Redefining Turmeric: Getting To The Root Of Its Appeal With Sana Javeri Kadri | Verve Magazine
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July 20, 2018

Redefining Turmeric: Getting To The Root Of Its Appeal With Sana Javeri Kadri

Text by Faye Remedios

After finding a way to capitalise on turmeric’s new-found popularity, while ensuring that Indian farmers are adequately compensated, she tells us what it takes to build a haldi empire in the West

Alleppey, or Alappuzha as it is also called, was once referred to as the Venice of the East by Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy to India from 1898 to 1905, and the turmeric available here was considered to be the gold standard of the Indian spice export market. Armed with this information, Sana Javeri Kadri set out to Alleppey in search of this precious commodity. Three visits to four different farms across Kerala, much car sickness, and too many leaky motel rooms later, Kadri found out that the legendary Alleppey turmeric is really just a blanket term for bright yellow turmeric and the appellation means absolutely nothing. She tells us where she finally found turmeric that met the mark and why she went looking for it in the first place.

As a young woman raised in Mumbai in the ’90s, trying to find your footing in neoliberal America is no easy feat. Kadri found that as she encountered issues of race, class, gender and social status on a foreign continent, her own identity, which was being slotted into labels such as ‘queer woman of colour’ or ‘Asian American’ threw up big questions that she didn’t have any answers to. “It wasn’t until a college professor used the term post-colonialism, and led me in the direction of literature, art and research around the subject, did I feel like I had finally found the language that my identity most easily translated into. Post-colonialism responds to the cultural legacy of colonialism and the extraction of resources, knowledge and capital through imperialism. It examines the lasting present-day effects of colonial rule on the former colony. I am a perfect product of the effects of colonisation, from my education (in English, heavy on Wordsworth) to the food I grew up eating (dal and digestive biscuits in equal measure), I am postcolonial to my core,” she says. The answers sought by Kadri then required defining decolonisation. Her aim was to establish a company dedicated to decolonisation that claimed space for brown farmers and for desi narratives and created new ways of doing business in the United States. Thus was born Diaspora Co., a name which, Kadri says, draws her closer to people that she admires, feels kinship with, and wants to surround herself with.

But what about the product? As a food marketing professional and photographer, food is the lens through which Kadri navigates the world. “Growing up, I was the little girl eating bowls of popcorn in nursery school, or the avid eater walking the fish market with my dad to pick up fish for the week. When I’ve moved away from home, food has continued to help me make sense of my new surroundings. Travelling almost always involves a long visit to a local grocery store, because for me to truly get a sense of a place and its people, it’s important for me to understand how they eat. Regarding turmeric in particular, as a photographer, I’ve always been drawn to its colour and drama, and as a homesick Indian, I put it in all my food, even if just to make it taste a little more like home,” she says.

It was a couple of years back when our humble haldi doodh — yes, that same concoction that every Indian grandmother passes on faithfully as a panacea for all ills — suddenly exploded on the Western scene in the newfangled avatar of turmeric lattes, and just like that, they woke up to the benefits of this spice. Thanks to this hipster fad, haldi was suddenly everywhere, from golden lattes and chia puddings to sorbets and beauty potions. “But if I asked any chef or buyer where this turmeric was coming from and who was growing it, I usually got shrugs and half-hearted answers. Figuring out how to source sustainable turmeric equitably and efficiently became an obsession that bridged my two worlds — the good food world of the West Coast and the organic farms of India. Diaspora Co. was partly founded out of a desire to complicate the outdated image of wellness as wealthy, white and thin. Personally, I do not love the taste of a turmeric latte. But what’s important for me is that the ingredients are sourced ethically and sustainably. But if Americans are going to consume India’s oldest exported spice, I want to make sure that India is profiting off of it, especially the people growing it — the rest is up to the consumer!” she asserts.

When her search for the famed Alleppey turmeric proved fruitless on account of it being just a term used for turmeric of a certain hue with no guaranteed curcumin content, Kadri did her research and teamed up with the Indian Institute of Spice Research (IISR) in Kozhikode, who connected her with Prabhu, a fourth-generation farmer in the sleepy town of Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. He grows heirloom, organically farmed, single origin Pragati turmeric that is licensed by the IISR. For Kadri, it’s important that she stands by every word printed on her label. “‘Single origin’ means that every gram of turmeric in your jar comes from the same varietal and is harvested on the same farm. ‘Direct trade’ means that we buy directly from our farmer and sell directly to our customers and retailers; no middlemen are involved, ensuring that our farmers get the best price possible. ‘Organically farmed’ means that our farmers use no chemical-based pesticides or fertilisers — only cow dung, neem cakes, jaggery, and smart companion planting as pest deterrents!” she details.

Kadri might not be a fan of turmeric lattes but she is certainly no stranger to the immense benefits of this spice. And her beauty routine obviously reflects this. She has created what she terms the ‘millennial face gunk’, a home-made concoction of turmeric, raw honey, cornmeal and extra virgin olive or hemp oil that she says is moisturising, glow-inducing, exfoliating and cleansing all at once. And when she has to deal with breakouts, she swaps expensive exfoliants and serums that she found further aggravated the problem for a layer of good ole Vicco Turmeric Skin Cream on her face every night to clear up any skin issues. “When I broke my vertebrae in a weight-lifting incident two years ago, I put turmeric, ghee and coconut sugar in my coffee every morning to help with my chronic pain. I found that it made a huge difference in reducing the soreness,” she vouches.

The best part about the business “is collaborating with, uplifting and supporting all the people of colour, desis and queers (sometimes all of those things) on anything from cookbook collaborations and events to hiring, getting coffee and plotting a revolution. Diaspora Co., thus far, has been an endless series of big, challenging questions, and it’s so exciting to get to figure out or make up the answers to them every single day. I can see myself growing with this business for years to come, and that’s a very fulfilling thought”, she says excitedly. The consumers, it would seem, agree with her. The response has been phenomenal especially when you consider that it’s a small business, mostly online and one that ships just one day a week. Not just restricted to the Bay Area, Diaspora Co. is growing rapidly and Kadri says that there isn’t a single US state they haven’t shipped turmeric to, including Alaska. “By the end of this year, we’ll be adding two more partner farms, and by the end of next year, we hope to be able to add three more spices,” she enthuses. And while she makes plans for world domination, in the meantime, she continues with her quest to turn yellow to gold.

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