This piece is part of our BOStoday Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.
National Ice Cream Month is coming up next month, so we chatted with FoMu founder and local ice cream expert Deena Jalal to get the inside scoop on the sweet treat.
You’ve probably seen a FoMu or two around Boston — the non-dairy ice cream shop has locations in Allston, Jamaica Plain, Fenway, and the South End. Deena recently co-founded another venture called Sweet Tree Creamery to expand distribution and make her plant-based sweets accessible to even more people.
We asked Deena 10 questions about plant-based foods, ice cream culture in New England, and her pro tips for ordering vegan scoops.
How did you first become interested in the world of ice cream?
I first became interested in ice cream probably like everybody else. It was one of my favorite food groups, still is. I’m first generation, my parents are immigrants and also small business owners, and they wanted me to kind of do the all American thing. They wanted me to go to college, get a steady job with benefits, come home at 5 p.m. and have dinner with my kids like they weren’t able to do, and so I started down that path. I remember my first job, sitting down at a cubicle and being like, this is not me. Then I went back to school at night to get a graduate degree. I got my MBA in entrepreneurship. As I was winding down in my MBA program, I sat down and made this diagram of my favorite things. I love people, I love being in community, I love ice cream. I love food. Ice cream seemed like my gateway into the food world.
So I bought a small local ice cream shop, kind of like my “Ice Cream 101" and I loved it. But one thing that was missing was I really wanted to make the product, because most ice cream shops overwhelmingly don’t actually make their own ice cream. They’re made from the same ingredients and a lot of those ingredients aren’t amazing. They may be full of candy and crazy stuff and cool colors, but they aren’t the type of things that I like to include in my diet day to day. When it came down to it, we were like, we think the best ice cream, the best ingredients we could source, that could be the most pure that we could build off of ourselves, would be if we made it plant-based.
We gravitated towards coconut milk [as our base] because it’s such an unadulterated product. When you work with other plant milk products, a lot of them are highly processed. They’re very water based and they’re icy, not particularly creamy. Coconut milk kind is just such a lovely, rich, creamy, floral-like product. You don’t have to do much to make it awesome.
Can you speak a bit about the plant-based food movement?
It is challenging when no one knows what plant-based is, or people think that vegan ice cream is blended tofu. It used to be that people were intimidated and they knew they didn’t even want to try it. Now anyone, vegan or not, will try it and say wow, this is really great ice cream.
At first, people didn’t really understand why that [plant-based] was better for them. They were like “It’s vegan, but it still has fat in it?” That’s not our mission. We’re not afraid of sugar, we’re not afraid of fat — what we want to do is just provide you with a natural product.
Why do you think New England is such an ice cream centric place?
Personally, I think it’s wishful thinking. It’s so cold here so much of the year that when it’s even reasonably the right temperature for ice cream, people gravitate towards it. Also, if you think about it, it’s kind of a traditional place, right? As progressive as we are here in the Boston area, there are a lot of very traditional things that we do, like ice cream and apple pie.
Do you have any pro tips for ordering at FoMu?
The seasonal flavors are where it’s at. When it’s summer season, go for any of our berry flavors, in the fall go for pumpkin or apple type flavors, in the winter, go for the holiday flavors. We always have pints of them. So if something you like, stock up on it, because it might not be there forever.
How did you come up with the name FoMu?
It’s kind of abstract. It’s a play on words. So it’s faux like fake, and moo as in cow.
Do you have a favorite flavor yourself?
I like anything with cake in it. There’s one called Blueberry Shortbread that comes out probably in a couple of weeks actually. That’s got kind of a tart, like vanilla ice cream with a blueberry compote and little chunks of vanilla shortbread. I tend to like tangy, zingy flavors. For me it’s going to be like everything kind of springy and summery, but I can find something to eat all year long. I promise you.
If you had to describe the Boston food scene in one sentence, how would you do it?
I would have to say: a resilient community of true local makers.
Could you name a few other local restaurants or chefs that you’re watching?
There’s a little shop in Bow Market called Buenas and they make homemade empanadas. They’re awesome.
There’s a small shop next to our Allston store called Lazuri. It’s a Turkish cafe and it’s family owned, and their food is just so fresh and they’re just such kind people that I always like to shout them out when I get a chance.
There’s another place in Bow Market — Shirley Farm to Table — she’s a one woman show. She bakes her bread in the morning, makes the sandwiches during the day, and she is just a rock star, I’ve gotten sandwiches from there a couple times. I’m just in awe of her and what she’s able to do in one little stall in the market.
If you were taking someone on a tour around Boston, where are three places that you absolutely have to go to?
I love doing a waterfront like the North End towards the Greenway. Just tons of food, awesome things to do. You can stop at the Boston Public Market, you can walk along the Greenway, you can go on the carousel, you can go to Christopher Columbus Park and the harbor, if you’ve got time you can stop at the aquarium. Plus, Quincy Market is right there.
The Seaport obviously is a newer area, but there’s a lot of cool green space that they built into it, the retail is like obviously really coming around. I’m just such a sucker for the harbor — put me on the water, done, I’m happy.
I live pretty close to Harvard Square, and it’s along the Charles River. You can take a nice bike ride or walk on the river, pop in, walk around the square, and get some food. There’s also a farmers market. There’s just a lot you can do if you want to kind of have a nice fulfilling, well-rounded day.
What’s something every Bostonian should know about?
Honestly, Boston is so small, but so mighty. There are just hidden gems everywhere. I think the best way to get to know Boston and its food scene and small local makers is to just explore. You have to find a parking spot first. Once you find a parking spot, every neighborhood has little independent retailers and independent food spots.
Always look for people trying to do it right. I know prices can be getting crazy lately, inflation is really taking hold, but good products come at a premium, and you’re supporting real people when you pay those prices. Find those little local gems and support those small businesses, walk in and get to know those people, because they really do appreciate you. Even in the most developed parts of Boston, there are those local makers hidden in there that would love to see you pop in and say hello.