Asian American is its own authentic identity. It’s time for the culinary world to level up.
The strongest tie to my parents’ culture has always been food. Whether it was the bitter experience of having our lunches called smelly at the school cafeteria or tender memories of learning how to properly fry tofu 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 our cultures’ cuisine the same way; unless you grew up in a major city, chances are that you had to settle for the ingredients found in a good old American supermarket, which don’t often stock the specific flavors, textures, and seasonsings of the motherland. Even when mainstream supermarkets do have Asian ingredients, their branding can feel alienating. As recently as 2020, Trader Joe’s used orientalized “Chop Suey” font to market some of its so-called Trader Ming’s products. They got a C+ for effort on that one.
On the other end of the spectrum are newer online stores like weee! that have helped democratize access to Asian ingredients and foods where few options exist. But what feels especially exciting right now are the brands that are not only helping us gain access to the classic ingredients we know and love, but also building flavors that aren’t trying to replicate any one cuisine. In doing so, they are creating space for flavors that are specifically Asian American.
In this vein, Omsom comes to mind. Founded in 2020 by Vietnamese-American sisters Vanessa and Kim Pham, the brand stocks mouthwatering sauces like Lemongrass BBQ, Spicy Bulgogi, and Sisig inspired by chefs from each specific country to build unique flavors that are rooted in their country of origin, but not confined by them.
In Vietnamese, Om Som means loud and rambunctious and it’s 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 looking online for a teriyaki-like sauce to slather on my bland salmon dinners. Unlike most other online sauce stores, their website was fun, bold and gave me an immediate sense of comfort; it made Asian spices seem trendy and fun rather than exotic.
Unless you grew up in a major city, chances are that you had to settle for the ingredients found in a good old American supermarket, which don’t often stock the specific flavors, textures, and seasonsins of the motherland.
When I talked to Kim, I asked if other Asian American customers also had weirdly emotional responses to their brand — and she confirmed that they definitely did and that 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 by their food. “We’re taking OG Asian flavors but then building upon it and creating something uniquely third-culture,” Kim tells me.
Fly by Jing is another uniquely third culture brand that has shaken up the Asian ingredient market in recent years. Founded in 2018 by Jing Gao, Fly by Jing has become famous for its Sichuan chili crisp, made from chilis imported from Sichuan. Jing is from Chengdu, but grew up in Europe and Canada before arriving in L.A., where she lives now. Her philosophy for Fly by Jing is “not traditional, but personal,” which is to say that she isn’t claiming that her chili crisp is the definitive chili crisp, but it is, instead, the one that feels most authentic to her.
Jing tells me that she went by the name Jenny for most of her life. It wasn’t until she moved to Shanghai in her mid-20s that she developed her own, deeply personal connections to the flavors of her birth country. The connection to her food empowered her to reclaim other parts of her identity. “I realized how I’d been minimizing myself all those years by hiding behind a Western name,” she tells me. “I’d been fighting for acceptance my whole life, first as a child of immigrants and then as a founder who faced reductive dismissal about the perceived value of Chinese food from investors and the public.” Last year, she let “Jenny” go and started going by her birth name.
As we continue to grapple with the meaning of Asian-Americanness, many of us are starting to establish an identity as a cultural group separate from our parents’. Authenticity is no longer synonymous with how well we can cook or speak our parents’ language; Asian-American is its own authentic identity.
Kim made me realize how this is reflected in our relationship to food. The generation before us had no real sense of solidarity with other Asian immigrants in the U.S. You were either Korean or Chinese or Filipino, and that was that. But we grew up having a more uniform experience: We understood that Americans saw us as Asian and didn’t care about the nuances of our ethnic backgrounds.
For that reason, we think of food more fluidly than our parents. Growing up in suburban Texas, for example, Vietnamese and Thai cuisine felt like part of my heritage because of the experience of going into restaurants and seeing faces that looked like mine, but also because of the strong, orgasmic flavors that seem to link all of that food to my mom’s.
What I appreciate about this new generation of Asian American founders is that they aren’t limiting themselves to Western notions of what Asian food is supposed to be; they are taking up space in other markets as well. Nam Coffee was founded this year by Vince Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who lives in L.A. He is from the highlands of Pleiku and tells me that when he first arrived in California, he couldn’t find coffee that reminded him of home. “Most of Vietnam's coffee beans are robusta, which Americans used to consider inferior compared to the arabica bean, which is lighter and fruitier,” 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 sisters, and Jing are no longer apologizing for their palates. They are doubling down on their unique identities and putting Asian American flavors on the map. “If anything I'm proud that our brand is proud and loud, when Asian Americans tend to be flattened, silenced and erased, especially by the bullshit model minority myth,” Kim says. “Omsom’s rowdy, loud-and-proud name has only become more important. It started out personal, but it’s become cultural.”