The strongest connection to my parents’ culture has always been food. Whether it’s the bitter experience of having our lunches called smelly in the school cafeteria or fond memories of learning how to fry tofu properly in our mothers’ kitchens, Asian Americans’ emotional connection to our cuisine is as complex as our identities.
But not all Asian Americans are able to access the cuisine of our cultures in the same way; Unless you grew up in a big city, chances are you’ve had to settle for ingredients found in a good old American supermarket, which doesn’t often stock the specific flavors, textures, and seasons of the motherland. Even when traditional supermarkets offer Asian ingredients, their brand image can seem alienating. As recently as 2020, Trader Joe’s used the orientalized “Chop Suey” font to market some of its so-called The Ming Trader some products. They got a C+ for effort on that one.
At the other end of the spectrum are new online stores like pee ! who have helped democratize access to Asian ingredients and foods where few options exist. But what’s especially exciting right now are brands that not only help us access the classic ingredients we know and love, but also create flavors that don’t try to replicate any particular cuisine. In doing so, they create space for specifically Asian American flavors.
In this vein, Omsom comes to mind. Founded in 2020 by Vietnamese-American sisters Vanssesa and Kim Pham, the brand offers mouth-watering sauces like lemongrass barbecue, spicy bulgogi and sisig inspired by chefs from each specific country to create unique flavors rooted in their country. original, but not confined. by them.
In Vietnamese, Om Som means loud and rambunctious and it was a term the sisters’ parents used to lovingly chastise them growing up. I first heard of Omsom a year ago because I was hungry and was looking online for a teriyaki-like sauce to brush over my bland salmon dinners. Unlike most other online sauce shops, their website was fun, bold, and gave me an immediate feeling of comfort; he made Asian spices seem trendy and fun rather than exotic.
Unless you grew up in a big city, chances are you’ve had to settle for ingredients found in a good old American supermarket, which doesn’t often stock the specific flavors, textures, and seasons of the motherland.
When I spoke to Kim, I asked if other Asian American customers were also having strangely emotional reactions to their brand – and she confirmed that they definitely did and it was by design. For her, Omsom is first and foremost a love letter to members of her community who want to feel seen and heard through their food. “We’re taking the OG Asian flavors, but building on that and creating something unique to the third culture,” Kim tells me.
Fly by Jing is another unique third culture brand that has shaken the Asian ingredients market in recent years. Founded in 2018 by Jing Gao, Fly by Jing has become famous for its Sichuan Chili Crisp, made from chili peppers imported from Sichuan. Jing is originally from Chengdu, but grew up in Europe and Canada before coming to LA, where she now lives. Her philosophy for Fly by Jing is “not traditional, but personal,” meaning she doesn’t claim her crispy chili is the definitive crisp chili, but it is rather the one that seems to him the most authentic.
Jing tells me that her name was Jenny for most of her life. It wasn’t until she moved to Shanghai in her mid-twenties that she developed her own deeply personal connection to the flavors of her homeland. The connection to his food allowed him to reclaim other parts of his identity. “I realized how much I had minimized myself all these years by hiding behind a Western name,” she tells me. “All my life I’ve struggled to be accepted, first as a child of immigrants, then as a founder facing a reductive rejection of the perceived value of Chinese food by investors and the public. Last year, she let go of “Jenny” and started going by her birth name.
As we continue to wrestle with the meaning of Asian-American, many of us are beginning to establish an identity as a cultural group distinct from that of our parents. Authenticity is no longer synonymous with knowing how to cook or speaking the language of our parents; Asian-American is its own authentic identity.
Kim made me realize how much this is reflected in our relationship to food. The generation before us had no real sense of solidarity with other Asian immigrants in the United States. You were either Korean or Chinese or Filipino, and that was it. But we grew up with a more uniform experience: we understood that Americans saw us as Asians and didn’t care about the nuances of our ethnic origins.
For this reason, we think about food more fluidly than our parents. Growing up in suburban Texas, for example, Vietnamese and Thai cuisine was part of my heritage because of the experience of going to restaurants and seeing faces that looked like mine, but also because of the strong flavors and orgasms that seem to connect all that food to my mom.
What I appreciate about this new generation of Asian American founders is that they don’t limit themselves to Western notions of what Asian food is supposed to be; they are also taking up space in other markets. Nam Coffee was founded this year by Vince Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who lives in Los Angeles. He is from the Pleiku Highlands and tells me that when he came to California he couldn’t find a coffee that reminded him of home. “Most coffee beans from Vietnam are robusta, which Americans considered inferior to the lighter, fruitier arabica bean,” Nguyen tells me. “But the taste of robusta is what is nostalgic and familiar to us, so how can it be inferior?”
Nguyen, the Pham and Jing sisters no longer apologize for their palaces. They are doubling down on their unique identity and putting Asian American flavors on the map. “If anything, I’m proud that our brand is proud and loud, while Asian Americans tend to be flattened, silenced and erased, especially by the minority myth of the bullshit model. “, said Kim. “Omsom’s loud, loud and proud name has only grown in prominence. It started out personal, but it became cultural.