You buy fair-trade coffee. You buy fair-trade chocolate. Hopefully, you're considerate of which waters your fish is being pulled out of, and where your pantry staples like rice, almond butter, and coconut oil are coming from. Have you considered the origins of your spices, though?
Clear out your spice rack and you just might get inspired.
If you think the brutality and inequality of the spice trade is many years behind us, unfortunately that's not the case. "The commodity spice supply chain is completely opaque, and intentionally so," says Ethan Frisch, the founder of Burlap & Barrel, a single-origin, direct-to-consumer spice company. "There are people who benefit from a consumer's lack of understanding. Likewise, [there are people] who benefit from the farmers' lack of understanding about where the spices are going."
By the time you buy supermarket spices, Frisch explains, they've likely changed hands 15 to 20 times. The spices you're buying aren't from one farm or even one region, either; they're likely the work of hundreds or even thousands of farmers around the world.
The way it all comes together is enough to make your head spin. "A small farmer will grow a small quantity of a spice, which they will sell to a guy with a truck who then sells it to somebody in a local town who's collecting from ten guys with trucks," says Frisch. "Then that guy sells it down the mountain to a guy with a bigger warehouse who is consolidating from ten or fifteen other consolidators. The spices are mixed together locally and then mixed together regionally and then eventually they get mixed together in a capital city or a port where the products from potentially hundreds of farmers is packaged for export." Then, there's a whole additional complicated process on the import side, once the spices make their way here. "You have a huge importer who then sells to a huge distributor or several distributors; they repackage or break them down to sell to smaller distributors, down the chain."
Within the past few years, however, a crop of new businesses selling fair-trade, single-source spices direct to consumers have appeared. And, just as the market for fair trade coffee and chocolate opened up, spices seem to be next on the horizon.
Turmeric-focused Diaspora Co. began with sourcing that single spice in the most ethical and sustainable way possible before considering expansion. Founder Sana Javeri Kadri, a self-described "consumption and supply chain nerd," grew up in India, where she watched the influence of American consumption habits affect Indian traditions like making yogurt at home, which she saw families begin to eschew in favor of buying Nestle brand yogurt at the store. In India, Kadri says, America meant capitalism seeping in in the form of Fruit Roll-Ups and Nickelodeon. Then she moved to the U.S. to attend Pomona College in Southern California. "Everybody was talking about organic and farmers markets and locally made. I was just like, Wait, what? This is supposed to be the land of Taco Bell and Fruit Roll-Ups."
This culture shock made her want to study food systems. In particular, she wanted to know about spices and post-colonial India. Where was the turmeric that was deflating all of our inflamed bodies coming from? And who was getting paid for it? "Most Indian Americans have this experience of their food being made fun of and therefore feeling a little bit of anger when it gets trendy," Kadri says. "To me, it was more: I don't hate Goop for making turmeric lattes, I just want to know that there are Indian farmers making a lot of money off of it." After tons of study and exploration (like, really, tons! You can read more about it here), she decided she would make this happen herself by starting a turmeric business.
Now Diaspora Co. sells direct-to-consumer turmeric grown from an heirloom seed varietal by three farmers in India on their website. Kadri is paying those farmers $5.40 for one kilogram—a price that's markedly more than market value, which is currently about $0.90 per kilogram.
In addition to the turmeric that started it all, Kadri has dropped Baraka cardamom, Sannam chilis, and Aranya pepper in the last two years. Each one was produced and released in sustainably small quantities; each one sold out rapidly. This past December, Kadri was able to drop just 600 bottles of Baraka cardamom on her site–her partner farmer's entire fall harvest due to a bad rainy season. This cardamom is a particularly special product, as Kadri sells what she suspects is the "only truly pesticide-free Indian cardamom out there." The drop sold out in ten minutes. "It’s heartening that customers are able to taste the difference and are starting to ask for it," says Kadri.
Similarly, the company Rumi Spice sells ethically sourced Afghan saffron, cumin, and spice blends like Kabul Piquant Chicken and Mexican Adobo direct to consumers and chefs in America. The founders—Kimberly Jung, Emily Miller, and Keith Alaniz—served in Afghanistan in the military.
"We thought, what if we can connect Afghan farmers directly with U.S. markets and by doing so we can provide a demand for products and that would cultivate economic development and create jobs and stability in Afghanistan through agriculture?" Alaniz explained when we first spoke to him in 2018. Afghanistan grows the world's best saffron and yet farmers they met couldn't sell it anywhere but local markets. Now, they have a full-fledged spice business. "We started with a handful of farmers, literally carrying back saffron in a suitcase. Today, we work with over 350 farmers. We put over a million dollars directly into the hands of farmers and our laborers in Afghanistan."
An unexpected benefit was providing jobs for 19,052 Afghan women. "Traditionally women were always involved in the harvesting and processing of the crocus flower and extracting the saffron," says Alaniz. But since the work was mostly happening on family farms, the women weren't paid. And since saffron processing is labor-intensive, farmers were limited in the amount they could produce. "Our proposition to the farmers was to buy the flowers from them, not the processed saffron, and then hire their family members in the processing centers."
Since sourcing and importing these spices is complex, it's difficult for any one company to provide a wide variety of spices. Still, on the aggregate, companies like Burlap & Barrel, Curio Spice (which has a storefront in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but also sells spices wholesale and direct to consumer) and Reluctant Trading Experiment (which started with pepper and now sells a variety of spices) are making a sizable assortment of fair-trade spices available to consumers.
Burlap & Barrel offers spices Afghanistan, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Spain, Tanzania, Turkey, Indonesia, Iceland, Nicaragua, Palestine, Vietnam. The standouts are a spicy, lemony black pepper from Zanzibar, a wild mountain cumin from Afghanistan, which has the spice's signature gamey flavor, but also a fruitiness, minerality, and saltiness that you'd never know you could find in cumin. And then there's a Black Urfa chile made from peppers that are dried in the sun during the day and wrapped in fabric at night. "The peppers oxidize. They turn black and they develop all of these incredible savory, malty flavors. They taste a little bit like raisins and coffee and chocolate," Frisch says of the Turkish chile pepper.
If you're more of a sweet-spice person, don't overlook the Royal Cinnamon. "It's become our most popular spice," says Frisch. "We knew when we first tasted it on the farm in central Vietnam that it'd be a hit." Outside of the traditional spice world, Frisch is working on introducing some of the tart/sweet/sour flavors that Indian cooks know and love—specifically, Amchur, the powder made from underripe green mangoes. While the brand's profile has skyrocketed in recent years, Frisch has made sure that the direct-trade sourcing model has stayed the same. "We now work with about 250 smallholder farmers, who we pay at least double and as much as 20x the commodity price for their exceptional spices," he says.
This brings us to another important reason to buy fair-trade spices. Ethical component aside, they taste better. Consumers (and everyone at Epi, who has a few bottles of Diaspora Co. and Burlap and Barrel in their spice cabinet) know that while ethical ingredients are important, so is flavor.
With small batch, ethically produced spices, you know they were harvested within the year, and didn't spend years getting passed through a million hands. This means your spices will have robust, nuanced flavor that you'll never find from bland supermarket brands. Something like black pepper, which maybe you've always taken for granted as having a one-note sharpness or bitterness, could suddenly offer fruitiness, tang, and real spice all at once. That curcumin you're looking for in turmeric for its anti-inflammatory properties will actually be there still. Your turmeric won't just add color, it'll be bright and floral and flavorful, without any chalkiness.
Plus, of course, there's the obvious advantage of buying direct-to-consumer spices: they're delivered right to your front door.
Shop Our Favorites Spices:
$10.00, Diaspora Co
$8.00, Burlap & Barrel
$9.00, Rumi Spice
$12.00, Diaspora Co.
$8.00, Burlap & Barrel
Originally Appeared on Epicurious