Asian-owned small businesses in the U.S. took an especially hard hit during the pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped Asian American entrepreneurs from making their distinct mark on the way this country eats and drinks. In a 2020 Grocery Dive piece, CEOs Larry Liu of Weee and Neil Stern of Good Food Holdings attributed the rise of these products on store shelves to both continuous Asian population growth in the U.S. and Asian culture gaining more mainstream popularity.
Asian groceries are much more available in the U.S. now — and thank goodness for that. Once upon a time, we’d take a long-haul car trip to the nearest Asian supermarket to get a bulk of supplies until the next trip, but now, the number of Asian specialty stores have shot up, along with a remarkable number of online delivery services to supply families with their favorite Asian snacks. Umamicart, Cơmbap Mart, Lucky Choy, and Kim’C Market are just a few of these delivery services to consider.
In addition to the growth of Asian-owned stores in the U.S., there is now a great number of Asian-owned businesses in food and drink sharing their favorite flavors with the world. I’ve rounded up my favorite of these businesses, all of whom have been catalysts for social change by reimagining which foods belong in the American fridge and pantry and which people get to sit at the head of the American table.
Specializing in Indian cooking for over a decade, Chitra Agrawal founded Brooklyn Delhi, a food brand inspired by her heritage, in 2014. Her first products to market were her achaars, spicy Indian condiments she makes with no preservatives and less salt compared to other store brands. In addition to her achaars, Agrawal’s line now includes a mix of condiments and plant-based simmer sauces, which are “as close as you can get to homemade in a jar,” according to Eater.
Husband-and-wife team Dave and Lois Cho operate the first Korean American-owned winery in Oregon.
Dave worked for some of the most notable wineries in the Willamette Valley before he and Lois opened Cho Wines in 2021. They recently purchased 77.24-acres of farmland for Cho Vineyards, in west flank of the Chehalem Mountains, at an elevaion of 1,000, saying that harvesting at that altitude allows for more distinct flavors and structure. Their wine line includes a signature pinot noir, pinot noir blanc, rosé, pét-nat and traditional method sparkling wine with plans to expand to Chardonnay, syrah and aligoté.
In 2020, founder Kevin Ly launched the first Asian American-owned cognac brand in the U.S. with the hopes of bringing a high-quality cognac to the market that would spotlight the Southeast Asian community and its culture. A first-generation Cambodian American raised by a single mother, Ly grew up in Rivington Park public housing in Portland, Maine surrounded by a tight-knit Asian community, watching cognac being enjoyed on special occasions.
Crafted from 100% Ugni Blanc grapes grown in the Petite Champagne and Fin Bois areas of Cognac, France, the cognac is only sold in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas and California for now, but the company plans to gradually expand nationwide.
The company also remains committed to help decrease food insecurity. As Ly and his business partners all grew up relying on subsidized foods, they donated 100% of their profits in 2021 to Full Plates, Full Potential.
Company founder and CEO Mansoor Ahmed is proud of the flavors his ice cream line produces because they taste and feel like home to him. After years of working with different ice cream brands, he launched Heritage Kulfi in 2021. He grew up in New York as first-generation Pakistani American and set up his business and operations in Princeton, New Jersey, which, he says, is becoming a real ice cream destination. His company name is for the Indian-style ice cream called kulfi, which has a signature creamy taste and texture without the use of eggs. His line of flavors include Rosewater, Pistachio, Saffron, Cardamom Chai and Alphonso Mango (which uses Alphonso mangoes sourced directly from India).
In Beaverton, Oregon, founder Tenzin Yeshi (also known as Kyikyi) started the first woman-owned Tibetan food brand in the U.S. Known for her Himalayan dumplings and Tibetan hand pies at her sold-out pop-up events, she began selling her Himalayan food at the night markets in Beaverton in 2016. She recently launched her artisanal food brand selling hot sauces, frozen momos (dumplings) and shaphaleb (hand pies), both available in meat-filled and vegan versions, which will be soon available for nationwide shipping.
She also uses her social media platform to raise awareness about all aspects of Tibet, where her parents were born and lived until they fled to Nepal. Because the world’s population of Tibetans is so small, Kyikyi understands the importance of representation. She hopes to empower other Tibetans and immigrants of the Himalayas to introduce more people to their culture through food.
“This is my vision. This is my dream, my passion. I’m doing it one step at a time,” she told NBC affiliate KGW.
Chef and philanthropist Roy Choi has made a remarkable impact on the food industry and media, and now his beloved LA-based food-truck company has its own sauce line. The sauces (which can also double as marinades) pay both a traditional and modern homage to his Korean American LA life. Flavors include Korean BBQ, Hot Wing Sauce with Gochujang, Sweet Garlic Teriyaki and Boom Boom Sauce.
Founder Wen-Jay Ying, who has been widely recognized for her work in agriculture, knows the importance of communities having access to fresh, healthy and local food. She established her Brooklyn-based business, Local Roots NYC, in 2011, with the mission to help create a regenerative food system and community in the city. She also created the Local Roots NYC Harvest Club, providing CSA orders of nutritious, seasonal farm-fresh produce and meat from farmers and regional growers within a 250-mile radius.
In addition, in 2021, she opened the Local Roots Market & Cafe in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, a Chinese farm-to-table café creating Chinese homestyle cooking using local ingredients. She intends for it to be a place for people to gather, eat, shop and learn about sustainable living and local food.
“Local Roots is about creating the community you want to live in,” said Ying. “Building that sense of home by meeting your neighbors at our markets, trading recipes, and gathering around the table to nourish yourself and those you love.”
When co-founders Kevin Wong and Sean Ro dined at local restaurants, they felt like the drink menus were missing the flavors from their childhoods. So, in 2020, they launched their brand Lunar, the first craft hard seltzer made with real fruit from Asia. Fan-favorite flavors include Korean Plum and Passion Fruit, with many other flavors available in a “heritage edition” package created in collaboration with New York-based, Asian American-owned restaurants, such as Mint Omija with Jeju Noodle Bar in Manhattan, and Salted Kumquat with Bonnie’s in Brooklyn.
Though she only grew up seeing a woman’s “successful career” being defined as a only few professions in her community, company founder and CEO Ayeshah Abuelhiga achieved her own version of success. An LGBTQ- and BIPOC-owned and operated business based in the Baltimore area, her biscuit brand has customers constantly coming back for more. Having grown up in her parents’ soul food carry-out restaurant in Baltimore, she uses the freshest dairy products to make her ready-to-bake biscuits. Her company has also expanded into breakfast sandwiches, with products now available at 8,000 grocery stores nationwide.
Julia Child Best First Cookbook Award-winner Maya Kaimal uses traditional Indian flavors to make her signature simmer sauces and meal starters for her namesake company. Raised in Boston, Kaimal grew up in a multicultural home with a South Indian father and a mother from New England. Through her product line, she hopes to help increase access to and improve the quality of quick, flavorful meals for busy families. Her products include an assortment of condiments, simmer sauces, marinades, Everyday Dal (lentil) and Everyday Chana (chickpea) pouches inspired by her family’s recipes. Kaimal will also be releasing a highly anticipated cookbook with Indian recipes for the modern cook in spring 2023.
What began as an effort to make delicious, quick meal options for his wife when she was fighting cancer evolved into chef Ming Tsai’s new line of vegan frozen bings (Chinese-style flatbread). Made gluten-free with a brown rice base, the bing varieties include Buffalo Cauliflower and Sausage and Peppers. They’re delicious, plant-based pockets of comfort with complementing dips also available for purchase. Tsai also donates a portion of the brand’s profits to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, The Jimmy Fund and Family Reach.
Miyoko Schinner, recognized by the United Nations as a “vegan revolutionary,” founded her artisanal vegan cheese brand in 2014 with hopes of it becoming the “creamery of tomorrow.” Using traditional cheesemaking fermentation techniques, Schinner and her team experiment with different seeds, nuts and beans to create their signature, award-winning products, like vegan butter, artisanal cashew-based cheese wheels, mozzarella and cream cheeses.
Sustainability is a key part of her mission, so Miyoko’s Creamery sources cashews organically-grown 100% by rain, and the company is a participant in Sonoma Clean Power’s CleanStart program, where half of the electricity it uses in its facility is 50% renewable and 91% carbon-free.
Indonesian graphic designer Nigel Sielegar attracted quite the following with his kaya (coconut jam) brand, Moon Man. When he found himself craving Indonesian street snacks while in the states, he decided to make his own — and they have been a fixture at the night markets in New York City since 2017. Now, the sought-after sweet, coconutty, Southeast Asian spread is available in three colorful and delicious flavors — ube, java palm sugar and pandan — sold through many different online grocers.
Fierce sister team Vanessa and Kim Pham started their award-winning company, Omsom, to create pantry staples and reclaim the cultural integrity of East and Southeast Asian flavors they found were often downplayed in American grocery stores. Creating specialty starter sauces that contain the foundation flavors of many Asian dishes, they wanted to ensure that the aromatics and oils remained familiar as well as “loud and proud.”
Furthering their cause to spread the boldness of Asian flavors, Omsom has also taken on numerous business collaborations, including with Chop’t, Instant Pot, Disney (in celebration of its 2021 hit movie, “Raya and the Last Dragon”) and Ajinomoto, helping to debunk the harmful assumptions about Asian food, especially with regards to MSG, along with Pepper Teigen.
Above all, they continue to carry out their message: “No more diluted dishes, no more cultural compromise. Real deal Asian cuisine and communities are too damn delicious to deny.”
Founder and CEO Farah Jesani founded One Stripe Chai in 2015 in Portland, Oregon, offering authentic, small batch masala chai concentrates and blends, crafted to be enjoyed from the comfort of your home or at your favorite coffee shop. Using tea sourced directly from a small organic and biodynamic family-owned farm in Assam, India, One Stripe Chai gives customers a taste of the real chai Jesani grew up drinking, and not the over-sweetened or flavorless “chai tea” she kept coming across in coffee shops. Customer favorite blends include haldi doodh (turmeric milk), masala chai and rose chai.
“If I could start a movement that would spread good, I would start with food,” Jesani said in an interview with Bitbean.
When her daughter was diagnosed with multiple food allergies, CEO Denise Woodard founded Partake Foods in 2016. Her brand offers a selection of delicious, allergy-friendly products, including crunchy and soft-baked packaged cookies and a line of baking mixes and breakfast mixes. She makes sure to create products that are certified vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO, and are free of the top-nine allergens: wheat, tree nuts, peanuts, milk, eggs, soy, fish, sesame and shellfish.
As a Black and Asian American woman-owned business, Partake champions initiatives for future BIPOC business leaders. Woodward created the Black Futures in Food & Beverage program in 2020, a fellowship program that mentors students and helps them secure internships and jobs at the program’s end.
Husband-and-wife team Tarush and Jasleen Agarwal began their brand in 2019 in an effort to create a vegetarian protein that both tasted great and was a low-carbohydrate, sustainable, meatless option for all. After starting out by creating fresh, organic paneer in their San Francisco apartment using high-quality ingredients and different flavor combinations, word spread to the markets in Northern California and thus, their artisanal paneer brand Sach (translated from the word, “honest” in Hindi) was born. With their brand now selling at over 1,500 retailers nationwide, the two first-generation Indian American immigrants hope to help “reimagine the everyday American kitchen.”
With his sparkling water brand, founder Sandro Roco aimed to capture the essence of Asian fruit flavors without added flavorings or sugars. With a prior professional background in business and engineering, he launched his company in 2019, selling four main flavors: calamansi, mango, yuzu, and lychee — the flavor of choice recently distributed at Pixar’s “Turning Red” premiere.
Owner and head chef Susanna Yoon creates gorgeous handmade sweets with her team of chocolatiers, striving to create Michelin star-worthy treats that are enticing to all the senses. Sometimes flecked with beautiful colors or gold leaf and filled with fantastic complementing flavors like sesame and passion fruit jam, Yoon’s chocolates have been described as small works of art. Popular for their high-quality, hard-shelled colorful bonbons and an assortment of many other mouth-watering confections and caramels, the intricate creations are decadent and made every day in NYC for customers.
Founded in 1984 by the five Ly brothers in San Francisco, the Vietnamese American family-owned bakery is now one of the largest in America. The business was praised in 2013 by former president Barack Obama for having an exemplary immigration story. Now, having expanded their business to both east and west coasts, it continues to provide its French-inspired baked goods adapted from their family recipes to major retailers nationwide. Baked goods include madeleines, brownie bites, palmiers and an assortment of tasty bite-sized cakes.
The kindness people showed them when they were first starting is not lost on them, so they support causes that advocate for immigrant communities, including the Asian Pacific Fund and the Illuminators Educational Foundation.
After beginning her career as a graphic designer in San Francisco, Maggie Xue created her tea brand as a high-quality “farm to cup” experience. Us Two Tea makes Taiwanese loose-leaf tea packed in biodegradable corn fiber tea sachets, sourced directly from small, family-owned tea farms in Taiwan. Available tea varities are black, oolong, jasmine and baozhong. Xue hopes for her brand to become the go-to shop for Asian tea in the U.S. and Europe, but, above all, she hopes her brand will send an encouraging message to the younger AAPI community: “I hope it inspires them to pursue their dreams and gives them the confidence to do what they love. Be proud of our culture, because it makes us who we are,” she said.
Chef Yia Vang has become a culinary emissary through the Hmong food he has produced from his Minnesota-based restaurant, Union Hmong Kitchen. Bon Appetit said in 2019 that he’d made “some of the best food (they) ate all year,” and in late 2020, the restaurant began to sell its crowd-favorite house-made sauces and seasonings: Krunchy Chili Oil, Lemongrass Scallion Sauce, Tiger Bite Hot Sauce, Szechuan Coffee Rub and Shroomami Salt. Sharing Hmong flavors now beyond the Twin Cities, Vang hopes to carry on celebrating the food of his family and community.
CEO Lin Jiang formed her Chicago-based oatmeal company while she found herself craving the black sesame porridge her mother used to make for her when she was growing up in China. Seeking more familiar flavors on the American market for hot cereal, she founded Yishi (translates to “ritual” in Chinese) and created an assortment of choices drawn from her Asian heritage. Flavors include Matcha Latte, Taro Bubble Tea, Red Bean Berry, Black Sesame and Sweet Osmanthus. All her oatmeals are organic, plant-based and free of added sugar and gluten. Her mission to make traditional Asian wellness foods into a convenient and healthy American breakfast.
“Nourishing your body with whole, functional foods is more than just a routine occurrence — it’s a small daily moment of celebration,” reads the website.
Caroline Choe is a chef, artist, teacher and writer based in New York City, and the founder of Create & Plate, a business devoted to helping create community through arts and food education. Both she and her work have been featured in Food & Wine, NPR, Food52, Chowhound, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, POPSUGAR and Glamour, and is the proud daughter of Korean American immigrants. Follow her @CaroChoe and @CreateAndPlate.
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