“Sesame LA was originally going to be a collaboration with a local chef,” says Linda Sivrican of the vibrant, market-driven superette that she opened in LA’s Chinatown during the pandemic. “She would make a sauce and I would make a hand sanitiser, both of us using a shared ingredient,” she adds.
The collaboration didn’t happen, but a longer lease on an empty storefront in Old Town Chinatown Plaza – an L.A. landmark steeped in storied history – did, and it proved too enticing to pass up. “The landlords told me there was no market in Chinatown. It was a temporary space, so I thought I could bring in brands and try it. What did I have to lose? I wanted to do something for the Asian American community.”
Adhering to a neutral palette with touches of red echoing the swaying lanterns in the outside corridor, Linda filled the space with artisan-made pantry staples, fresh flowers, and produce from local farms. The picture window at the front of the shop frames a wooden table with an ever-changing array of offerings, including ceramic pomegranates nestled between small-batch shichimi togarashi seasoning and a vase overflowing with California oranges, still on the vine. Cherry blossom shoyu shares shelf space with yuzu mayo and chilli-spiked citrus jam. Envelopes of pistachio rose shortbread are offered and shared with glasses of iced oolong tea. A corner freezer stocks unctuous handmade noodles from Chinese café favourite Woon as well as blackberry lemon “sno pops” from Sno Con Amor – two businesses inspired and driven by heritage and familial connection, much like Linda’s.
The main display case at Sesame LA is stocked with homemade to-go delicacies made and delivered daily by Linda’s 72-year-old mother, Judy Mai Nguyen and her team of elders who cook what they’re interested in sharing with customers. A Vietnamese chef in nearby Long Beach, Judy opened her own restaurant right before the pandemic only to close it during lockdown. Linda offered to help. “I said, ‘You can make the food, and I can sell it here. You can start cooking again.’ The timing felt really right.” Some of the dishes, like delicate agar fruit jellies, come from Buddhist monks and the proceeds are donated to their temples. The convivial feeling of family and community coming together to help one another is inspiring and palpable.
With the success of the shop, Linda decided to relocate her other thriving business, a contemporary olfactory studio named Capsule Parfumerie, from West Hollywood to Chinatown Plaza as well, taking over a former gift shop a short walk from Sesame LA. Run by Linda (whose Vietnamese name translates to “gentle fragrance”) and her husband Mike, Capsule is a studio and umbrella for several different perfume brands, all of which are composed and hand-blended by Linda utilising vegan and cruelty-free practices. The couple are both textile and fragrance industry veterans, but when their son suffered a traumatic brain injury, they had to put their work on hold. “When I realised this was going to be a lifelong situation, I started to find things that were more healing for my son,” Linda says. “I was looking for something sensory and wanted to try aromatherapy. Through the process of smelling these essential oils myself, I started to feel happier, calmer. It was for him, but it did wonders for me too.”
Together, Linda and Mike decided to pursue businesses where they could dictate their own hours and be present for their family. Linda took classes at an olfaction institute, also in Chinatown, and created her first line, Fiele Fragrances, which literally means “to feel” and is the cornerstone of the Capsule lines. Inspired directly by her son, it centres on the healing power of essential oils and, as Linda describes it, is fragrance for people who might not normally want to wear perfume.
“Fiele Fragrances is my soul and my heart,” Linda explains. “The time I spend doing it feels meditative. It’s an artisan brand that has to be made in small batches as it’s a natural product. You have a basic recipe but you have to make tweaks; you have to constantly adjust like a chef.” Designed to transcend gender and age, the perfumes are composed to bring positivity and a sense of well-being to anyone who wears and encounters them. Circling back on the original idea for Sesame LA, the Fiele line now also offers a hand sanitizer and cologne hybrid that nourishes the skin while eliciting comforting fragrances meant to instil a sense of relief and inspiration. They’re an extension of an ethos steeped in offering care to an individual as well as a community.
Building on what they’ve created in Chinatown, Linda and Mike have plans to continue expanding their businesses, too. On the near horizon, Linda and her mom Judy will collaborate on Sesame Dinette, a Long Beach eatery specialising in generational Pan-Asian cooking. A serene gathering place to eat-in or grab-and-go, it will also feature provisions created by Asian makers much like at Sesame LA. “I’m so attached to the shop – everything I’m able to help and contribute to the Asian American community – and to women, to small makers, to giving shelf space to new brands,” Linda says. “It feels so good. I don’t want to give it up.”
Recipe for Sesame Barbari Bánh Mi
Vietnamese Grilled Pork
1 1/2 lb pork shoulder
1 1/2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
3 tbsp sugar or honey
4 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup lemongrass (buy fresh stalks and mince or buy previously frozen and minced)
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
- Slice the pork about 1/8 inch thick.
- Mince the garlic and shallots. Combine in a bowl with fish sauce, sugar or honey, lemongrass, pepper and salt in a bowl until the salt and sugar is dissolved.
- Add the pork and marinate for 1 hour, or overnight for more flavour and tastier results.
- Bake the pork at 375 F (190°C) for 10-15 minutes or until almost cooked.
- Finish cooking by grilling or broiling in the oven, turning the pieces midway until it develops a deep golden brown colour.
Banh Mi Pickles
1 medium carrot
1 medium chayote
1/2 small red onion
3/4 cup distilled white vinegar
3/4 cup water
1/8 cup sugar
1/2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp whole peppercorns
1 tsp juniper berries
- Use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin off the carrot and chayote.
- Peel the skin off the red onion.
- Julienne the carrots, chayote and red onion.
- Combine the vinegar, water, sugar and fish sauce in a bowl and stir until the sugar is dissolved.
- Transfer the vegetables into the jar.
- Add the peppercorns and juniper berries.
- Pour in the pickling liquid to cover the vegetables.
- Cover the jar with a lid.
- Refrigerate for 1 hour, longer or overnight for more flavour and tastier results.
- Store in the refrigerator for up to a month.
You’re welcome to use sesame Barbari bread as in the video or choose your own bread. Slather the inside of each slice with aioli, top with the pork, pickles, sprigs of cilantro, chopped jalapeño chilies, and a sprinkling of store-bought Maggi seasoning to taste. Enjoy!
Interview by Andi Teran.
Photographs by Hamish Robertson.
Recipe courtesy of Linda Sivrican.
Discover more about Linda's neighbourhood superette on the Sesame LA website.