PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
It had become a common occurrence for Mei Mei Street Kitchen food truck and Mei Mei Restaurant: After enjoying the Chinese-American cuisine made from locally sourced and sustainable ingredients, regular customers would routinely request extra helpings of the accompanying sauces to take home.
The buzz over the sauces sparked an idea for Andrew Li, who co-owns the Mei Mei Group with his two younger sisters or mei meis (Chinese for little sister), Margaret and Irene. “He saw a market opportunity,” says Margaret Li, who just happens to go by Mei, after a summer lunchtime rush at Mei Mei Restaurant on Park Drive in Boston. “There are a lot of local jams but Asian sauces are often imported and you don’t get a sense of the ingredients. We always thought it was a niche market not being addressed.”
Andrew Li thought, “Why not bring Asian-flavored sauces incorporating the same principles of celebrating and promoting the local food system to the home kitchen for dips, glazes and marinades?”
In fact, it just seemed like a natural complement to add a sauce company—Pantry by Mei Mei—to the trio of businesses: the food truck (open since 2012), restaurant (open since 2013) and a shipping container (called Mei Mei by Design and open since November 2015). The sauce line debuted in December 2015 at an Eat Boutique Holiday Market pop-up and is now on sale at the three Mei Mei locations and through meimeiboston.com, as well as at Allandale Farm, the Cheese Shop of Salem and Stock Culinary Goods in Providence. The sauces are also sold through Feast & Fettle, a local meal delivery service in Providence, and local aggregator Farm Fresh Rhode Island, one of Mei Mei’s distributors.
Irene Mei and Max Hull (Mei Mei Restaurant’s opening chef, who has since gone on to Little Moss in South Dartmouth) developed the recipes for the three sauces: Cranberry Sweet and Sour, Apple Hoisin and Smoked Maple Ginger. They sought ingredients that represented New England with an eye towards what they could count on year-round. In some cases, this means buying unprocessed, frozen ingredients such as organic cranberries from Fresh Meadows Farm in Carver through Farm Fresh Rhode Island. Not only does this ensure that Mei Mei can produce a consistent line of sauces throughout the year, but it also helps support the farmers’ infrastructure beyond harvest season.
“We’re making it easy to buy local, to use local ingredients,” says Li.
The sauce line ingredients may be simple, but their combinations work together to create interesting and layered flavor profiles. For example, the apple hoisin sauce features puréed sweet potatoes—a natural way to add thickness and sweetness. “He [Hull] really just played around in the kitchen, did a bunch of testing, took what we were using in the restaurant and tried to make it into a version that had the fewest, most natural, local ingredients,” says Li. “That can be a slight challenge because a lot of Asian sauces have a lot of complex ingredients. We really did our best to keep [the ingredient list] short.”
Mei Li offers me some samples to dip into with Mei Mei’s housemade steam buns. The Cranberry Sweet-and-Sour and Apple Hoisin are thicker in consistency—great for spreading and they pair perfectly with grilled meat, she says—while the Smoked Maple Ginger makes a great complement to stirfried greens.
Lesley Mahoney is a South Dartmouth-based writer, editor and content strategist who loves a new food find, whether at a farmers market, restaurant or local purveyor. She can be reached at email@example.com.