Feby of Reculture Kitchen
Fed up with purchasing tempe from the grocery store that didn't resemble the tempe she recalled from her childhood, Feby set out to make her own. After many calls back and forth with her Mom and hours spent perfecting her recipe for the traditional Indonesian fermented soybeans, Reculture Kitchen was born.
I talked with Feby about starting her own business, centering her voice in the white-washed world of fermentation, and how we can all reclaim our own cultural histories through food.
BAYDISH: Why are you building a business around tempe?
FEBY: I was fed up buying tempe that didn't resemble the taste of tempe when I was younger, and therefore, the experiences I longed for. I was introduced to the fermentation movement three years ago by local food entrepreneurs in the Bay Area, and in some of these fermentation spaces, I did not see people who look like me or had experiences similar to mine. If I couldn't find tempe that met my nostalgia, I thought to myself - why don't I try fermenting it myself? The phone calls back and forth with my mom about tempe was the start of Reculture Kitchen. We are reconnecting to our culture and community through fermented foods and family recipes.
BAYDISH: What are your earliest memories of making tempe?
FEBY: I am quite new to fermenting tempe. Part of Reculture Kitchen's goal is to revive the art and practice of tempe, which has existed for hundreds of years. My earliest memories didn't happen so long ago. In fact, I learned how to make tempe about 2.5 years ago. What I remember most, and this happens almost every single time I make tempe, is that I am so focused on the practice of it. I'm so immersed and very present through the process, that when it is over; I'm so astonished at how concentrated I was in those couple of hours. My partner at the end will be like - you barely said a word in the last couple of hours. To me, it is a mindful practice.
BAYDISH: What motivated you to start your business?
FEBY: What I love about entrepreneurship is that you get to create your own model that center things that have not normally been centered in historical business models. As a person who owns their own business, I can center labor and processes over capital and result. I can center disenfranchised voices over voices that have occupied mainstream fermented spaces for a long time.
I also love seeing a project/ business have its own life cycle. To experience the start, the journey, the ebbs, and flows and the uncertainty of the end. It is exciting to predict if there is an end, what doors will that open.
I'm also motivated by my mom, who is an essential part of Reculture Kitchen. She has always had an appetite to start a food business or project, but is bounded by and entrenched in a system that keeps her working very long hours. What needs to be recognized is that there are people who have a baseline knowledge of how a business works, how capital works. Coming from working-class parents, I didn't grow up in a setting where I was literate in this. This is a big motivator for starting an innovative business. There are amazing food entrepreneurs, makers, and local business owners in the Bay Area, specifically in Oakland, who have inspired me to do this.
BAYDISH: What is the most important lesson you learned from your Mom?
FEBY: So many good lessons. So many lessons yet to be learned. Many of my friends have met my mom, Sumi. For those who don't know, her Sun is in cancer so she's very compassionate and kind. By example, she has shown me that cultivating relationships is everything, and is the building block of your business.
BAYDISH: You're just at the beginning stages of starting your business. What are you feeling nervous about?
FEBY: In all honesty, what I am most nervous about is the capacity to build - the emotional, physical capacity to run a business. I know a lot of people including myself are running low on stamina and willpower. I also have a 9-5 job that I honor and enjoy. I wonder to myself - can I meet these two things? Do I have to let go of one or the other, when I'm not ready to do that? I am feeling nervous about the unknown, but recognizing that is what makes life exciting. What I am most certain about, though, is that the community and people I lean on have given me the drive to keep moving forward. I am still learning every day to reclaim my space in the fermentation world.
BAYDISH: You talk a lot about reclaiming food histories. What does this mean to you?
FEBY: I intentionally use the plurality - histories, instead of history. I recognize there are several histories at play when we talk about certain foods.
There are different ways in which people ferment tempe from household to household. We also have to recognize the specific region's history of food in Indonesia. In different regions, there are different ingredients and spices used when cooking with tempe. On a macro-level, there is also the rich and complex history of Indonesia and tempe. Important events of trade, colonization, and survival are deeply embedded in the country's history of tempe.
I use the word reclaiming because what it is written a lot of the times in history are those who controlled capital, resources, and institutions. Now there is more consciousness around power dynamics in America. If you look at the history of tempe, there is a lot of influence from European countries and its contribution to tempe. This means that voices are left out, including those who ferment and cook tempe on a daily basis as a means of nourishment and survival, not a means of commodity or capital gain. I hope to reconnect and uplift these stories through Reculture Kitchen.
BAYDISH: How do your identities intersect with your role as a food entrepreneur?
FEBY: My identity as a woman of color, a child of an immigrant is central to Reculture's business. Someone who identifies Indonesian-American, a hyphenated identity, is also a key part to my food maker role. Fermenting tempe is a means to reconnecting to my Indonesian roots. I am still piecing together my ancestral and family history. Due to traumatic historical events and migration, it is difficult to keep track of my family history. There is a longing to reconnect with it. As someone who identifies as Indonesian-American, I find myself confronting values that may be at odds with each other. Being Indonesian means that the collective is essential to thrive. Being American means leaning on your own self to succeed. I am still learning how to live with both simultaneously, and I think that is the process of healing and liberation. Food is a beautiful way to do that.
BAYDISH: What do you wish people knew about fermentation?
FEBY: I took a pickling class at Preserved located in Oakland (sidenote: it was so much fun). We started the class with an exercise describing the types of fermented foods we ate with our families and our friends. As I looked back at my childhood, I became more aware of how fermented foods played a role in Indonesian cuisine. Then, I became more aware of how fermented foods can be found in almost every country and culture. When I read fermentation books or attend workshops, it is not usually the primary goal to talk about the societal and anthropological sense of culture- the stories of people and events. I want to remind people that culture (Latin word for to cultivate) plays a strong role in fermentation. Yes, undoubtedly, science plays a role in fermentation. This is a fun part, too, but it isn't the only part.
Sandor Katz writes about a similar phenomenon in the Art of Fermentation called cultural revitalization, taking back power away from corporations and into the hands of makers. I love this and have taken it a step further: taking back power away from corporations and into the hands of makers of color and those who have been left out.
BAYDISH: How can we all feel more connected to our cultural histories through food?
FEBY: It has to come from a personal place. For example, questioning what are the recipes that we use in our family, where did this food come from, what foods make us feel belonging, and what food make us feel comfortable? For those who are indulging in food that is not of their culture, I would recommend that people begin to learn more about the food maker's history and how that food shaped their life.
BAYDISH: With your business, what will success look like to you?
FEBY: There are obvious professional gains in a successful business such as being financially stable and viable. Another "metric" I would use is how engaged is my family in Reculture Kitchen. I would love to include my family both here and abroad to brainstorm ideas and navigate the direction of the business. If folks feel connected to this project, honestly, that is success to me. Another way to measure success for me is taking a step back and recognizing the new relationships and friendships I've gained through this process. I'm so inspired by my creative and ambitious friends who are trying to make this place more inclusive, more honest, and more delicious.
BAYDISH: How has this journey changed you?
FEBY: My 2-year journey has changed me tremendously. First, I feel more aligned with my Indonesian roots than I have ever in my life. I feel more connected to my family in the US and in Indonesia. I feel grounded in this journey and found it easier to express myself through food. This journey has helped me find my voice in an industry that I didn't think I'd get into. If I told past Feby that she'll be involved in food and fermentation, I think she'd laugh. This journey is quite unexpected and I really love that.
BAYDISH: What's next for you and Reculture Kitchen?
FEBY: More tempe! I am in the process of scaling up as I've been getting more inquiries for my tempe. I'm really excited for Reculture's future.