Bringing education and identity to the "ethnic food" aisle

The Untold Story of Where Your Spices Actually Come From

Diaspora Co. is connecting turmeric's surging popularity in the Western wellness industry back to its indigenous roots.

For Diaspora Co. founder Sana Javeri Kadri, it all started with a turmeric latte.

The fad drink was popping up on menus around the country, and she was curious where it was coming from, and who was catering to the trend. Based on her experience in the food industry, she was certain it was spice traders sitting in one of India’s big cities, far away from the farmers that grew the turmeric itself. The trend was putting one of India’s favorite spices on menus—but not shining a light on its farmers.

In 2017, Javeri Kadri started Diaspora Co. with the goal of fostering an equitable spice trade. She wanted to create a spice company that respected its farmers, and paid them fairly, but also gave credence to indigenous farming practices like seasonal crop rotation. It would be a force of decolonization, “by us, for us,” Javeri Kadri said, in an industry full of white men.

“The food industry needed a very inclusive, fun, but also culturally nuanced and deep brand,” Javeri Kadri told Supermaker. She decided to accomplish this by focusing on providing a high quality product directly to consumers, as well as educating them via the company’s site and zines about the history of colonization and the spice trade. “Most of the ethnic food aisle hadn’t had an update in a very long time. [This is evidenced by] the fact that it’s still called the ‘ethnic food aisle.’”

Javeri Kadri also noticed consumer tastes were changing. Turmeric was becoming as common in pantries as pasta, indicating that home staples were becoming increasingly global, and tastes were expanding. But the market hadn’t really caught up. Where there was artisanal pasta, there still wasn’t artisanal turmeric.

“Most of the ethnic food aisle hadn’t had an update in a very long time. [This is evidenced by] the fact that it’s still called the ‘ethnic food aisle.’”

Javeri Kadri moved back to Mumbai to research turmeric and ended up getting a lesson on the history of the spice trade. She learned how outdated and arbitrary the system was, built on a system of colonialism that dismissed indigenous knowledge.

“There had been no update to the system, for the farmer, buyer, or consumer since colonialism. A lot of the trade varieties, which is to say that the varieties the British had created to make sense of a spice trade they didn’t understand, had never been updated,” she said.

For example, the British decided which varieties of turmeric were superior based on their color. Alleppey is usually considered the “best” turmeric, but all it means is that the crop is a certain shade of orange. British spice traders at the time spread rumors that the bright color meant it had a higher curcumin content and was therefore better than other varieties, but they didn’t actually have the technology at the time to test for it.

They did the same for black pepper, determining names based on the size of the peppercorns, rather than the taste. Malabar peppercorns are larger, while tellicherry are smaller, yet they both come from the same vine and are aged the same amount of time. The etymologies of our spice racks are themselves vestiges of the colonial spice trade.

Photos by Andria Lo

Unfortunately, the British classification system led to further destruction of indigenous knowledge of spice varieties. Some turmeric crops are better for medicine, while others are preferred for dying fabrics. Instead of enabling this variety, the British opted for mass production and effectively curved the development of Indian agriculture.

With Diaspora, Javeri Kadri is in the right place to turn it around. Part of her work has been to educate consumers on India’s indigenous spice varieties, including what they do and how they grow.

“There had been no update to the system, for the farmer, buyer, or consumer since colonialism. A lot of the trade varieties... had never been updated.”

So far, she has found that Western consumers are eager to learn—that they want to know everything about what they’re buying. So Diaspora Co. has been following up their spice launches with zines and recipes, showing customers best practices for how to use their spices and maximize their qualities.

But there’s less care in wholesale relationships, Javeri Kadri says. From her point of view, the grocery industry at large doesn’t focus on equity in their products. At the end of the day, it comes down to cost. If they can get turmeric for cheaper, regardless of the environmental and social impact, they’ll do it. That’s not Diaspora Co.’s product, Javeri Kadri says, and she’s learned to turn away customers that demand a lower price, even if it means losing out on potentially big sales.

“We’ve had to walk away from big things over price. But it’s something I’ve had to stay steadfast in,” she said, noting that most of their sales are direct to consumer. That independence has lessened the brand’s reliance on grocery outlets and restaurant chains.

Still, Diaspora Co. continues to grow. After bringing out their bestselling turmeric in 2017, they recently launched cardamom, and are preparing to launch black peppercorns and red chilies before the end of the year. And at every step, they remain transparent about how they’re building a better industry for Indian spices. Their customers, in turn, are supporting a future of ethically sourced spices.

Want to make an impact?

Your seemingly small choices—what spices you buy and from where—can influence big change.