Spice Up Your Life

Michelle Tew ’15 doesn’t shy away from bringing “full-on” Malaysian flavor to U.S. audiences.

Jörg Meyer

A dorm room seems an unlikely place to launch a culinary empire, but for Michelle Tew ’15, sharing food with classmates led to a lightbulb moment. As CEO and founder of the spice kit company Homiah, Tew has gone from cooking traditional Southeast Asian food for friends to bringing the flavors of her culture to customers across the United States.

When Tew arrived at the College from her native Malaysia, her bag was packed with spices for her favorite red curry recipe — she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to source the right kinds of coriander, curry leaves or galangal in the States and knew she wanted a taste of home while far away. She had always loved to cook, having been inspired by her grandmother Nonie, who ran a cooking school in Penang that taught housewives regional Malaysian Nyonya home-cooking basics. Instructions for creating traditional dishes like noodle soups and different types of stews and curries filled Nonie’s typed recipe book, which Tew grew up with. At Columbia, Tew recreated many of those meals, sharing Nyonya food and culture with classmates who had never tried it. The experience was eye opening.

“At first, with my grandmother’s recipes — something that was very personal, maybe almost like a secret — I didn’t think people would be interested,” Tew says. “But then I realized that people were not only interested in it, they were celebrating it.”

Now those recipes that were an early hit on campus are flying off the shelves after Homiah’s nationwide launch in early 2022.

Nyonya culture is a melting pot. From the 14th to 17th centuries, Chinese settlers came to Southeast Asia and lived, inter- married and combined their traditions with locals, eventually forming the Nyonya culture. The food and art bring together influences from across the Southeast Asian region. “It’s a unique and specific culture,” says Tew.

The aromatic, spicy and deeply flavorful cuisine uses local herbs and spices while the dishes reflect the convergence of traditional Chinese, Malaysian and Indonesian cooking styles. In addition to the food, the Nyonya culture is known for its intricate batik art, examples of which can be seen on the Homiah spice kit packaging (Tew had a Malaysian artist create the design).

Homiah spice kits provide a base that’s used to easily create Malaysian red curry, Indonesian rendang (similar to a stew) and Singaporean laksa (a noodle soup). The company also sells sambal (a chili-based condiment). The spices are packaged as pastes, rather than a dried mix; Tew says the ingredients, like torch flower ginger and galangal, taste better and more authentic when blended fresh. Just add a protein and vegetables of your choice to a Homiah paste, simmer with coconut milk and/or water, and just like that, anyone can have an authentic Nyonya meal with minimal effort.

Tew earned an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and began her career in advertising, then moved to consulting. But building other people’s brands didn’t give her the satisfaction she was craving. “I came to a crossroads: Am I going to continue in corporate? Or, do I do the thing that I really wanted to do, which is to take my heritage — something that no one thought could be a career — and make that into something different?”

The idea of using her grandmother’s recipes but turning them into quick, easy dinners for a younger generation on the go stuck out to her. “I thought, I believe that there’s a need for this and that people are going to be receptive,” she says. “I’ll trust my gut and put it out to the public.”

Tew and her friend and early business partner, May Hnin ’15, BUS’23, started a Kickstarter to raise funds for their business on April 5, 2021 (the first iteration of Homiah also included Hnin’s Burmese recipes, but Hnin took a different job before their official launch); the campaign took off, smashing their goal of $8,000 with 459 donors giving more than five times that amount.

With ample funding secured, Tew spent several months in Malaysia searching for a small family business to become her local producer. She visited wholesale markets to find ways to source fresh herbs in order to capture the authentic flavors she wanted; once production facilities were set up, she secured FDA approval. In spring 2022 the products began shipping to online customers and launched in U.S. stores. It has been a whirlwind since, with Homiah products now available in more than 20 locations nationwide.

“Food can create a deep sense of memory and form relationships.”

Joanne Kwong ’97, owner of New York City shopping institution Pearl River Mart, became an early mentor after seeing Tew and Hnin’s Kickstarter announcement in CCT ’s Class Notes. She met with Tew early on and later began stocking Homiah products. “At Pearl River, the stories behind the product are important,” Kwong says. “And to hear Michelle’s story about trying to preserve her grandmother’s recipes and to do it in a way that works for her generation and generations after, that’s what attracted me at first. When I met her and tried her products I realized they were also amazing.”

Kwong adds, “I like that Michelle didn’t shy away from full-on spice, you know? She didn’t water it down, which I was pleasantly surprised by. She made it legit.”

For Tew, keeping it legit has always been the goal, even when adapting to challenges. When she moved to New York, she says she had to adjust her approach to cooking — seeing just chicken drumsticks or thighs packaged in grocery stores, rather than a whole chicken, was a novelty and meant adjusting some recipes. As Tew began cooking for classmates, she realized that as much as she loved sharing meals with friends, she also loved how her food could be adapted to fit in with other cultures. That experience inspired her to think outside the box on how the spice kits might be used, and she has welcomed creative twists on her products. The Homiah website features recipes for traditional dishes like Malaysia’s national dish of nasi lemak, but also has recipes for fusion dishes like a rendang spaghetti and meatballs or a laksa risotto.

“There’s no one right way to enjoy these flavors,” Tew says. “In the same way that I want Americans to be inclusive of my culture, I want to be inclusive of how Americans might want to adapt the recipes.”

In the Nyonya language, Homiah means “to live the good life.” As her company takes off, Tew is seeing her grandmother’s recipes have a momentous revival, embraced by customers halfway around the world.

“Food can create a deep sense of memory and form relationships,” Tew says. “It can be the precursor to all these good things.”