Growing up in a Vietnamese household, my childhood was filled with scents of freshly cooked jasmine rice, nước mắm, and mắm tôm. Along with these smells were the sounds that came from the fluctuating accents of our mother tongue to music from Thúy Nga playing in the background to my and my brother's constant bickering. Despite all the noise, my parents would always single us out for being "om sòm" or noisy.
So when I first heard of Omsom, a food brand self-described as noisy, rambunctious, and riotous, I was drawn to it. Omsom sells starters of Asian sauces, aromatics, and seasonings that are loud, proud, and unapologetic. There are no cultural compromises or diluted flavors. It's food the way we eat it.
I spoke with Kim Pham, co-founder of Omsom, about creating her company, honoring Vietnamese cuisine, and living her truths.
Kim Pham: Omsom is a proud and loud Asian food brand. We exist to reclaim and celebrate the multitudes of not just Asian flavors but also Asian stories.
The company was started by myself and my sister, Vanessa. We’re both first-generation Vietnamese Americans and daughters of refugees. While growing up in Boston, we never felt seen by “ethnic” aisles in mainstream grocery stores. Basically, many of the products sold are super old-school, diluted, and don’t celebrate the communities from which they arise. So Vanessa and I quit our jobs about two years ago to build a new gen Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) brand to reimagine the future of Asian foods and do it in a way that really centers Asian Americana.
KP: Yeah, it's done in so many different ways, right? It's not just those big moments but also in the small decisions. For us, I think that being a woman-owned, Vietnamese-owned brand already sets us apart from a lot of products that tend to be owned by large multinational conglomerates. Usually, they don't have anyone who looks like us involved in any way.
We partner with what we call "tastemakers" who are iconic Asian chefs and have deep cultural roots in these cuisines because at the end of the day, we're Vietnamese but we can't tell people how to eat Thai food or Korean food. So we work with chefs of those backgrounds every step of the way. Tastemakers are also paid a royalty fee which is a pretty unique structure. Because it's not a one-time engagement fee, it truly feels like the saying, "rising tides raise all ships." When we win, they win.
What also makes us stand out is that the team is entirely BIPOC or femme folks. A little under half of the team is queer, and the vast majority is Asian and not just East Asian, but an interesting representation across the continent. Everything we do centers Asian Americana. For example, 95% of our creative dollars are spent on Asian creatives. We write copy and recipes that aren't about showcasing "Oriental flavors from the East" but proudly saying, "Hey! This is how we eat." We're not gonna make it weird, exotic, or unique. It's just the way that we eat. It's to see all of us in a way that's not flattened, erased, or diluted.
It's about centering our community first and foremost so I don't think it's exclusionary, but we know who we are for and where we want to go.
KP: Oh, it's really specific. It's like my mom's sewing room has a very special smell. Also, this little room in our basement next to my dad's office has a unique scent that always felt comforting.
We grew up in a small town south of Boston that was on the sea. So, I really love the smell of the ocean.
KP: Oh this is so hard...I don't know if it symbolizes me, but my favorite dish in the world is boiled pork belly. It’s super simple with jasmine rice and a side of pineapple pork soup. It makes no sense, but it's delicious! It's pineapple, tomato -- almost like canh chua-esque with quickly blanched cabbage and a side of nước mắm. Oh my god, I want to have that right now. It's so vivid to me.
KP: Well...my family always ate dinner together. That was my dad's one request. It didn’t matter how late he would get home from work, we ate dinner together as a family, and that's when we would talk and catch up. For me, it was my opportunity to speak with my parents because they were busy working full-time jobs. Vanessa and I were really independent as children because we had to be. So dinner became a space for us to connect and speak Vietnamese with one another. There's no specific memory, but it's nostalgic for me.
KP: Oh my god, everything! So whenever I go to Southern California to see my family, I'm obsessed with all the food from Huế such as bánh bèo or bánh nậm. Food is steamed, wrapped, and then topped with other stuff. It's just amazing. I also love cá kho tộ which I don't think a lot of people know about. Vietnamese food is so incredibly diverse and complex. We're just scratching the surface in terms of the national dialogue. There's so much, and I'm really excited to dig into it more.
KP: I feel like I live my love letter every day. My love letter to myself is the freedom and liberation to be exactly who I want to be. It took me a long time in my life to proudly and loudly live my truths across many spheres. I’m a business owner. I’m a leader. I’m a Vietnamese queer woman. It took me a long time to feel pride in many of these facets. So I live my love letter to myself every day by choosing to be a hundred percent me. Even in ways that might make me or others uncomfortable.
KP: Honestly, if I were to pick the catalyst...I got out of a wonderful three-year relationship about three years ago. After that relationship, I wrote down everything that I thought I knew about myself. I went through line by line to figure out whether or not this belief or understanding of myself is truly mine or if it's rooted in expectations or norms that society gave me or culture forced upon me.
As a result of that, I learned a ton about myself, and it made me deeply uncomfortable. It really forced me to think about what matters the most to me. It made me realize that I'm not hetero; I'm bi. I'm kink and fetish positive. It's a really important part of my life. Play and pleasure are deeply important to me, and I believe a cornerstone of human connection and intimacy. I thought, "wow, it actually translates into how I show up in the world as a leader and as a friend." Through this intense period, I realized that my ancestors and my parents did not suffer and sacrifice for me to be a dimmed down, hidden version of myself. They did all of these things for me to fully be me and every way, even if they didn't necessarily agree with it. By choosing liberation and agency, I am actually honoring them. Omsom is right alongside that journey. It's not coincidental. It was during this time of personal reckoning that I started this business, which is why it is so tied to my heart and soul.
KP: That's a really great question. Some preconceived notions of Asian food are that it only looks one way or that Asian food is unhealthy or Asian food has to be cheap for it to be good, or "authentic" Asian food looks one way. Even the idea that “I can only get my Asian food from mom-and-pop shops or hole-in-the-walls.” It's interesting because it's like a conditional acceptance if it meets certain "criteria." It was fascinating from a cultural perspective and perhaps a reflection of America's "acceptance" of Asian communities as well.
So much of what we do as a brand is bigger than our product. As a brand, we talk on a cultural level about Asian food and identity. As a result, Omsom has been a big part of driving the conversation around shifting people's perceptions of Asian food.
We do a lot of education, and I'm starting to see early glimpses that make me hopeful. We're gradually shifting the narrative away from the idea that Asian food has to look a certain way to an understanding that there are many multitudes within each of these cuisines.
KP: Phew...to be honest, I don't know if we’re balancing that right now. I have the best team in the world who cares so much, but it’s a lot of emotional labor. Frankly, I think about how White-owned businesses don't have to do the same emotional labor because people don't have expectations for those companies. But there is for us and perhaps rightfully so because we are a brand that is inherently rooted in a cultural community.
It does feel a little unsustainable where my team and I are constantly pouring out our hearts and our souls. I have a bit of a martyr view where maybe that's just what needs to happen to move the conversation forward and progress. So that eventually, more and more Asian brands or queer Asian brands can enter this space and continue down this path. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.
KP: I guess I'm looking forward to this continued state of change that my company, my community, and I are going through. A lot of it has been painful because of the pandemic, but there is a sense of hope.
I feel a sense of ownership over changes. It has been interesting seeing my friends go through changes like uncoupling, moving, and changing jobs. People are taking ownership of their journey; they own it fully and authentically in an open way. I don't know if the pandemic forced us to confront ourselves, but I'm really excited for whatever that looks like. I've really stepped into what makes me powerful. I've become a better leader. I've become more truthful to myself and the world about who I am and what I stand for. I see that mirrored in a lot of other folks. That's what I'm excited about!