theNOMLab: Travel Inspired Artisanal Butters & Sauces

By Sophie Steiner, March 1, 2024

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What grew out of a love for food and travel, theNOMLab (風來食研) was launched in early 2022 by Hong Kong-native and foodie loving partners Fiona Wan and Gianna Wong.

This artisanal food brand is designed for the young and busy; those with taste, but that don’t necessarily have the time to grocery shop and cook every day. 

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theNOMLab Co-founders Fiona Wan and Gianna Wong

The product line – which centers around both sweet and savory flavor-infused butters, shiso sauces, and natural health remedies for cooking – is inspired by global ingredients, and designed to add that oomph of flavor to anything from a mouthful to a meal. 

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We caught up with Fiona Wan to learn more about this dynamic duo's artisan-led farming village production process, their passion for flavor pairing, the tastiest uses for their goods, and what new launches to look forward to in 2024.

Tell us theNOMLab’s origin story...
About two years ago, recognizing all of the diverse local cultures and flavors in Chinese cuisine, we came up with the idea to turn these flavors into something that’s delicious, yet easily accessible in every home kitchen.

Thus, the creation of our first product line – three Chinese flavor-infused butters – came to life. 

The original three butters span a Sichuan-influenced mala butter, a Chiuchow-influenced black bean and pickled radish butter, and a Shanghai countryside-inspired meigancai (梅干菜) butter – one that uses dried mustard greens from a farming village near Dianshan Lake where our studio is located.

Our butter offerings have since expanded to include both savory and sweet options.

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Cantonese cuisine is also recognized for its strong food healing (shíliáo, 食疗) culture, and a meal is not complete without a nourishing soup slow-boiled with Chinese herbs.

Gianna’s father has been brewing natural remedies at home for many years, and they are always a hit among friends and relatives.

So, we decided to learn his recipes and came up with another line of products consisting of traditional natural remedies, including our bestseller, Chenpi Lemon Balm, which is made using 15-year aged tangerine peel that’s been double-boiled for 20 hours.

It is an effective remedy for coughs and sore throats.

What is your background, and why did you two decide to create this business? 
Fiona: I worked as an acquisition-investment lawyer for many years. Suffocated by the long and stressful hours and draining corporate atmosphere, I took a career break and backpacked around Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America for two and a half years, during which I stayed with many local families, on farms, and in monasteries where I helped out in their kitchens. 

During this time, I learned a lot about regional local ingredients and cooking. The trip also brought forth my desire to revive my own local heritage in an increasingly globalized world and give back to local communities.

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Gianna: My background is in fashion graphic design, and I have worked with many large sports brands. 

Being a huge food lover, I opened a restaurant in Shanghai a couple of years ago, which gained popularity at the time.

However, due to landlord issues (as is always the case here in China), my restaurant was forced to close. Despite that, the experience gave me valuable knowledge about the F&B industry and commercial food preparation.

Fiona: There’s nothing 'dramatic' about our origin story really. Our joint love of food brought us together; we are both very open-minded about trying new things and never run out of ideas.

Every so often, one of us comes up with something new and we go back and forth, picking each other’s brain until, together, we come up with the perfect plan. 

This entrepreneurial butter project casually came up in one of these kinds of conversations.

Our very different backgrounds allowed us to have a diverse set of skills that complement each other and have allowed us to evolve our business into what it is now, within a rather short period of time.

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Where does the name 'theNOMLab' come from, and what does it mean?
'NOM' is the sound made when you enjoy delicious food. And we are always experimenting with new ingredients and flavors in our kitchen 'Lab.'

NOM is also short for 'Nomad' – we are both very well-travelled, and having experienced and tasted authentic local cuisines all over the world; we aspire to bring these exotic flavors to your kitchen. 

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Production takes place in a small farming village in Qingpu, where you train local villagers to help you make the products. Why did you implement this production process, and how did it all get started? 
The Dianshan Lake area in Qingpu has many communities inhabited by villagers who moved there in recent years; they are mostly creative workers, freelancers, artists, or young farmers from the city who are seeking a different way of life outside of the urban hustle and bustle. 

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After growing up in Hong Kong surrounded by the sea, we were immediately drawn to the rivers and canals of the region.

The village where we built our studio has many old apos and shushus who used to perform at Grandview Garden before they retired; they are passionate dancers, singers and taichi practitioners.

We eventually found a vacant farm house there and decided to renovate it into our food lab and production studio.

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What are the core products offered through theNOMLab? 
We currently have three main product lines: seasoned butters, shiso sauces, and natural remedies.

Our products contain mostly natural, locally-sourced ingredients, handmade with no preservatives or additives.

Why did you decide to work primarily with gourmet butters? 
Butter is very versatile and can elevate the flavor of any dish. By incorporating delicious flavors into the butter, we are hoping to empower those who can’t cook, or who are too busy to cook, to easily whip up a tasty meal in the comfort of their own home.

This allows customers to avoid the stress of spending time buying and preparing a long list of spices and herbs for each meal.

The butters can also be enjoyed on their own, spread across a slice of toast of melted into a scone or pancake. 

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Besides gourmet butters, we also have a line of shiso sauces, notably a shiso pesto and shiso spicy citrus sauce.

We love the aroma of shiso, but besides seeing the herb used in Japanese and Korean cuisines, and to accompany local hairy crabs, we haven’t really found shiso commonly used in other retail products.

So we decided to come up with our own.

Who is your main target audience for these goods, and has the market been receptive to your product line so far?
Our main target audience is busy young business executives and overworked housewives and househusbands in urban areas.

They have sophisticated palates, yearn for quality food, yet they have very little time to cook at home; they are health conscious and are constantly on the lookout for nutritious food and ways to heal their bodies. 

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The products have been received quite well by the market so far, and we have been able to accumulate many returning and repeat customers.

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What are some of the initial challenges you faced when launching theNOMLab?
We started this project a very short time before the Shanghai lockdown. Back then, the market atmosphere was livelier.

It is quite evident that the economy has slowed down since the pandemic ended, and people became less willing to spend. A great portion of our expat customers have also left the country.

We also suffer from a lack of manpower – with most time spent on production and sales, we simply have no time to create any meaningful social media content.

We are hoping to slowly shift some of the workload to factories so we have more time to focus on marketing, but the factory search has been frustrating – our product concepts are quite uncommon in the Chinese market, and it’s difficult to persuade a factory to allocate resources to implement a new workflow while our initial order volumes are not high.

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How can people use your products? 
Our seasoned butters have a variety of uses: you can spread it on bread or toast, use it as a finishing butter for grilled meats, seafood and vegetables, mix it with pasta and noodles, or put a dollop on scrambled eggs to spice up your breakfast.

The sweet butters (gingerbread / honey bourbon) go well with scones and pancakes. Plus, you can also pair it with cheese.

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What is the most creative use of your products that you’ve heard of so far?
We were most surprised with the culinary usages of our Chenpi Lemon Balm; it was originally expected to be used as a hot drink for sore throat relief, but eventually we had customers who started using it as a jam, to make wings, ribs, tagines, or even to accompany turkeys.

Thus, now we are hoping to put together a cooking recipe collection featuring the lemon balm.

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What new products will 2024 bring to theNOMLab lineup?
In 2024, our first release will be a black garlic miso butter. Plus, we will be releasing some other new butter flavors, plus a couple of products that I brought back from a recent trip to Nepal – including an aromatic black salt and a Himalayan herbal tea. 

We are also trying to develop a plant-based butter. We’re still not very happy with the result – it is a bit difficult to replicate the texture and creaminess of dairy butter, but we are working on it.

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How can That’s Shanghai readers purchase theNomLab products?
Right now, the development of our online shop is underway, but not yet completed.

In the meantime, readers can contact us directly via the WeChat ID thenomlab to place their orders, and follow all our happenings on Instagram @the.nom.lab.

Or they can find us offline at different weekend markets around Shanghai – we will announce our whereabouts through our online channels.

And, as an exclusive discount for all That's Shanghai readers, receive a RMB5 discount on your first purchases by messaging 'That's Shanghai' during purchase through our official WeChat account. 


[All images courtesy of theNOMLab]

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