In the spring of 2020, a small group of Taiwanese Americans started the Taiwanese Home Cooking Facebook group in order to have a place for the Taiwanese diaspora and others to share and learn about Taiwanese food that was more focused than other groups we had been a part of. It was through this group that I first met Wil Chung, the creator of Impromptu Spices and its signature Beef Noodle Soup spice mix.
How did you come up with the name Impromptu Spices?
Trader Joe’s “Everything but the Bagel” seasoning was the first spice blend I saw named after the dish itself. It was telling me that I could make anything taste like an Everything Bagel any time, any where. I wanted to take the same concept to other dishes, like Beef Noodle Soup. It seems spontaneous to want a bowl at any time with little to no preparation, so hence, the name “Impromptu” came to mind.
It’s a very apt name. What inspired you to make a Beef Noodle Soup spice mix?
With “Everything but the Bagel” being an inspiration, I was looking for other flavor profiles that might work. I wanted something that was nostalgic that could possibly work as a flavor profile against a bunch of different dishes. My partner suggested the triumvirate of Pho, Ramen, and Beef Noodle Soup (BNS).
I had an inkling that BNS might be doable as a product, but had to research if the ingredients were available. But I also considered how well a BNS spice blend would translate across palates; would it be something people understood immediately? My instinct was yes. It’s a simple enough concept, yet unique enough that people would remark on it and would want to try it. Was it nostalgic? I wasn’t so sure if people ate it with their Ah-mahs, but I knew it was a representative flavor for a broad swath of Taiwanese Americans.
I agree that for those already familiar with BNS it would be nostalgic, and for those who are new to the dish, it would be intriguing enough to try. So what was the hardest flavor to nail down in the spice mix?
I wasn’t sure at first that a noodle soup would be doable at all as a spice blend. But with a little research, I found out you could source powdered soy sauce and beef bouillon. With that, I started collating different recipes together and trying them out to get at what I thought was the essence of a Beef Noodle Soup flavor.
The thing I appreciate about well-done dishes is that there’s a melody and harmony of anticipatory smells, forward-notes, mid-notes, and after-tastes. And sometimes, there are combinations that surprise you. I tried to achieve the same thing in the BNS spice blend.
The anticipatory impression is largely carried by the star anise and the beef bouillon. But then once you put it in your mouth, forward-note is umami from the beef bouillon, followed quickly by the sweetness from the cane sugar. The mid-notes that carries throughout is the Himalayan salt and garlic with hints of soy sauce and tomato. And once you’ve had a couple bites, the Sichaun peppercorn comes through to leave you with a slightly numbing after-taste.
So it wasn’t so much a specific flavor that was difficult, but adjusting the ratios and suppliers so that the orchestration of the spice blend came out where you could enjoy the different components of the flavor profile.
What have been some of the challenges to getting the spice mix to market?
Finding quality and consistent suppliers was a challenge against the backdrop of the supply chain issues nowadays. With spices, the quality matters a lot in their potency. I had to try different suppliers multiple times to make sure that they were putting out a consistently quality product for me to adhere to a recipe for the blend. That in turn, made it easier for me to streamline the production process.
The demand for the spice blend also surprised me. A friend suggested I post it on a Taiwanese Home Cooking group on Facebook, and it broke my production and fulfillment process. I sold out twice, and was scrambling to source enough supplies to make enough products, as well as packaging supplies to ship large orders, in order to meet demand.
Currently, I’m trying to figure out how to consistently reach people that would want the spice blend without breaking the bank. It’s still a small operation, so I can’t use many of the common techniques that are available.
I remember that post and how popular it was! I really appreciate that you reached out to me first to ask if it would be appropriate to post in the FB group since we have a pretty strict “no advertising or gratuitous self promotion” rule. The other admins and I agreed that your post was more educational and community building than just plain advertising so we approved it for the group. So what’s the craziest way you’ve heard someone use the spice mix so far?
Customers have used it to make aioli, BBQ rub, and buttered toast. One even said that it was great for dipping a “Super Irish scone from Mary O’s in NYC”. That was not on my radar at all.
Wow, that’s pretty random! I’ve loved sprinkling it over popcorn and congee. Recently I tried mixing it into scallion cream cheese for spreading on everything bagels and it was pretty amazing.
Is Impromptu Spices a full time gig for you and if not, what’s your day job?
No, I’m a full-time dad at the moment. I work on Impromptu and other side projects when the kid is sleeping.
I’m a software engineer, and have mostly worked on startups in the last couple of years. Hence, I’ve done a lot of building things from the ground up, whether on side projects or companies. With Impromptu, I’m focused on things outside of programming and product.
It’s always nice to be able to have that balance in your life. Do you have any advice for someone who’s interested in selling a food product?
I’m still pretty early in my spice merchant journey, but from my own experience:
The strategic advice would be that food has to say something to people. What people are buying is the stuff beyond the actual product, whether it’s nostalgia, identity, or a story. What you’re saying to people has to be simple, yet unique. It’s a product category where people have to believe your story before they get to try it. So it bears some thought.
The tactical advice would be to focus on the stuff that matters early on: 1/ making a quality product that tastes good. 2/ finding a consistent distribution channel that doesn’t cost a lot. Everything else can be done more retroactively. If it doesn’t involve those two things, then you probably shouldn’t do it until an external party forces you to.
Good advice! Here’s a fun question: if you could pick any celebrity in the world to be Impromptu’s brand ambassador, who would it be?
I’d have to think about it. Maybe Angel Wong’s Kitchen, as she’s the only chef for Taiwanese cooking on YouTube that I know about. Maybe Simu Liu! He likes to drink expensive bubble teas, and looks as good on accounting pamphlets as he does on the big screen.
Yes, I wholeheartedly agree. Simu came to mind for me as well. So what’s next for Impromptu Spices?
I’m working on finding the voice for the Impromptu brand. I have some ideas and will play around with it on the Instagram account @impromptuspices.
I’m also working on another spice blend flavor. It’s still in the experimental phase, so I’m just trying a couple different things. You can sign up for the mailing list or follow @impromptuspices on Instagram, and you’ll get hit with the news when it drops.
Joy Huang is one of the founders and moderators for the Taiwanese Home Cooking Facebook group. She started her food blog, The Cooking of Joy, because she was inspired to document her mom’s Taiwanese dishes. This hobby continued to grow and now you can find her work on Instagram at @joyosity where she is known for her artistic take on baked goods. She has been featured on Bon Appetit, Food52, and Some Good News (one of the highlights of last year was hearing John Krasinski pronounce her name correctly!).