It all started, as so many Bay Area-based innovations do, at Stanford University. Abby Sturges and Jennifer Lopez, former students at Stanford’s d.school, went on research trips to work with rural farmers in Kenya and Myanmar when they discovered a culture of food among locals that seemed to transcend language. When the pair returned, they turned Culture Kitchen–a Bay Area culinary school that allows immigrants to teach about their native foods–into their thesis.
After launching a series of classes last year, the founders realized that the cooks and their stories deserved to be shared with a much larger audience. And so six months ago, the Culture Kitchen Kit was born. The kits, which are available as part of a monthly subscription service, provide almost everything a home cook needs to whip up authentic ethnic food–something that isn’t always so easy to do without guidance. “In classes, we would send people home with pictures of every ingredient and tell them what markets to shop at. One student went to a Vietnamese market, searched for two hours, and could only find two out of the three ingredients [for one of the recipes],” says Sturges.
All of the recipes come from “Master Cooks”–both former Culture Kitchen teachers (sourced through local organizations that work with immigrant communities) and immigrant chefs who were discovered after their family members heard about the project and put them in touch. Each kit comes with three recipes, stories from the Master Cook who created them, a shopping list for fresh ingredients and any necessary tools, all the requisite ethnic ingredients, and a fabric bag. Sturges and Lopez currently work with local markets to source their ingredients. A sample kit: Suchitra’s Western Indian, containing recipes and ingredients for Tikka Kebabs, Spiced Vegetables, and Cashew and Raisin Saffron Rice. The kit includes saffron, tava masala, whole green cardamom, amchur powder, golden raisins, and more.
Many of the recipes had never been written down until the Master Cooks signed on with Culture Kitchen. “We’re literally there next to them measuring things,” says Sturges. “After we get a recipe, we test it in house, and work out substitutions if there are fresh ingredients that wouldn’t be easily accessible.” A team of Culture Kitchen ambassadors tests the kits before they are sent out to customers.
Earlier this month, Culture Kitchen launched a Kickstarter campaign; the company has raised nearly $23,000 at the time of writing, with 22 days to go and a goal of $150,000. If Sturges and Lopez reach their goal, they will be able to add six new kits (there are currently six available, with a new one featuring Eritrean cuisine shipping this month). Sturges won’t reveal exactly how many kits have been sold so far, but she does say that Culture Kitchen has “a couple hundred subscribers.” If the startup can get to 1,000 subscribers, Sturges believes that Culture Kitchen will be able to get greater discounts on ingredients.
Sturges has been pleasantly surprised by reactions to kits thus far. “People say, ‘I just love getting outside my comfort zone,'” she explains. One customer, who received an Iraqi kit containing upside-down fish, was shocked to realize that she hadn’t before known that Iraq is a coastal country. A woman in Alabama spends afternoons with her father cooking the kits after each one arrives. “A lot of current customers live in places like Alabama, in small towns in the Midwest where they literally don’t have access to these ingredients,” says Sturges. Now they do.