications, which work well with ingredients that are so often pungent, salty, spicy or umami in nature, like Year of the Pig (Santa Theresa pork belly fat-washed rum, Whistle Pig Rye, Korean BBQ demerara syrup, Jerry Thomas bitters) and the Kung Fu Flip (Jianzuang baijiu, Lustau Amontillado Sherry, cream, demerara syrup, fish sauce caramel, egg and nori furikake).
Daijoubu’s mission took an unanticipated pivot this year, not just because the pandemic precluded touring and shuttered bars. The national wave of racism directed at Asian Americans because of the coronavirus had an emotionally devastating impact on Maiko and Yeung, who grew up in multicultural enclaves in California. Neither woman had experienced overt racism that made them fearful for their safety until February, when suddenly, what Maiko calls “micro-aggressions” were fraught with deeper meaning. “When you read about the recent hate crimes against Asian Americans, ugly looks feel like they have the potential for physical altercations,” she says.
Combined with the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests, Maiko and Ferguson felt the need to act. Daijoubu began raising funds with the sale of “It’s Not Fine: Stand Up to Racism” stickers on Instagram and donating proceeds to various social justice organizations, including civil and human rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) and The East Oakland Collective (EOC), a Black-led advocacy group. Other funds went to Minamoto Foods, an Austin Asian specialty/seafood distributor that’s been providing meals to pandemic-furloughed food and beverages workers.
“Asian Americans benefitted greatly from the civil rights movement, and it’s time we work in solidarity with the Black community,” says Maiko. “We’ve had a lot of positive feedback for our social justice work, and hope to continue to advocate with BIPOC with the support of the Pan-AAPI community.”
The pandemic has also required bar owners to find innovative ways in which to generate revenue. Daijoubu has collaborated locally and nationally with Asian-owned bars, serving batched cocktails and boozy boba tea. With DaijoubuMart, they’ve found a way to way to help multiple small businesses at once.
“The goal with our food partners was to support Austin’s Asian American entrepreneurs,” says Maiko. “By joining forces, we broaden our audience and it’s also exciting to see a bunch of women of color coming together and sustaining one another.”
For the pop-up, the façade of Last Straw has been transformed into an open-front (COVID-regulated) Asian market. The shelves behind the register are festooned with cherry blossoms and Hello Kitty paraphernalia, along with Asian snacks, candy, grocery staples – even rolls of toilet paper wrapped in pink tissue paper.
“We’d been using the space to do prep for Good Work Austin, which provides meals for students and their families in need and those experiencing homelessness,” says Maiko. “With the future of bars and restaurants uncertain, creating a pop-up concept that can financially stabilize Daijoubu and other small businesses is comforting.”
The rotating food and drink menus include various types of bento and onigiri by Gan Bei Gals and Onigiri Corner, as well as the naan croissants and other savory snacks from 33 Tigers. Cocktails run the gamut from a rum and Earl Grey-based beverage with liqueur-infused boba a roasted shishito-infused Espolon Blanco paired with “Mama Yeung’s Tom Kha Soup.”
The world is a complicated place, especially right now. But at DaijoubuMart, it’s just fine.
DaijoubuMart: Super Asian Provisions is open Thursday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. until September 20th at Last Straw. Order at daijoubupopup.com. One dollar from every returned reusable cocktail bottle goes to STAR (State of Texas Alliance for Recycling).