Sana Javeri Kadri wants to change the way you think about turmeric.
Sana Javeri Kadri’s hands are stained gold; she’s been stuffing turmeric-spiced lamb patties with herbs all morning. The Gujarati Muslim side of her family has served this dish at parties for four generations; here in Oakland, California, guests are on their way to celebrate the first anniversary of her direct-trade spice company, Diaspora Co.
The crowd will include a cadre of the East Bay’s most talented makers, all Javeri Kadri’s closest friends and supporters, including chef Preeti Mistry, who helped her set up early meetings to learn about distribution; designer Sophie Peoples, who designed all the packaging and branding; and chef Dominica Rice-Cisneros, who gave Javeri Kadri a job at her restaurant, Cosecha, and became Diaspora Co.’s first wholesale account. Javeri Kadri’s earliest advisors and promoters—Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik and Jocelyn Jackson of People’s Kitchen Collective, Stephen Satterfield of Whetstone magazine, Aileen Suzara of the Filipino pop-up Sariwa, and artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo—are all joining in, along with Javeri Kadri’s aunt, Tia Kadri, and her family, who took Javeri Kadri in when she first moved to the Bay Area.
“When I started Diaspora, I knew that I was going to need a lot of help,” says Javeri Kadri, who is 25 years old. “I knew I had to find people who knew more than me. And the people here today were willing to go above and beyond. They kept telling me I was working on something important, even when I didn’t necessarily feel that way.”
The long backyard tables are ready for the platters of kebabs and yogurt, turmeric-brightened rice and cauliflower, and fish that’s painted with spicy green chutney. They’re dishes that speak to Javeri Kadri’s past, and she’s excited to serve them in celebration of the company she’s building. “We’re trying to give detail and color and context to origins,” Javeri Kadri says as she wraps the fish into parchment packages, recalling family trips to the fish market at Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks.
Javeri Kadri heats up a pan for the kebabs, laughing with Jackson, who showed up early to help. While Jackson folds turmeric into a semolina-tahini batter for a dessert, Rice-Cisneros stirs a pitcher of mango-turmeric agua fresca and samples a cupful. “Compared to the turmeric you buy everywhere else, it’s day and night,” she says.
“Sana goes to the source and shares a fuller story, too,” adds Jackson, “drawing our attention to this specific person growing this specific strain of turmeric.”
Javeri Kadri was working in marketing in 2016 when she came across a surprising Google report that listed turmeric as a top trending search term. Shortly after, she encountered her first turmeric latte at a nearby tea shop. It was bitter, overdosed with turmeric and lacking other spices for balance.
Javeri Kadri, who grew up in Mumbai and moved to California for college, had never considered turmeric out of context before: “For a long time, turmeric was kind of invisible to me because it was woven into every part of my childhood and, I think, life in India.” It was just one of several spices that always made its way into the cooking pot. “I didn’t understand turmeric as something isolated for its properties,” she says, so it was unsettling to see stores hawking turmeric capsules and bloggers swallowing full teaspoons of the powder.
And in the age of single-origin coffee and bean-to-bar chocolate, no one seemed to know where all this yellow stuff came from. Even in the Bay Area, where attention is lavished on the provenance of every peach, the purveyors she asked could only point to the Indian importer’s name on the label. “The spice industry is where coffee was 10 years ago, or where chocolate was 5 years ago,” explains Javeri Kadri. “Spices can change hands—and increase in price—10 times before they get to the importer.” And then they often dry out in a warehouse for years.
So Javeri Kadri quit her job and booked a flight. After a series of disappointing farm visits and unreturned phone calls, she showed up unannounced at the Indian Institute of Spices Research in Kerala, where scientists worked to identify heirloom varieties of turmeric. Though a few farmers planted these strains, none had connected with an importer interested in a single-varietal product. “When you’re mixing all the different strains together—which everyone was doing—the flavor and color just isn’t as good,” says Javeri Kadri. A tour of the institute’s test fields made one thing very clear to her: “I wanted one varietal, and I wanted to understand the flavors of that varietal.”
One of the scientists introduced Javeri Kadri to Prabhu Kasaraneni—“another young fanatic who wasn’t going to leave them alone,” Javeri Kadri jokes—who grew a nearly red, chubby-fingered strain called Pragati organically outside of the city of Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. “If you don’t care about the way that I’m growing this and the quality of the product,” he told her, “then I would rather not sell to you.”
Those things were precisely what she cared about. Javeri Kadri and Kasaraneni agreed on a price around four-and-a-half times the going rate, which meant that Kasaraneni could pay his pickers more to harvest the turmeric. He steams and sun-dries the rhizomes instead of utilizing quicker methods that rob the turmeric of its intensity—Pragati has a particularly bold (but not bitter) flavor and high curcumin content. While Kasaraneni works toward establishing his own mill, he reserves extra time at the nearest facility, so he can clean the equipment of any dirt and turmeric left behind by other farmers (who may not be farming organically) before grinding his single-varietal harvest.
Their shared devotion to quality shows: The turmeric is ruddy and intense, almost sticky with flavorful oils. Oakland chef Preeti Mistry, who arrives at the party with a pan of cumin- and turmeric-laced cauliflower to share, says she loves Diaspora Co.’s product for its sweet earthiness: “It’s potent—not just yellow powder for color.”
Javeri Kadri compares her sourcing to buying tomatoes: “This is like choosing one farmer’s crop of dry-farmed Early Girls,” she says, instead of a random mix of grocery store orbs. She plans to apply the same philosophy to a larger portfolio, starting with green and black cardamom. “Even if we scale up to import from six different farms, we are always going to make sure that you know which farm your jar is from.”
After the meal, I ask Jackson about her hopes for Javeri Kadri. “My wish,” she says, “is that Sana is able to maintain her values and integrity, her authentic approach to this endeavor. And I also hope for her to find her community in it—for her not to be the only one. I hope for her to be able to look around at her landscape of food businesses and see that this is the standard of operation and not the exception.”