A Turmeric Importer’s Trick For Feel-Really-Good Coffee

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When Sana Javeri Kadri moved to California to attend college, she began to crave the frothy coffee poured from tumblers at the udipis (dosa shops) that speckle Mumbai, the city where she grew up. In its stead, she whisked together her own take—an antidote to sleepiness and homesickness. Her riff is a little sweet, a little creamy, and figures in a friendly teaspoon of ghee for heft and a half teaspoon of turmeric for good measure. The ghee she smuggles back to the States with her (“it gives me all the home feels”); the turmeric she sources and imports herself.

Javeri Kadri founded Diaspora Co., a turmeric-importing company that centers its business ethos on transparency and equitable partnerships, in 2016. She had recently graduated from Pomona College, and the United States was in the midst of a turmeric boom. Like many members of the Indian diaspora, she watched, confused and unconvinced, as a spice she’d grown up eating became co-opted as a “trend” and whisked into a flurry of new contexts.

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“Everyone started talking about turmeric, and I had a slightly uncomfortable reaction to it. It felt like because Gwyneth Paltrow is spouting turmeric, everybody’s interested, but when Indian immigrants were excited about it, y’all weren’t listening. It’s been here—we’ve been doing this.”

I talked to Javeri Kadri over the phone about her nascent company and what she hoped to accomplish with its founding. Diaspora Co. was founded on equitable business practices and places farmers, those who come into direct contact with the turmeric, in their proper place on the supply chain, one where they’re being acknowledged for their work and fairly paid. As of now, her company obtains its turmeric from one farmer—Mr. Prabhu, whose farm is in Vijayawada, in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh—and sells it across Oakland and online in tins and jars. Javeri Kadri, who specialized in food studies and visual arts, told me about the process of finding turmeric strains she believes in, bringing them to the United States, and convincing chefs that hers was the good stuff—which wasn’t hard to do: “When I brought this turmeric to a bunch of Oakland chefs they were like, Yep, we’ve never had anything better.” Plus, she shared her daily morning ritual, a ghee-and-turmeric-suffused coffee that she’s been drinking for years. I’ve condensed and edited her story for clarity:

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If I was going to work in the world of ethical food consumption, sourcing and branding, it needed to be from a more brown, more political, more me point of view. I kept thinking about how spices were where it all began, for India—Indian history traces back to the spice trade in a lot of ways. So I sought to somehow create the same accountability and transparency for spice that coffee or cacao has right now.

If you think about craft chocolate, the roaster and the maker—someone like Mast Brothers—takes all the credit. Same with coffee: The white dude with the beard in Williamsburg takes all the credit, not necessarily the farmer. I wanted to model after this type of direct trade and do it in a slightly more equitable way, in my view.

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When the British were around and ruling the spice trade, they were the first to brand spices. The British had a favorite place in India, called Alleppey, sometimes known as the Venice of the East. When it came time to build a brand around the turmeric they were exporting to England, they figured why not take our favorite vacation spot and brand this turmeric after it? So basically any turmeric that was a certain shade and size would be called Alleppey turmeric, no matter where it came from. So what farmers tend to do is sift through for the brightest shade of yellow and label that as from Alleppey. The export market is still running on this colonial terminology and is not stringent on what they want because the Western consumer is kind of willing to accept anything as long as it’s yellow. And that happens with pretty much any kind of spice.

I went all over Kerala and South India visiting farms and had all my assumptions handed to me. I went in with a lot of preconceived notions, like if I found an organic farm, it would be just as easy to source from them. It wasn’t. So, I reached out to the Indian Institute of Spices Research. They have a bunch of heirloom spice varietals that they’ve been seed-saving and trying to license to farmers for the past two decades and haven’t really had that many people come to them and ask to buy it. They connected me to my farmer.

My farmer is this young guy, he’s 35. He went to Puna, a big city on the west coast of India, to get his MBA and hated working at a desk so much that he ran back to the farm. His parents were distraught: We educated you and and you’re back on the farm! His name is Mr. Prabhu. He’s really committed to growing turmeric in a sustainable way. He rotates his crops really beautifully, and he’ll do a field of turmeric then a field of elephant yam then a field of beans of some kind. He did a lot of the legwork in reaching out to the Indian Institute of Spices Research and took the risk of getting this brand-new turmeric strain. Not a lot of farmers are willing to do something like that, and that’s why I’m able to offer him a much higher price.

I’m a limited-liability partnership in India and then a limited-liability company here. So I am the exporter and the importer, which means that I buy directly from my farmer. I started with this tagline: If Western folks are going to consume turmeric, I want Indian people to make as much money off of it as possible, because it’s an indigenous crop. I was really looking for something that could ground me to India and give me a connection to here as well.

The question is always about power: Who are you giving power to? I think if a GOOP-following person wants to work with turmeric, I’m all for it! I’m all for turmeric being consumed by literally anybody. It’s about thinking through who they are empowering in that consumption. Empowerment doesn’t have to be so self-centered. If they can also empower somebody else, a farmer who has a really deep connection to the spice, which in turn empowers other spice farmers from all over the country, that’s really exciting.

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