What has to happen for Vietnamese lemongrass barbecue sauce to take up as much space as Texas barbecue sauce on an American grocery store shelf? There’s a whole generation of young entrepreneurs — many of them women of color — making packaged foods that are expanding the palate of American shoppers. This week, live on stage in Brooklyn, Dan is talking with two of these businesspeople: Chitra Agrawal, founder of Brooklyn Delhi, and Vanessa Pham, the CEO of Omsom. Chitra and Vanessa have taken different approaches to their businesses, but they’ve faced similar challenges — trying to figure out how to grow while staying true to themselves. One of the struggles they share: The debate over whether to place their items in the “ethnic” or “international” aisle of the grocery store.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Star Shootin'" by Hayley Briasco
- "Slightly Carbonated" by Erick Anderson
- "On the Floor" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Loud" by Bira
Photo courtesy of Audrey Cabatan.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful. It's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. And we are coming to you live from the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.
Dan Pashman: For decades in America, if you wanted to cook most kinds of Asian, African or Latin American food at home, you basically had two options. You could get all the ingredients and make it from scratch. But whether or not you grew up with these foods, you might not know how to make them yourself and you might not have time to cook at all. Your other option? Choose from a limited number of prepackaged meals, sauces, or spice packs. These grocery store standbys of the ethnic or international aisle would often be very sweet and lacking in spice and depth of flavor. Today, a new generation of American entrepreneurs is attempting to change that. You want the flavors of Somalia with a modern twist? There's Hawa Hassan's Basbaas Foods, which offers jars of tamarind date sauce and coconut, cilantro, chutney. You want to serve Chinese hotpot, but you've only got 10 minutes until your friends arrive? Open up a packet of Fly by Jing Hotpot Base, add whatever you have in the fridge and enjoy the unmistakable taste of Sichuan peppercorns. These are exciting and delicious times. But the road to long term success for all these brands is still full of challenges. What has to happen for Vietnamese Lemongrass barbecue sauce to take up as much space on the shelf as Texas barbecue sauce? For Indian tomato achaar to sit alongside Italian tomato sauce? We're going to discuss these questions and more with the founders of two companies who make achaar, Vietnamese barbecue sauce and much more. Chitra Agarwal is a food writer, a cookbook author and founder of the Indian sauce and condiment company Brooklyn Delhi. Please welcome Chitra Agarwal!
Dan Pashman: Hey, Chitra.
Chitra Agarwal: Hello.
Vanessa Pham: So excited to be here.
Dan Pashman: So let's take a minute. I just want to set up each of your respective backstories a little bit, and then we can get to the present and the future. Chitra, you first. Both your parents were born in India. They came to the U.S. for college and stayed. You grew up in New Jersey watching your mother cook Indian food and visiting India, watching your grandmother cook a lot of the same dishes. What are some of the dishes you remember?
Chitra Agarwal: Since I my parents grew up in two different parts of India, we ate North Indian and South Indian cooking. So we would have, you know, some chapati with saag paneer, maybe. But then we would have South Indian like rasam with chithrana, which is a rice dish. So it would be like a combo of these two different cuisines from both regions.
Dan Pashman: In your bio, you write about the ABCD label, American Born Confused Desi. Desi being a term for a person of South Asian descent.
Chitra Agarwal: Right.
Dan Pashman: Who no longer lives in South Asia. And you talk about how you struggled with that label growing up. What was the struggle?
Chitra Agarwal: A lot of times it's a derogatory term. So it's kind of like, oh, you're acting like such an ABCD. So I wanted to show that there was value in this perspective, and the way that I did it was through creating these recipes that were very much reflective of that identity.
Dan Pashman: After college, you get an M.B.A., work in advertising, start doing marketing for American Express. But in your spare time, throughout your twenties, it sounds like you are spending a lot of time cooking.
Chitra Agarwal: Yes, definitely. I think I started to want to document my family's recipes, because I think over the years I would just have recipes that were sitting in an email or written down in a notebook.
Dan Pashman: So then in 2009, you're 30-years-old and you start a food blog on the side as a hobby. You call it the ABCD of Cooking, ABCD, American Born Infuse Desi. and that leads you to hosting supper clubs and dinners. Eventually, you get a cookbook deal that allows you to leave your day job …
Chitra Agarwal: I actually at one point wanted to start kind of a South Asian cultural center, and it was kind of going to be a place where people could come and take cooking classes, they could host pop-up dinners, I could sell South Asian foods and things like that. And it was funny because it was the Power Up competition that the Brooklyn Library puts on. And I was like, oh, I want to enter that competition. And if I get that money, then I can kind of start this center. And so my husband was like, I think we should do something together. And he is a food packaging designer. And he was like, "You know those achaars that you make that everybody loves at your dinners?," he's like, "I would design the packaging, you develop the recipes and let's just do this." And so we did the whole business plan. We did it all and we ended up losing. And....
Chitra Agarwal: And ... yes, it's anticlimactic. I'm sorry. It was ... [LAUGHS] But then we were like, well, we have this business plan ...
Dan Pashman: Right. might as well devote our lives to it.
Chitra Agarwal: We designed the packaging.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Chitra Agarwal: So let's go for it.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Dan Pashman: So, Vanessa, your parents were both refugees from Vietnam. Your dad tried to escape Vietnam seven times before finally getting out?
Vanessa Pham: That's right.
Dan Pashman: They came separately in the early eighties. Both ended up in Boston, where they met. Your mother worked as a waitress. Father worked as a busboy. Eventually, they moved out to the Boston suburbs, Pembroke, Mass. on the South Shore for those keeping score, and that's where you grew up. When you were a kid, I gather that to some degree you were kind of embarrassed of your culture, embarrassed of your parents’ accents.
Vanessa Pham: Absolutely. I mean, as a kid in the sharpest way possible, I felt that shame. I would be embarrassed to have folks over my house. It would smell like bun ba hoy, which is, like, lemongrass and spicy. And my parents would blast Vietnamese music and, like, open the screen doors and I would just be horrified.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Vanessa Pham: And yeah, you know, so that was a huge part of — I remember I brought like pork floss to school for lunch and the kids didn't like that one.
Dan Pashman: When you were a young, I gather there was a story that your father shared about his experience in Boston before you were born. But it was something that sort of he shared with you early on.
Vanessa Pham: Yeah, totally. So my parents raised me through stories. They — when my dad came to the U.S., he didn't want to raise Kim, who's my sister, my co-founder, from a place of discipline, but rather through stories. And he has many stories. One of them that he told me really early on was how he came to join the Boston Police Department. And how that happened was he lived in Dorchester, which is like an ethnic enclave, to use a sociological term, in Boston, where, you know, the Irish Catholic folks live and a lot of Black Americans live. And then the Vietnamese community came and started to reside there as well. And walking down the street, you know, something he would hear often was to go back to your country. And somebody said that to him and spit on him and pushed him. And so when the police department came, he ended up kind of advocating for himself, explaining what happened. And they were like, "Your English is so good." He had been studying for so long. And so on behalf of his Vietnamese American community in Dorchester, he decided to go work as an interpreter for the Boston Police Department as a nighttime job after his normal 9 to 5. And so that was like the seed in my mind of like, oh, what would it be like to be like an advocate for your community? It really shaped me.
Dan Pashman: You said that ever since you and your sister Kim were young, you were always scrappy. [LAUGHS]
Vanessa Pham: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Is there a story you can share, an example of your scrappiness?
Vanessa Pham: Oh, my gosh. I … well perhaps the best example… I was a young entrepreneur. I found ways to create margin where there should have been none.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Vanessa Pham: I think my story here is … I've never told this anywhere. When I — at one family party, I took out my — I don't eat chocolate. I love everything. I'm not a picky eater. I just don't like chocolate. And I took out all my eight-month-old chocolate bars from Halloween. I shaped them into a cake because I didn't know how cakes were baked and I formed them. I microwaved it till it melted into a cake and I served the slices for cash at a family party and that is COGS 101. I think that's how that works.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] How much did you charge per slice?
Vanessa Pham: I don't remember.
Dan Pashman: Did they sell?
Vanessa Pham: I don’t think the pricing … They sold out of pity.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Vanessa Pham: I remember that was like one of the first times I started to really understand what pity looked like in people's eyes.
Dan Pashman: So after college, you go to work at Bain and Company doing management consulting. You're working with Fortune 500 CPG companies. In 2018, you're 24-years-old, and you and your sister Kim go on a trip together to Bolivia. Now, set the scene for me.
Vanessa Pham: The backstory here is she was risk loving. And so, okay, when we were in high school, I was like the straight-A student and she didn't care as much. She was also… She was very, you know, she got A's and B's. But, um ...
Dan Pashman: B's?!
Vanessa Pham: But by the time we were adults in the world, I was watching her risk just get rewarded. And I was like, what? I’m the straight-A student. I want to do something really risky. And so that was kind of the seed in my head. And so I kind of came to her and I was like on this hike. And I was like, so like, you know, I know you would be down to start a company on your own but like, what if we started a company? And she turned to me and she, dead serious, she was like, I've been waiting for this day. And that was that. And we started saving money like crazy and, and then started Omsom like six months later, or at least quit our job to start working on it more.
Dan Pashman: So Chitra, you launch, Brooklyn Delhi, D-E-L-H-I for folks listening at home. And you start off with your achaars.
Chitra Agarwal: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So ahaar, which also is called pickles or like an Indian pickle. Even if you go into some South Asian markets in the U.S., it will be called Indian pickle on the jar. But you made the choice to call it achaar.
Chitra Agarwal: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Why?
Chitra Agarwal: Because I did no research. And I ....
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Chitra Agarwal: No, wait. I wanted to. I mean, I came from it actually from a cooking teacher perspective. I wanted to teach people the name of it. And so that's why we launched with achaar. And the other piece was that in, you know, a lot of supermarkets you'll find dill pickles. And I didn't want it to get confused with it because it's used in such a different way. It's like a spicy condiment versus a pickle.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right. You launch your tomato achaar with Brooklyn Delhi. Your husband designs the label. And for the first four years, you operate Brooklyn Delhi out of a soup pantry in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. When you first launched, you got a lot of press attention because achaar was totally new to a lot of people. So a lot of food press was really excited about this new thing. All that press leads to calls from buyers who want your achaar in their stores, but when you get it in the stores, it doesn't sell. Why not?
Chitra Agarwal: I think that in a grocery store, people a lot of times are on autopilot. And I think this for myself as well, it's that I kind of know what I buy and what I want and I'm a little bit in tunnel vision in a sense. So when you put a product like achaar that there's no other achaars on the shelf, it may just sit there because there — people don't know what it is.
Dan Pashman: So you start doing demos in some of the stores. You think, all right, I'll show people. Like at the farmer's market, I'll set up a stand. But it sounds like that also was not an easy path.
Chitra Agarwal: No, it's not. It wasn't an easy path. I mean, it helped us to educate more people, but we couldn't reach a large quantity of people that way. It was a really hard time because at one point, I mean, I just remember I was just about to have my first kid and we were maybe three years in and we didn't know if it was going to survive, basically. And ...
Dan Pashman: The business?
Chitra Agarwal: Yeah. Yes. Yes, the business.
Chitra Agarwal: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Children are doing fine for the record.
Chitra Agarwal: Yeah. Children were covered.
Dan Pashman: They're healthy. It's all good.
Chitra Agarwal: Children were coming.
Dan Pashman: Right. Yeah.
Chitra Agarwal: Not born yet. So, yeah. So it was a tough time. And I think that one thing we realized is that we need more people to sample the product because as soon as I sampled it or demoed it, it would sell. So it would sell off the shelf, but I needed to be there. And so this was they way.
Dan Pashman: And you can only be in so many places.
Chitra Agarwal: Right.
Dan Pashman: But also, I would imagine even if you get people to taste it, just demoing, it also involves a lot of rejection.
Chitra Agarwal: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: It's not like you just like at Costco getting paid $15 an hour to demo the thing that's on special that week. Like this is your life's work.
Chitra Agarwal: I know.
Dan Pashman: That you're offering to people who walk by who are just trying to get their errands done and ...
Chitra Agarwal: They do not want to talk to you. They don't want to talk to you. It's just ... It's hard. It's like you have to develop a thick skin. I mean, when you're sitting there, you know, I mean, the demos would be for 4 hours just trying to get people to try your product. And people are like, "No, I'm okay. I'm okay." And I'm like, "Are you sure? Really?". But yeah, you got to kind of stick with it and keep going.
Dan Pashman: In 2016, you're a couple of years in with Brooklyn Delhi. You're getting ready to go to a trade show, the Fancy Food Show in California. And right before you go, your husband, Ben, has an idea. Right? He's a designer. And he says he designed some concept cards, like brochures of products that you are going to show people that you have in the pipeline.
Chitra Agarwal: Well, I wouldn't say brochure. I'd say that it was a drawing and then …
Dan Pashman: Okay. All right.
Dan Pashman: So a sketch.
Chitra Agarwal: Right.
Dan Pashman: Of things that you — ideas that don't exist.
Chitra Agarwal: Yes.
Dan Pashman: So you get the food showing. You end up talking with a buyer from Whole Foods and this is a big deal. And she's interested.
Chitra Agarwal: Right. She really likes the achaars. We had several different sketches that we showed her. And one of them was this concept of a curry ketchup, which basically kind of mixed the flavor profile of the tomato achaar with ketchup. We loved it. And so she was like, "That sounds interesting. I'd like to try it." And we were like, okay. And we were in California at the time and it was like, I don't have this product. But she was like, “Can you can you send it to me? I'm going back to Austin. Just like, you know, overnight it to us.” And we were like, “Oh, my God.” So we, like, literally went back to this Airbnb we were staying in. We made ketchup. We mixed it with the tomato achaar, like sent it to her. And then we got a phone call from her and she was like, “I love it. Everybody loves it here. We're going to — we want to take it national." And she was like, "Can you also develop a curry mustard for me?" And I was like, yeah.
Chitra Agarwal: But that basically — I mean, that was one of the things that saved us.
Dan Pashman: So you get the curry ketchup and curry mustard into Whole Foods. They become sort of the tip of the spear for you. Today, Chitra your Brooklyn Delhi product line includes the tomato achaar, a roasted garlic achaar, your curry ketchup and mustard. And then now a lot of simmer sauces, including coconut curry, a cashew butter masala. You're in a Whole Foods nationwide, Amazon, a range of specialty stores. Your products are often featured in Blue Apron. And people can order direct from your website. Yes!
Dan Pashman: How many units of total Brooklyn Delhi products do you expect to sell this year?
Chitra Agarwal: Um ... [LAUGHS] Well, I mean Last year we sold over a million units. So, I mean, you know, yeah.
Dan Pashman: Amazing. Congratulations.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Chitra, Vanessa and I talk about the pros and cons of having your products in the international aisle at the grocery store. And we look at why it’s a problem when non-European cuisines are labeled as authentic. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. On last week’s episode, I head to L.A., and attempt to find a specific coconut cake that I should have eaten years ago when I had the chance. It’s almost like I’m trying to go back in time to right a wrong. So I start, where else, at the Echo Park Time Travel Mart. And things only get weirder from there. I end up in some underground tunnels that used to connect a network of illegal bars during Prohibition.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): I'm in. I'm in the tunnel. You could get seriously lost in here. It just keeps going. There's some people coming along this way that look like they're law enforcement. So I'm going to turn around and walk back the other way. Oh, my God. You guys, the coolest thing just happened.
Dan Pashman: This episode is a little out there. Okay? It’s a little different from our normal offerings, but I really love it and I think you will too. So if you wanna find out what that coolest thing that just happened was, or whether I ever get the coconut cake. listen to last week’s show. And while you're scrolling through our feed, please subscribe to our show or like or favorite or follow whatever it is in your podcasting app. Go, you can do it right now while you're listening. You hit subscribe or the plus sign or the heart sign. Whatever it is, please do that thing, then we can hang out in the future. Thanks .
Dan Pashman: Vanessa, let's pick up your story. So you and Kim have your idea. You decided to call the business Omsom. What's Omsom?
Vanessa Pham: Yes. So Omsom is actually a Vietnamese word, "omsom". And in Vietnamese, it means, like, noisy, rowdy, rambunctious. It's actually a negative term. It's what my parents would use when they were scolding us, like we were causing a ruckus in the back of the car. And they're like, "Oh, my gosh, you're being so om som." So we were like, wait, that's kind of exactly what we want to lead into. Like, especially with this model minority myth of saying, you know, Asians are docile or submissive or quiet. We were like, that's not who we are. And when we look around at our community, we see all different types of personalities. And so we were like, let's reclaim that word and let's kind of give our own middle finger to the model minority myth and launch Omsom. And so that's what it's all about. It's about being proud and loud. And you'll see that in everything that we put out into the world, like our really bright, vibrant colors, or a lot of the visuals with our branding are designed around heat waves and flame and noisiness, so like, sound forms, things like that, you'll see that when you start to look at our website or packaging. And we try to just, like, live that in everything that we do.
Dan Pashman: You know, I referenced at the top of the show, the sort of old guard of international ethnic aisle Asian products. You were very explicit, like no dragons, none of that stereotypical font.
Vanessa Pham: Right. No bamboo fonts.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Vanessa Pham: No pagodas. We're done with the pandas. Like, let's give it a rest. Like, that's what we — yes.
Dan Pashman: Right. So you developed this set. The initial set is Southeast Asian starters, meal starters?
Vanessa Pham: Yes.
Dan Pashman: They come in a little packet and you start off with Vietnamese lemongrass, barbecue, larb, and Filipino sisig, among others. And you start working with well-known chefs who have roots in these cuisines to develop the recipes. And so you're trying to get this company off the ground. You have a concept now. You decide that you need investors. Why?
Vanessa Pham: Yes. So decide is a generous term. It was ...
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Vanessa Pham: It was I was 24 and I was living off of my savings in New York City and I was ...
Dan Pashman: Which was — let the record reflect that Vanessa did air quotes when she said “savings.” The audio record will show.
Vanessa Pham: [LAUGHS] And I mean, I was getting by by basically doing interview coaching and resume editing off of Craigslist. That's how I was paying my rent. And eventually that doesn't get you so far in New York with New York rent. So that's when I literally came to Kim. I was like, we need to raise money because I can't good to go on like this. I can't pay my rent. So that's why we, yeah, we raise our kind of pre-seed, if you will.
Dan Pashman: What were those pitch meetings like?
Vanessa Pham: Just disastrous. I mean, we — raising this was one of the most character building things I've ever done. It was a masterclass in rejection. Truly, some people laughed and were like, "Why are you talking to me about this?", they were like, "Yeah, we've heard of Blue Apron, but like, what, you want to you sauce company?". And so you have met like lots of no's for many, many months.
Dan Pashman: Chitra, you've decided not to take investments in your company. Why did you make that decision?
Chitra Agarwal: I think that taking investment is such a personal decision. And I worked in corporate America for over ten years, and I just knew that I wanted my autonomy. And maybe I'm a control freak. I wanted to be able to control the recipes that I develop, what ingredients go into those recipes, the marketing. Investors are looking for a return and they're also looking to protect their interests. And sometimes those interests may not align with the founder's interests. And I just wanted to not answer to anybody else, basically.
Chitra Agarwal: But I mean, it was tough. I mean, for the first four years, we — I couldn't pay myself. And I was working a part-time job in marketing. I was writing the cookbook. So I used my advance. I don't come from wealth. I didn't buy clothes for four years. I ate a lot of beans, like that's the truth of it, you know? And we came out on the other side. We became profitable. I could pay myself after four years. It took time. And that's the one thing. It just takes more time. But at the end of the day, I'm doing what I love.
Dan Pashman: Vanessa, were any of those things concerns for you and Kim when you decided to take investment?
Vanessa Pham: Absolutely. Oh, my gosh, it is — I would totally echo all the things that you said. And it is — it's really challenging. I think there's several things that we've done to be really intentional around the investors that we've brought on. So one piece is really being thoughtful about who you're bringing in. And do they deeply understand why you're building what you're building. Like at the end of the day, like they need to make money and that's the reality of it. But there's increasingly more like mission-driven investors and folks that care about where their money goes and what it's creating and the change that it's making in the world. And so we're definitely really thoughtful about the folks that we partner with in that regard. And I wrote on an investor manifesto after we raised our bigger round, and I sent it the day after we closed it to everybody. And essentially the gist of it was like, this takes a village. Like we need everybody here to help us. And we are going to soak everything up like a sponge and then decide what is best for the business. And that was the tone that I wanted to set. And many investors responded like, “Well, that was pretty ballsy.” But most of them were really on board and respected that. And I think that's kind of the work that I do as C.E.O.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. So in 2020, in the height of COVID lockdown, in many places in the U.S., you are ready to launch Omsom. Some of your advisers tell you to wait out the pandemic, let the dust settle. But you … yeah, right.
Dan Pashman: But you move forward, figuring rightly, people are cooking more and they don't want to go to the store. And your launch strategy anyway is we're going to just ship online first. We're not going to get into stores right away. So you launch with your Southeast Asian starter, the Thai larb, Vietnamese lemongrass barbecue, and Filipino sisig. You soon add the East Asian varieties with Korean spicy bulgogi, Japanese yuzu misoyaki and Chinese mala salad. Things take off. What I could tell certainly, you do cross promotions with everyone from instant pot to spam to Pepper Teigen.
Vanessa Pham: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: And now as of this summer, you are launching nationwide in Whole Foods.
Dan Pashman: About how many meal starters do you expect to sell this year?
Vanessa Pham: This year? Probably about a million.
Dan Pashman: Congratulations.
Dan Pashman: We've caught up. We're at — we’re in the present now. Let's let's talk about where we're at and where we're going and some of the challenges ahead. One of the issues that I know is something you both thought a lot about, but I don't think that it crosses the mind of the average consumer is where in the store is your product going to be placed? Now, look, if you make pasta, that's an easy one. It goes in the pasta section. But when you're making a product that is new and different in some way, there isn't necessarily a good section for it. First of all, why does it matter? Like Vanessa, why does it matter where in the store your food item gets placed?
Vanessa Pham: I think the biggest reason is because the measure of success that you're looking for in a grocery store is velocity, which means how quickly are they moving off the shelf, which is correlated to some degree to foot traffic. So how many people are walking down that aisle? And then what is the mindset that consumers are in when they're in that section of the store as well? You know, what are their like kind of internal biases when they're in that part of the store?
Dan Pashman: Chitra, you talk about how it's been a struggle to educate people on what you can do with achaar. The things that they're going to think they might be able to do with it will be influenced by what else they see around it on the shelf.
Chitra Agarwal: Yes and no. I feel like consumers are just trained right now to go to, you know, in Whole Foods, it's called the Global Flavors aisle. We worked with the buyer, for instance, when we launched the curry ketchup and the curry mustard, we had discussions. Where should that product go? And it ended up in the condiments aisle, because we were like people when they're looking for ketchup, when they're looking for mustard, this makes sense. But what we found is that when we actually have those products next to our other products in the international aisle, they actually sell more because we have more facings and we have more of our product there, so it’s also …
Dan Pashman: Right. So it's like a whole row of Brooklyn Delhi products, so that catches the eye.
Chitra Agarwal: Right. Right. So it's like a psychological or a consumer behavior type of thing.
Dan Pashman: I haven't seen ethnic aisle as much lately. Hopefully that's going away, although I'm sure it's still in some places.
Chitra Agarwal: I hope so.
Vanessa Pham: It's still out there.
Chitra Agarwal: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: It's still out there. More often I see international aisle or is it global flavors, is that what they call it at Whole Foods? Okay. So I mean, let's just get right to the heart of the matter. Like, what's the problem with the international aisle?
Chitra Agarwal: It's segregation in the grocery store, basically. So it's saying that these products are other.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. So I went to my local supermarket recently. I wanted to get Colman's English mustard, which I love. And I went to the condiment section and I saw — you know, buy the Heinz ketchup and the French's mustard. No Colman's. But I did, in addition to the French's mustard, I saw a German style mustard, a Polish style mustard. But I looked at the jars and I saw that they were all made in America. And I thought, oh, maybe the Colman’s is in the international section because it's made in England. So I walk around the corner to the international aisle, and I still find no Colmans. But I do find one kind of mustard in the international aisle: Chinese mustard. And guess where it's made? New Jersey.
Dan Pashman: So what's the difference? All these mustards are made in America. And yet the German mustard is next to the Heinz ketchup. And the Chinese mustard is international, in other words, not American. That's really the root of the issue. Right? But it is the kind of thing that I think a lot of average consumers wouldn't even notice. But it sends a really important signal about which people have transcended the border from being foreign to being American, and which people have not, regardless of how long they've been here. So if you could snap your fingers and the international aisle would disappear tomorrow, and your product would just be categorized in wherever, you know, the tomato achaar would be next to the tomato sauce, the pizza sauce, some people know to put it on pizzas. Maybe it would go in a couple of different places. But there's no international aisle. I'll ask you each of you, if you could make that change tomorrow, would you?
Vanessa Pham: I would. I would. And I mean, I don't necessarily know that it would be better for my business in the short term, but that's not really why I do what I do. Like, I really am building Omsom because of this broader mission that really speaks to me. And I do think it makes sense for, like, rice noodles to be near pasta. And like, there's a cooking sauce section. Our products are cooking sauces. Right? So I think there's a way that it actually just makes sense, by function. I think that that's like, shouldn't be that hard.
Dan Pashman: Chitra, despite knowing how conditioned consumers are to look for your products in Global Flavors, would you eliminate that aisle if you could?
Chitra Agarwal: I would, but I think that I would think of it more in a modular sense. So it's like how people cook. I would reconfigure the store so it's if you're in the produce aisle or if you're in the meat counter that you would put these sauces or these flavorings there rather than even be in those aisles. It just doesn't make sense to me.
Dan Pashman: So Vanessa, you don't use the word authentic to describe your products. Why not?
Vanessa Pham: For us, we don't use the word authentic to describe our products because we feel like that is a very limiting word that often pulls on ideas of nostalgia or the way that our families did it. And moreover, it is more often used for cuisines that are not European. Right? Like this idea of, like, authentic hole in the wall Asian food. It's got to be cheap. Then therefore, those chefs and those creators can't command a premium for their hard work and their talents. And so I think we're just trying to say, like, let's be flexible and let's be thoughtful about all the ways that innovation and creativity can continue to kind of persist in food. And let's not like hold them to this impossible standard of it's got to taste like my mom or my dad made it.
Dan Pashman: Chitra, what are your thoughts on the idea of authenticity?
Chitra Agarwal: My identity is so tied up with what Brooklyn Delhi is. So I like to say that these products are very much authentic to me. This whole brand of Brooklyn Delhi kind of started because I started to explore my identity through food. You know, there's ways that my family makes rasam or sambar. And I was trying to find this quintessential recipe. And in my own family, everybody did it differently. And I think for for me, that actually was extremely freeing. A lot of the recipes, they definitely had this foundation of these techniques, but they were really, according to my own taste, just as a lot of my relatives made their food according to their taste. And it freed me up to create what I wanted at Brooklyn Delhi.
Dan Pashman: Chitra Agarwal is the founder of Brooklyn Delhi. You can get her products at Whole Foods on Amazon and directly from her at BrooklynDelhi.com. That’s D-E-L-H-I. dot com. Big hand for Chitra!
Dan Pashman: And Vanessa Pham is the co-founder of Omsom. Her products are also coming now to Whole Foods. You can order them directly from her at Omsom.com. Big hand Vanessa! And a big hand for all of you. Thank you so much for coming out. Good night.
Dan Pashman: Thank you so much to everyone who came out, it was great to be on stage with a packed house. Now, if you couldn’t be there to taste some of the products that were on offer, here’s your chance! We’re giving away a set of Brooklyn Delhi achaars and an Omsom sampler set! We’ll pick one winner from our mailing list for each prize, so subscribe now! If you’re already on the list, you’re automatically entered into this and all of our giveaways. And if you've noticed, we've been doing more giveaways lately. So get on that list. You must sign up by August 31st to have a shot at this prize. Sign up now at Sporkful.com/newsletter.
Dan Pashman: Please take a minute right now to connect with our show in your podcasting app, that way you can keep listening in the future. Find out about new episodes. We can hang out all the time. It's gonna be great. Different apps have different features. It could be follow. It could be the plus sign or heart of favorite, subscribe, whatever it is. Go to our show page in your podcasting app. Please do that thing. Thanks.
Dan Pashman: Next week’s show, I chat with Alexander Smalls. When the Grammy-winning opera singer was turned down for a lead role at the Metropolitan Opera, he decided to open a restaurant and ended up creating a Southern fine dining restaurant in New York that was well ahead of it's time. Since then, he’s done so much more, and now has an African food hall in Dubai. But we don’t just chat. Alexander whips me up his version of shrimp and grits. Oh my god. It was so good. Don’t listen to this episode on an empty stomach, trust me. That’s next week.
Dan Pashman: And if you’re looking for more Sporkful to listen to, check out last week’s show, where I attempt to travel through time, to eat a piece of coconut cake that I should have eaten years ago. It’s a pretty wild saga that takes me to some of the strangest places in L.A. Definitely check that one out.