Local Chili Oil Company Brings People Together.
I don’t know about you, but I am a fiend for spice. I doubt I would eat without it. “Food is but a vessel for spice” is my credo in the kitchen. Call me unrefined, call me what you will....just don’t say I lack the flavor.
That’s why it was such a thrill to interview Jessica Chu, co-founder of the Chumami chili oil company based in Orange, NJ.
We discovered Chumami while searching for splendid NJ brands to feature on LOKL’s menu. The flavorful oil made an extra-special splash on our Chicken Bacon Avocado sandwich, among others. It wasn’t long before we KNEW: we needed Chumami on our shelves as well.
This is their story.
Jessica Chu and her brother Herman started Chumami on a whim. They wanted to bring their grandfather's recipe to a broader audience and share the versatility, flavor, comfort, and culture that only authentic cuisine can bring.
I got a chance to speak to Jessica and hear all about Chumami, which is a portmanteau of her surname Chu and “umami,” that sought-after fifth flavor that’s not quite salty, sour, bitter, or sweet, but something completely different.
We discussed her product, its origins, and how it has affected people’s lives—including her own—often in surprising ways. Spice sometimes brings tears to people’s eyes, but these were tears of an entirely different kind.
Spicy Seeds of the Future
The Chumami story starts in the 1970s. Jessica’s grandfather, Robert, emigrates to the UK from Hong Kong to do what most migrants hope to do: make a better life for themselves and their families. He is alone and filled with hope.
Robert ends up in the town of Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent, England. With a long background in various Chinese kitchens, he looks for work and finds it at Gold Lion, the only Asian restaurant in the neighborhood at the time.
It isn’t long—only a year or two—before he is appointed head chef. Jessica refers to Robert as “Agong,” which means grandfather.
“Once he was making enough money, Agong brought the rest of his family overseas to live there with him.” This was at a time when very few Asian people lived in the UK.
But some of them did, and many worked at restaurants like Gold Lion. Partially as a result, the chili oil came into existence in the early 1980s. Agong wanted to make an oil that his kitchen staff would enjoy, one that instantly brought back the flavors of home.
In the UK, then as now, the palates of restaurant-goers tended more on the mild side. Similar to UK curry chefs adding cream to their Indian recipes to make their tikka masalas milder, most of the chili oils and other condiments were similarly made milder to suit local palates.
Agong recognized you have to give the people what they want, but secretly, for himself and his kitchen staff, he concocted a chili oil with a much greater “kick,” to instantly bring back flavors and memories of the old country.
“It became a tradition within the restaurant,” Jessica explains.
And that tradition would extend well beyond its walls, for it was from Agong’s original recipe that Mama Chu, Jessica’s mother, would derive her own chili oil and actually improve upon it.
“It’s a very labor-intensive process, using very small birdeye chilies; you need thousands of them to make a batch.”
So Mama Chu only made it once a year as a treat. “She gave a jar or two to a select group of friends, and a lot of them would reach out after a month saying, ‘Hey Mama Chu, we finished the two jars! When are you making more?’ It’s something people really looked forward to.”
Taking Root in the Present
But why? There are plenty of chili oils, and maybe you’ve tried them: Momofuku, Fly by Jing, Chef Shu. What made Mama Chu’s chili oil different, then and now?
The answer is freshness.
Pretty much any chili oil you might buy at the store uses dried chilis, often in the form of flakes and seeds. Depending on the brand, you might find dried garlic, seaweed, or even powdered shrimp.
There are two varieties of Chumami (actually three, but more on that later): Original, which uses shrimp paste to achieve its umami flavor, and Vegan, which swaps out the shrimp for fermented black bean. “All of our ingredients are fresh, not dried,” Jessica proclaims. This gives Chumami less sharpness and more versatility than a lot of other oils, “allowing it to integrate into whatever cuisine or dish so seamlessly, or it can be its own star on its own.”
Why is that? And what kinds of dishes?
Jessica grabs a nearby jar of Chumami and quickly peels off the label. She holds it up to the light. Just looking at it, even in the compression of a Zoom call, I can see the layers of oil. She points at the pepper-infused oil at the top, which glows a translucent orange-red like a sunset. “You can fry an egg for your avocado toast in this layer. It’s an amazing way to finish a dish.”
I don’t eat eggs, but I used to, and this is tempting me somethin’ awful. What else?
“I like to garnish my butternut squash soup, or I make a killer sweet potato curry soup. I’ll roast a sweet potato drizzled with Chumami oil. Perfect for fall.”
What about the oil on the bottom, with all of the mouthwatering chilis in it?
“That’s for marinating your vegetables before you roast them, or throwing a tablespoon into your homemade pasta sauce. If I’m doing an Alfredo or Cajun seafood pasta, I’ll add two or three tablespoons and it just wakes it up, not with heat, but with just so much flavor.”
And your dish needn’t be fancy. “Add the chili paste to some mayo and it’s heaven. Dribble it over pizza or on a hot dog, both the oil and the chili paste,” to suit your palate.
Speaking of dogs, throughout this part of the discussion, I’m feeling more and more like Pavlov’s dog. I’m also starting to see how using fresh chiles helps Chumami fit into cuisines that seem alien to its own.
But Jessica is no hater. “I love all condiments,” she says. When it comes to chili oils that use dry ingredients, “I don’t think one is superior to the other. I like dry too; there’s a time and place. But that experience that you get from fresh... you can’t compare.”
I haven’t tried Chumami yet, but having heard this list of possibilities, I really, really want to. Like, REALLY want to. But there will be time for that later.
Putting Down Roots
For now, I wanted to know about how the Chu siblings started the business.
“It started as a joke.” Everyone who knew the Chu family knew that, “once a year, Mama Chu is going to make a big batch of chili oil. And every year they’d say, ‘you guys should sell this stuff and you’d make money!’”
Imagine hearing this every year. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before she and her brother Herman actually decided to do it. “My brother is a few years older than me, and once I got old enough, we were just walking in the city one day and just, out of nowhere, he said, ‘we should start a business!’”
The same day, Jessica filed an LLC. “No thinking, no making a strategic plan or breaking down the finances. That was it.” All they needed to do was learn how to make Mama's Chili Oil. Easy, right?
From Casual to Codified
“When Chinese Moms cook, it’s very flick-of-the-wrist.”
One of the challenges of bringing a generations-old recipe to market is figuring out exactly what goes into it, recipe-wise.
“We had to be really diligent with Mama Chu. We had to say, ‘hey Ma, you can’t just sprinkle, sprinkle! We have to catch that sprinkle that’s going in there so we can measure it!’ It was not what she was used to at all.”
My cooking is the same way; I gave my measuring spoons to charity. So I feel for Mama Chu.
“We had to really patiently observe and go through a lot of iterations just to capture the recipe.”
I gotta say, though, hanging out and tasting chili oil all day doesn’t sound too bad. Maybe I missed my calling...
Tears of Spice and Home
But how did they know when they’d gotten it just right? Jessica and Herman were happy with the outcomes, but it wasn’t until they received feedback from other people of Chinese descent that it became clear: this was the one.
“It’s been such an enjoyable process being at the farmer’s market because, in that moment, as a business owner, I get to see immediate feedback, like this one customer who came to me and said, ‘Chinese person to Chinese person, I’ve tried all these different chili oils but yours feels so smooth, so gentle in my body, and I feel so good after I have it, like being home.’”
How does that feel for you?
“I feel very pleased when I hear people say they feel good after trying it.”
Very pleased, eh? Hm. I pause for a moment.
This is when, as an interviewer, it’s up to me to get beneath the brand, beneath the “business owner,” and learn what these interactions really mean. Sometimes it leads to feelings that they didn’t expect, a vulnerability that underlies all serious human endeavor but which we must keep in check in order to move forward.
So I asked my next question with a little bit of caution, and a lot of hope.
When that customer said that—when people say it makes them feel like being home—how does that feel?
Jessica pauses a moment, perhaps deciding whether to sanitize her answer. Thankfully for me, she is candid.
“I cried. I cried, and you know my brother and I didn’t have any plans of growing Chumami to what it is today. We didn’t expect things like shortages or price inflation or COVID or Asian hate or any of these things we would have to overcome. And we both have full-time jobs! But once it got started I had to see it through. I never like to give up and I’ve been pulling Chumami forward for the whole time that it’s existed.”
“And all of these crazy things are going through my mind at the farmers market that day when the customer I mentioned, she was just going into so much detail of how she and her family and friends have been loving Chumami to the point where I was so overwhelmed that I just burst into tears because it’s so complicated.”
Right now, I’m in Interviewer Heaven.
“We don’t have an army making Chumami, we have our own family making it in small batches by hand, including screwing the lids on. So that’s why when someone gets to that point of appreciation, down to saying how it just lingers on the tongue and how it feels when it goes into the body, I could not help but cry.”
Jessica issues a great sigh. We are both speechless for the space of a few deep breaths, and then I thank her for sharing that. It takes courage, just like starting a business.
What’s Next for Chumami?
Earlier, I parenthetically mentioned an upcoming third variety of Chumami; it’s just been released. Their new Ghost Pepper Chumami is vegan-friendly and promises to be a real sweat-raiser, so if I was excited before, I’m downright rhapsodic now.
My feelings are personal, but what’s behind them is universal. That’s the effect food can have on us. If food is a vessel for spice, perhaps life itself is a vessel for feelings, like comfort, joy, love, patriotism, connection, and excitement.
“It’s definitely a strong feeling,” Jessica says. “And it’s a blessing. It’s confusing, but it’s beautiful. It’s our journey, and we’re still discovering.”
To try Chumami, pick some up at LOKL Cafe
Story: Mark Ludas @aulos.media
Photos: Peter Stog for LOKL cafe