In the Shandong Province of Northern China you’ll find street vendors with shao bing breads piled high. Women buy their daily supply to bring home to feed their families. In this wheat dependent area, rice is not the common carb, this bread is. And it’s these flaky and chewy flatbreads that define the comfort foods at home. Filled with long-stewed meats, pickled radishes and cucumbers, fresh herbs and chilies, shao bing sandwiches are the lesser known cousins of the now popular Vietnamese Banh Mi. But not for long. I’m here to tell you to stand up from your computer and head straight to Foumami, a sandwich paradise in Boston’s financial district.
Sure, it’s hard to find. Located in the 225 Franklin Street building, you’ll have better luck learning its coordinates than entering the building on that side. On the corner of Oliver and High Streets, it shines brightly on the backside of the building in a corner space. Full of windows, the sun shines in on bright fluorescent colors popping against the white washed walls. Modern furnishings and sleek lines, lit from cool midcentury light fixtures above lets you know that you’ve entered a place firmly planted in the current day. I am impressed by the design, enticed by the extensive collection of Asian snacks and packaged goods, many of which are in languages I do not speak, confused and impressed by the hundreds of tickets crumpled and tossed on the floor behind the counter (busy day?), and overwhelmed by the smell of the place. My mouth waters. My stomach growls. I’m suddenly starving.
Foumami is an invented word. It’s a contraction of umami, the fifth basic taste that extends beyond sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Umami is a depth of flavor often resulting from a complex cooking process of a combination of ingredients and their reduction. It implies a mouth-feel and a savoriness that is more complex than just “salty” and it implies deliciousness. It is multi-flavored and layered. “Fou” is the Chinese word for Buddha, and it is a story about him that inspires this place. According to legend, a local villager was cooking a meal, the scent of which was carried on the wind to the monastery. The aroma was so enticing that Buddha abandoned his studies and strict diet, scaled the wall, and found the source, basking in its deliciousness. Therefore, “Foumami” refers to the type of food that one would scale a wall for, or, “what Buddha finds to be most delicious,” the ancient characters on the wall referring to this legend.
And Buddha is not wrong. These are ancient recipes updated for American palates; cuts of meat are without gristle or fat, as they may be in true street food. This doesn’t lessen the authenticity; instead they are welcome updates, in my opinion. I had two meals here, getting to try four sandwiches served on freshly baked shao bings, a few salads served with homemade scallion pancakes, and their brown sugar, fresh ginger tea.
The standout was the Spicy Grilled Pork Loin, a grilled red pepper and garlic marinated pork loin served with pickled carrots, Kirby cucumbers, cilantro and chili. Sound familiar? It’s the Foumami take on a Banh Mi, and man alive, it was better than any Banh Mi I’ve ever had. It may be the best sandwich I’ve ever had. At one point, mid-bite, I looked around to see if anyone else was having the same kind of mind-bending experience I was. I saw a few people entranced and knew I wasn’t alone. The heat from the chili is enough to make you warm but not enough to induce drooling, the carrots and cucumbers were julienned with care and precision, the full leaves of fresh cilantro were abundant and fragrant. The shao bing has such a chewiness and crunchiness, simultaneously, that defied sogginess, crumbling, or over breading. I could even say it could qualify as low carb, but I won’t because it’s too delicious to pigeonhole into diet craze compliance. I’ll note too, that I didn’t finish this sandwich in one sitting. I enjoyed my leftovers an hour later and report that not one single inch of that shao bing had gotten soggy. This bread is magic. This is a sandwich worthy of a crush.
Michael Y. J. Wang, owner and manager, tried to avoid the restaurant business. His grandfather and father both ran a very successful group of dumpling restaurants in his family’s small village. Starting in Shandong, a region with a rich culinary history—the chefs for the Emperors were recruited from this region—turned into an international brand of dumplings, pulling in all members of the family and all kinds of local influences from the nations they in which they operated (China, Japan, South Korea, and the US). While Michael worked every station in the restaurants and in the workings of the business, he left it to attend New York University, thinking he’d head to Law School next. After a few years, and a complete diversion at Goldman Sachs, and a startup magazine for Asian Americans, he eventually moved to a food company that made Asian influenced products- salad dressings, marinades, and the like, selling at Zabar’s and getting some acclaim for their authentic recipes. His entrepreneurial and culinary genes began to tick at this job, and his mind began to wander. He married, further immersing himself in a food legacy; his wife’s family owned restaurants in Japan.
He attended Harvard Business School next, where he designed a business plan to marry all he knew: a family legacy of authentic Asian food, a menu of traditional recipes paired with the freshest of ingredients, and a market adventurous enough to grasp this new idea. The sandwich market is huge; $63 billion annually, and the US has welcomed the Asian influence on the American classics. Michael saw that his family recipes and the experience he has an entrepreneur, businessman, and child of restaurant owners could place him in a distinct position to introduce something new.
And Boston, take advantage! This is new; shao bings are not common and these flavor combinations are inventive, eye-opening, and rewarding. You have a gem downtown. The cooking processes are long and layered; the chicken for the Curried Chicken bing is browned first with anise, ginger and scallion, then steamed, then chilled in a sugar, vinegar, and herb marinade. The Chicken Katsu and the Braised Pork Loin are exactly what you’d get on the street in Japan. They make all their sauces in house, except for the few that he buys from the Asian food company he worked for years ago. The shao bings and scallion pancakes are made daily and baked hourly, so you’ll always have the freshest bread. They offer ginger, brown sugar tea, both hot and cold, that I still dream about. The glass noodle salad was fresh and exploding with omelet, the steam/seared chicken breast, and wood ear mushrooms. The Chinese Cobb salad blows your mind by improving the already-best-salad-ever by adding miso and edamame.
Foumami attempts to source as much of their produce and ingredients as possible locally. They compost in the kitchen, recycle in the dining room, choose their to-go containers for recyclability, and are attempting to refine their waste stream even further. They cater for parties and corporate events, deliver to the immediate neighborhood, and are looking for other locations in the Back Bay to hopefully open up this year. Michael has big plans for spreading the shao bing love, and I look forward to seeing the outcome. Until then, I’ll pop in for the Spicy Pork bing and the 5 Spice brisket salad on my next trip downtown.
All Photos courtesy of www.foumami.com
Foumami is located at:
The corner of Oliver and High Streets in the 225 Franklin Street building, Boston, MA 02110
All photos courtesy of www.foumami.com