“We wanted to cook what we grew up on.”
Kim Pham loves her mom’s Vietnamese meals made from scratch. She’s less keen on trying to get the family recipe from her, as exact amounts prove elusive.
“Usually recipe measurements are, ‘Pour until it tastes good,’” Pham said.
Pham and her sister Vanessa grew up on the South Shore, looking forward to their Me’s Vietnamese cuisine every day. Their parents were refugees from Vietnam, who admonished their daughters for being too “om sòm,” or loud. Omsom became their company name for unapologetically bold Asian flavors. Launched in April, Omsom’s initial three meal starters sold out in 72 hours, with another three products added since and a seventh starter coming early next year.
“One of our Omsom starters lets you rip the package open and it tastes like a dish from home, but with the convenience of a jarred tomato sauce,” Kim Pham said. “It’s taken the place of a difficult call with parents or grandparents.”
With the pandemic forcing people to cook more at home, the starters have earned rave reviews.
“Me Pham was skeptical at first (classic!), but has actually come to love them as much as we do,” Kim said. “When she’s busy, Omsom makes a great weeknight dinner cheat for her and my dad.”
Kim and Vanessa spent 18 months developing products with professional chefs, who partner as tastemakers. Jimmy Ly of New York’s Madame Vo worked on Omsom’s Vietnamese lemongrass BBQ starter, based on a dish served out of his East Village eatery.
“It was an amazing experience. I had full control; they let me do my thing,” Ly said. “I saw how much they love the culture and what they believe in.”
Ly cooked his version of lemongrass barbecue, with the final product tweaked three times before meeting Ly’s standards. The Omson research and development team worked to package restaurant-quality flavors for home cooks unable to access commercial ranges, farm-direct food sources and professional kitchen tools.
“We wanted to cook what we grew up on; they were on the same page,” Ly said. “I know a lot of brands shift to the market. I said no, we’re going to stay true to our flavors.”
The Pham sisters listened to Thai chefs Chat and Ohm Suansilphong of New York’s iconic Fish Cheeks for Omsom’s larb starter, sourcing a Thai chili instead of cheaper Korean or Chinese chilies to make a fiery plate of chicken, sticky rice, and cabbage.
“To build a product with cultural integrity, we have folks in the room to make decisions,” Kim said. “Vanessa and I started this business because we were not happy with the products in the ethnic aisle.”
Kim’s favorite dish is her mother’s boiled pork, served with a side of cabbage, soup, and dipping fish sauce. She craves the comfort meal so much, she’s planning to get it inked as a tattoo.
“Food is a really unique part of identity as an Asian American,” Kim said. “It’s how we communicate, show love, and show identity.”
Kim and Vanessa joke about Omsom being 20 years in the making. Vanessa runs financial strategy with her degree from Harvard and experience at Bain & Company. Kim worked in startups and venture capital, starting out in Boston at 16 before attending New York University.
“We love and trust each other, and also own our discrete pieces of the business,” Kim said.
The Phams’ Vietnamese American family did not come from wealth or privilege. The sisters went without salaries for a year, working side hustles for their dream of celebrating real flavors.
“As people of color, we step into our power and voices,” Kim said. “You can’t truly prepare yourself for being an entrepreneur. At some point, you just let go and build the plane as it takes off.”
Ling-Mei is a Boston-based journalist via Taipei and Hong Kong and was the editor of Sampan from 2012 - 2020.