The Secret Sauce for Perfecting Filipino, Thai, and More Cuisines on the Fly
As children sisters Vanessa and Kim Pham would belt out songs like "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in the back seat of their car on family road trips, causing their parents to eventually turn around and chide, "Don't be so om sòm!" (the Vietnamese phrase for rowdy or rambunctious). The phrase quieted them back then but has since invigorated the sisters to be "proud and loud" with their company, Omsom, which makes bold, dynamically flavored starters—packets of premixed sauces and spices that are designed to help cooks easily make specific dishes from multiple Asian regions at home.
The brand launched in May 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to fanfare from food writers, chefs, influencers, and everyday cooks, Asian American and not.
"There are so many Asian Americans who grew up on these flavors but don't have the bandwidth to be making them from scratch at home," says Vanessa, who comes from a management consulting background. "There's a whole world of people who love Asian cuisine that don't know where to start. We wanted to make something that allows them to unlock these dishes but be flexible enough to suit their dietary preferences and what they have in their fridges."
In early 2020, the Phams had amateur home cooks across the country try the first iteration of their starters to make sure the recipes were clear, the flavors were fine-tuned, and the product was easy to use. Fifty percent of the testers were Asian Americans who struggled with getting actual measurements for their favorite childhood recipes out of their parents, while others loved eating Asian food but struggled to access ingredients or were intimidated by the flavors and techniques.
"We watched many people cut pork belly into the wrong size," Vanessa recalls with a laugh. "The objective was to take notes quietly and not help, as to not affect their experience. It helped us see how people interpreted [the product]," she says. Afterward, the sisters debriefed with their testers and altered the packets' instructions and flavors based on their feedback.
The initial run of starters featured Southeast Asian dishes underrepresented in the mainstream. The sisters worked with New York City–based chefs to develop Omsom's first three offerings: This first drop included Filipino sisig with Nicole Ponseca of Jeepney, Thai larb with Chat and Ohm Suansilphong of Fish Cheeks, and Vietnamese lemongrass BBQ with Jimmy Ly of Madame Vo. They sold out almost immediately and repeatedly.
Omsom East Asian Sampler, $29 at omsom.com
Their second collection, which dropped in fall 2020, gave Omsom's base what they were asking for—East Asian food. "A lot of folks are more familiar with East Asian cuisines, and we wanted to continue working with kick-ass chefs," Vanessa explains. This drop of starters helped home cooks make a Korean spicy bulgogi from Deuki Hong of Sunday Bird in San Francisco, Japanese yuzu misoyaki with Maiko Kyogoku of Bessou in NYC, and Chinese mala salad with Amelie Kang of MáLà Project, also in NYC. Now, the sisters are hinting at a spring 2021 release that they're excited about.
No matter how far they expand the line, the Phams are excited to spread their message of being proud and loud in both food and life. "For Asian Americans in particular, food is oftentimes a carrier of our identities, cultures, and language," Kim says. "Omsom was kind of born from us trying to figure out how we can reclaim and celebrate Asian identities, communities, and cultures." And, it turns out, that can all be set into motion with one bite.
Shop the samplers at omsom.com or check out the favorites below.