Coffee

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

February 23, 2018

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.

“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.”

Shop the Story

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:

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“The added bonus is we get to to taste the best possible turmeric. Thank you for starting up a great business: may it grow and prosper.”
— Maria L.
Comment

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.

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.

29 Comments

Trixi H. May 20, 2018
Fair Trade is actually not a new concept and there are many companies out there who try to do their bit to give back to the farmer. I very much support every attempt to make this world a more fair and equal place. But this whole talk about post-colonialism & cultural ownership feels very constructed and unnecessary to me. What I am missing here is facts - what does Mr. Prabhu pay his workers and what are their working conditions ? Is there any organic certification, fairtrade badge or actual lab analysis of the curcumin content of the turmeric Ms Kadri sells ?
 
Sana J. June 8, 2018
Hey Trixi! Thanks for this! <br />Mr. Prabhu's operation is 100% family operated, except during the harvest. During that two week period, he hires a crew of women laborers who are paid Rs. 500/day which is Rs. 200 more than the average daily wage for farm laborers. He is in his second year of the process of organic certification, meaning that this year, his crop is officially considered "organically farmed" and next year it will be considered "certified organic" - the slow process of getting sustainable farmers up to speed on the ways of the West. As for lab analysis - we get each batch tested by Columbia Food Labs in Portland, OR. Our most recent 2018 harvest tested for 4.6% curcumin, a 0.1% decline from the 2017 harvest but in line with the average curcumin content of this varietal. As for fair trade certification, we are grow, that is a certification we will look into as you're right, direct trade whilst effective on the small scale, loses value and the ability to be tracked as companies grow. By next year, when we roll out four more spices, we'll be fair trade certified. I'm sorry our narrative and story feels constructed to you, we remain very proud of our roots and our journey. I hope that answers your question and don't hesitate to reach out should you have any more!
 
Author Comment
Valerio F. June 8, 2018
Can't wait for the next round of spices. And while we're here: Three cheers for Mr Prabhu! We need more farmers like him around.
 
A.S. April 13, 2018
Oh the irony of those complaining about how this article discusses the political and economic issues of ignorance. Oh to be an example.
 
JennC March 5, 2018
Just exhausting: Trends these days include the trend wherein people get annoyed when people - especially white people - enjoy international foods and spices. Food is appropriated by everyone - the Mexican who eats spaghetti, the indian who eats Southern American BBQ, and the Irish American lady who puts turmeric in her coffee. Some people come into contact with turmeric but don't live near many Indians. A crime? Or an opportunity to enjoy a spice? Maybe the story would be less exhausting and the sourcing more interesting without the skewed proprietary thing or the idea that Americans who pick up turmeric at their corner stores are ignoring Indians.
 
Trixi H. May 19, 2018
Thank you for writing that! very much share your point of view
 
Maria L. March 4, 2018
I'm so happy to see you claiming the spice trade for India, by Indians. India's glorious natural resources were expropriated for the wealth of the colonizers and it's about time that a new model of ethical sourcing and fair profits for those who responsibly grow and harvest the spices we love. The added bonus is we get to to taste the best possible turmeric. Thank you for starting up a great business: may it grow and prosper.
 
Sana J. March 5, 2018
Thank you so much for your understanding and support!
 
Nancy March 4, 2018
What a great story....i wish you much success! From one turmeric lover to another! Where can i buy it in Oakland or online? Thanks
 
Sana J. March 5, 2018
Hey! You can select the Oakland Studio pick up option on our site and come snag it in person, or order it online at www.diasporaco.com
 
Amy G. March 3, 2018
so this is a cold drink?
 
Tamsin K. June 20, 2018
Nope it’s hot! They reheat the coffee so if the coffee was freshly brewed it would be even quicker I guess!
 
Mercedes T. March 2, 2018
So great to read about your enterprise here. Your turmeric and it is fantastic, the fragrance is exceptional, I have been making golden milk tea with it. Wishing you the best in your project.
 
Sana J. March 3, 2018
Thanks so much Mercedes!!! <3
 
Frederique M. March 2, 2018
Does she sell FRESH turmeric? I never buy the powder... I use the root!
 
Sana J. March 3, 2018
Sadly, no! Only powder, since importing fresh produce from India is rough... But also- the bioavailability of curcumin is much higher in powdered form!
 
Joan March 2, 2018
This recipe and story would have gone down so much easier without the political flavor.
 
Ko March 2, 2018
Beautifully written and the recipe sounds fantastic! Well done!
 
Marlin R. March 2, 2018
Don’t forget to add a pinch of ground pepper corns to bring out the benefits of the curcumin in turmeric
 
Lu March 1, 2018
Loved reading this. The colonization of... well, everything has denied us the roots and indigenous histories of so much. So excited you found this amazing young farmer to work with. Beautiful stories. Can’t wait to try your turmeric strain. Best wishes to you!
 
Tiffany J. March 1, 2018
The first time I heard about Turmeric was when my step mother was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, 15 years ago. Her Doctor was from India and shared many different herbs and spices with my dad to help him use them medicinally along with western medicine. She has since past, but I believe lived much longer due to this combination. We have incorporated much of what we learned into our daily lives. However, I'm almost certain we aren't getting the good stuff anymore! I would be honored to empower someone else with my purchases. Especially when they are so passionate about what they are providing.<br />I wish you the very best and will begin purchasing my family's Turmeric from you! Can't wait to try the coffee!
 
antigone March 1, 2018
the recipe sounds good but would taste better without the chip on the shoulder.
 
Rosslyn March 1, 2018
Coffee sounds delicious and this is a great story. I wish you the best.
 
Anne-Marie March 1, 2018
With the author, I'm annoyed with the "trend" emphasis on this wonderful spice. My dad learned how to make a particular curry dish when he was in college - in Wyoming - in the early 70's. It was, and still is, my favorite meal 40+ years later. Curry powder and turmeric are the two major spices, with 6 others to a lesser degree. Turmeric has been in the US for decades, in old cookbooks, and in places you wouldn't expect, and I have to agree this sudden fascination is insanity. Can't wait to try this recipe, however, and add it to my list of favorite ways to use turmeric.
 
JR March 1, 2018
I think you should share your dad's recipe on this site. It has got to be good if it is still your favorite meal!
 
Victoria W. March 1, 2018
You are brilliant and inspiring! Appreciate the education and hope you find great success.
 
JR March 1, 2018
Awesome motivation to start a company. Good luck!
 
Lazyretirementgirl February 26, 2018
Great story all the way around. I just ordered 7 ounces from the well done website and am looking forward to receiving my tumeric. Thanks for making me aware of this.<br /><br /><br />
 
Saba February 25, 2018
Love everything about this - the delicious coffee recipe AND the ethos behind this turmeric importing business! Get it, girl!