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Taking Back Turmeric: Sana Javeri Kadri on What We Don’t Understand About the Wellness Movement’s Favorite Spice

published May 16, 2019
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Twenty-five-year-old Sana Javeri Kadri is the founder and CEO of Diaspora Co., a tiny spice company with big ambitions to disrupt what she has called an outdated and unjust spice trade. While her vibrant turmeric might not have spread to your local supermarket just yet, you may have seen its gold flashes on Instagram, where Diaspora has collaborated with popular voices such as Alison Roman, Great Jones, and Blockshop Textiles.

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An Oakland transplant raised in Mumbai, India, Sana had always yearned for spices that were sourced as carefully as products like coffee and cacao, fairly supporting and rewarding the farmers who grew them. By the time she was a student at Pomona College, turmeric was wildly popular in the States, but no one seemed to care where it came from as long as their lattes were dyed highlighter-yellow.

So Sana began researching the spice trade in the heat of turmeric’s growing trendiness, and she found the spice — and its industry — ripe for change. In 2017, she connected with the Indian Institute of Spices Research, which preserves heirloom varietals of seeds, yielding turmeric that’s vibrant in flavor and color, as well as high in curcumin — the chemical that gives turmeric the anti-inflammatory properties with which the wellness world is so obsessed.

This led Sana to Prabhu Kumar Kasaraneni, a farmer who grows heirloom turmeric seeds with sustainable methods. They formed a partnership, and Diaspora Co. was born.

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I talked with Sana to learn more about what makes Diaspora’s turmeric different, why the cultural context of turmeric matters, and her mission for queer people of color in the food industry to “claim space with excellence.”

I learned from you that most turmeric sold in the United States is called “Alleppey” turmeric, but it’s just one of many types. What’s the difference between Alleppey and the heritage varietals that you sell?

So, the British came to India, and they were like, “Ooh, spices, we should sell those.” At that time in India, different varieties of turmeric were used: they recognized turmeric that’s better for dyeing, for ceremonial uses, for consumption, for medicinal purposes (the medicinal being that which had a higher curcumin content).

But in the Western world, spices were more a luxury good than an ingredient; the price was high because of scarcity and perceived value. The British had to come up with a grading system for the spices that they didn’t know how to cook with and didn’t know how to tell apart, but wanted to make a lot of money off of. So all of that was thrown out the window [by the spice trade] because, ta-da, color!

Turmeric from Alleppey [a city in southern India now known as Alappuzha] happened to be the darkest, golden-est in color. So that is what got a premium on the export market. This launched a scam where you could mix turmeric from all over the country, as long as it met the color that you want [and label it “Alleppey”].

The east Indian to the south Indian to the north Indian turmeric could all be mixed together — so any concept of origin or terroir was completely lost.

When I connected with the Indian Institute of Spices Research, they schooled me on different heirloom varietals that they have and seeds they grow. Diaspora Co. really came out of working with them and realizing that they have been saving and working on these seed varietals of spices for a very long time. They just had absolutely nobody to market them to.

Your turmeric is grown by just one farmer! How did you decide to work with him?

One of the first things Prabhu said to me was, “If you don’t care about the quality and how I’m growing it, and the importance of taking care of my soil first, I would rather not sell to you. This is probably not a good fit.” And I was like, “Sold. Here. Take all my money, it’s fine.”

I think there’s this imagination that I just wandered over and I found Prabhu, and I could have found 10 others who are just like him who are just waiting for me to show up. And that’s not true. Prabhu’s family is such an anomaly in the work that they do, and they have [experienced] great amounts of ostracization by their community. They’re like, “You’re not using chemicals, are you crazy?” [Prabhu’s family’s] way of life isn’t the norm. And they’re really fighting for a belief system that, until I showed up, wasn’t even backed by anybody. It was just what they believed.

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You describe Diaspora Co. as a “queer, women of color-owned business that moves forth in the spirit of social justice.” Why was it important to you to put this in your mission?

So much of what I was seeing in the food industry was that people like me weren’t represented. And our stories weren’t represented. The underlying idea was, “If we don’t claim space now, then when?” Brown and black folks — and specifically queer brown and black folks — in the food industry have never been able to claim space. So now with Diaspora, I’m claiming space with excellence.

Also, in discovering queerness, and coming out, it aligned with a lot of my political values. Of believing in equity — if everybody isn’t free, then I’m not free. And that aligned with our company as well. That’s exactly the problem we’re trying to solve.

I read in a recent interview that you’re not a fan of the Americanized wellness “turmeric latte.” How do you like to use turmeric?

[Laughs] I don’t love turmeric lattes.

My girlfriend and my favorite way to consume turmeric is to just put it directly in our coffee. We put 2/3 teaspoon into our coffee, with a spoon of ghee, and some coconut sugar. She’s in the middle of finals week right now, and I’m pretty sure she’s on like blender number two of ghee coffee for the day. So that’s kind of our everyday way. It also reminds me of filter coffee, which is a South Indian creamy coffee. But I find that people are still suspicious, they’re like, “Turmeric in your coffee? How?” But it really works.

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I hate saying that turmeric is “trendy” because it removes the spice from its context as a common ingredient in myriad cuisines, but one could certainly say in the past few years the spice has reached a new American audience. Do you think the “wellness movement” is responsible for that?

I would happily give Gwyneth Paltrow full responsibility for its American popularity. Similar to matcha, or ashwagandha, turmeric definitely rose to prominence from the wellness movement.

I will say that the wellness movement is incredibly superficial — in that the turmeric in most turmeric lattes is yellow dirt. It’s been on a shelf for years and has no curcumin in it. Which I could rant about for ages.

OK, so let’s talk a little bit about that superficiality and the importance of cultural context when cooking with this spice that just has all this memory and history. I was captivated by Cooking with Gold, Diaspora’s recipe zine. Can you explain why it was so important to you to share recipes from the Diaspora Co. community?

People kept asking us for recipes. And for me, having grown up in India, I really struggled with that, because turmeric was just in everything. But recipes are kind of the American way of exploring the world, exploring different cultures. So I think with Cooking with Gold, at least that first edition — it’s only seven recipes — the focus for me was really on, well, what do I eat every single day that has turmeric in it?

So much of Diaspora is about cultural context — where is this grown? what is the history of this spice? — that I felt with the recipes, too, there should be some cultural context. For instance, the khichdi recipe was very important to put in Cooking with Gold for me, because khichdi has been deeply co-opted by the wellness world in the past year: “kitchari” as a “cleanse food.” Whereas, really, for me, it’s comfort food.

Get a recipe: Kitchadi from Taste

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There’s a lot of confusion around this dish, too. For example, there is a recipe out there for a “kitchari” that’s basically just lentils on one side, rice on the other. That’s like calling pasta with tomato sauce lasagna, because it happens to have the same two ingredients. That’s devoid of any cultural context.

That’s why it was very important for me to be like, you have to cook these things together, with these spices, for it to be called this name. It’s something that has history beyond just being “detox food.”

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What are you planning next for Diaspora Co.?

In the near future we’re launching cardamom, via Kickstarter. [Editor’s note: It’s here!] And that’s very exciting. From there, a whole slew of new spices. I’m going back to India all through August sourcing our next three. We’re fully pledged to become a direct-trade, best-in-the-game spice company.

Our mission is to uplift the very best of Indian agriculture, and do it to the benefit of Indian farmers.

Follow Diaspora Co. on Instagram and buy their turmeric here.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.