This is the second installment of The Spice, a monthly series taking an elemental approach to Indian cuisine, a deep-dive into the flavors and ingredients powering the dishes we love.
Is there anything revelatory to be said about turmeric? It brightens up a dal, slows an acne breakout, soothes a cold and so forth. In any case, the spice has been a fixture of the Indian home for what seems like forever — it doesn’t really lend itself well to new discoveries.
And yet, when the 25-year-old Oakland-based Sana Javeri Kadri began asking Bay Area buyers and chefs basic questions about where their turmeric was coming from, she was pretty underwhelmed by the response: “Everyone would kind of shake their heads at me and be like, ‘We don’t know.’ Some people would say, ‘Oh, we buy it from an Indian importer, but beyond that we have no idea.’ The more I dug, the more I realized that actually exporting and importing spices out of India is very opaque. There wasn’t a lot of transparency in that industry.”
“I still had this colonial idea of the spice trade in my head and had a hunch that the present-day spice trade probably wasn’t that different,” says Kadri. So she set out to see for herself. In 2017, Kadri quit her marketing job and traveled to India to visit some turmeric farms. Her suspicions proved correct. “The spice trade hadn’t changed at all. All the traders and middlemen made way too much money off of how unjust this trade was, so they had no incentive to change it.”
To introduce some transparency into the Indian spice market, Kadri started Diaspora Co., which sells fair-trade turmeric sourced from Andhra Pradesh to individual and wholesale customers across the U.S. For our second installment of The Spice, we spoke with Kadri about what it’s like to experience the turmeric harvest, the status of the market and the emergence of turmeric as a Western wellness trend.
Interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Indian SCENE: Can you walk us through the process of producing turmeric — from seed to kitchen?
Sana Javeri Kadri: Prabhu [Kasaraneni Prabhu, the farmer from whom Diaspora Co. buys turmeric]plants the turmeric right before the monsoon, in June or July roughly. It grows and the harvest usually begins the first week of February. Once it’s harvested, it gets dried, and after it is dried, it gets steamed. What that does is locks the curcumin compound in and prevents it from rotting. It gets dried again and then the dried whole fingers are either stored in some cold storage, like a refrigerator, or if we need it to be ground right away, it’s taken to a mill and powdered for us.
From the mill it gets bagged into 50-pound bags and is sent to the Port of Mumbai from Andhra Pradesh — that takes about 4 days. It’s put on a ship, and from the Port of Mumbai it takes about 5 weeks to the Port of Oakland. Then it comes to us in those 50-pound bags. If it’s for a wholesale client, it goes directly from the 50-pound bag to our customer or if it’s for a consumer, it comes to our warehouse, we put it into jars and package it nicely, and it goes to the consumer.
IS: You just got back from a trip to the turmeric harvest. What is that experience like?
SJK: I’ve always found the harvest much more emotional than I expect. For Prabhu’s family, this is the biggest day of their year, because it’s the day they find out what their yield is and how much they’re going to end up with. It’s a very big deal for everybody. We do a little puja and then we go around and start basically pulling out roots from the ground. I’ve now known Prabhu for three and a half years and I feel like I know him very well, so for us it’s usually also a time to catch up, talk about what has happened in the year and how his business is going. And every year during the harvest, we renegotiate a higher rate for the next year.
IS: Was there anything that surprised you about the harvest when you went for the first time?
SJK: I went in expecting beautiful green turmeric leaves and I was expecting this very exotic, very lush, tropical look to the harvest. But what people don’t know is that the turmeric is actually ready to harvest after the leaves have died and the plant has died. When you show up to the turmeric harvest, it’s a bunch of dead leaves on the ground. If there’s anything green in the field, that’s actually bad, because it means the turmeric is not ready for harvest. I thought it was funny that I went in expecting this beautiful, lush, green, tropical look, and I walked in essentially to a row of dead plants.
IS: Since you’ve started Diaspora Co., have you gotten the sense that the market for turmeric has changed for the better, or has become more equitable?
SJK: No, not yet. It’s too early. I think that change will come probably in the next couple years. I get a lot of emails from farmers and others in the spice industry, asking “Hey, can we work with you?” so I think they’re excited about a new model. I think a lot of the traders and a lot of the exporters in India don’t yet take me or my company seriously because they see it as a young woman doing a cute-seeming thing. But I’m giving them a year before they come knocking.
From the consumer side, we get at least five really nice emails a week. I think that the consumer really cares and wants to know. In terms of other companies that make turmeric lattes or put turmeric in their products, they’re so used to the old way where they can get a pound of turmeric for a dollar, so they have no desire to change that, even if their margins can accommodate it. At a dollar a pound, can you imagine what your farmer is getting paid? How is that equitable? Because of coffee and cacao and all the other products out there that are pushing for fair wages and fair trade, and also the organic certification, it’s changing. The spice industry, specifically the turmeric industry right now, is maybe what coffee was 10 years ago.
IS: A lot of Indian and Indian-American food writers and chefs have commented on the emergence of turmeric as a kind of fad. What do you make of its popularity in the West as this new wellness trend?
SJK: I’m a big believer that people should do whatever makes them feel better. At a time when people are recognizing that they’re not very healthy, or over-caffeinated, if our boring haldi doodh is making people feel better, that’s great, have all the haldi doodh that you want. I think my gospel about this is that the same sourcing that you believe in has to then extend to everything.
If someone is consuming farmer’s market kale salad and heirloom tomatoes and their Blue Bottle Coffee, why is it that anytime something comes from the “ethnic food aisle” — and we don’t even have to get in to how problematic the ethnic food aisle is! — it should either be cheap or it shouldn’t matter where it comes from? Know where your shit is coming from, know who makes it, know who makes money off of it and know how it was grown, and don’t be ignorant just because it’s from a place that’s far away.