Courtesy of Diaspora Co.
When Sana Javeri Kadri moved to the United States eight years ago, she was struck by the disconnect between the freshly ground spices she grew up within her home country of India and the ones she found on supermarket shelves in California. "I couldn't understand why I wasn't seeing the same caliber of spices. Why I wasn't seeing the same importance in terms of sourcing and naming, and the deeper I dug into the spice and grocery industry, the more stale and outdated it felt," Javeri Kadri said.
An oft-overlooked cooking essential, spices have mostly been left behind by the farm-to-table movement. We might sprinkle some black pepper on pasta, follow a recipe to make saffron mayonnaise, or add turmeric to a smoothie, and while we might know the farmer who grew our tomatoes or at least have a vague idea of where our eggs came from (and how they were produced!), spices are often shrouded in mystery and difficult to trace. That's something that a few women-owned companies are working to change.
Tracing Spices from Farm to Pantry
Most of the world's spices are grown on smallholder farms, where farmers sell their entire harvest to a middleman who sells the spices he buys to someone else; that person then sells all the spices he buys to someone else until, eventually, they make it to a supermarket aisle. Along the way, we often lose traceability. "They're all aggregated together," said Javeri Kadri. "Your black peppercorn could be a mix of black peppercorn from Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Kenya for all you know. That means you cannot trace it for contamination or heavy metal, but you also can't trace the flavor. You might have one really tasteful peppercorn, but you don't know where it came from."
Javeri Kadri, who in 2017, at the age of 23, began sourcing turmeric directly from fourth-generation farmer Kasaraneni Prabhu (workers at his farm are pictured above), and selling it online is attempting to change the narrative of the spice industry. Her company Diaspora Co., which now also sells Aranya pepper, Sannam chiles, and Baraka cardamon, is one of a growing number of mostly women-owned spice companies—along with The Spice Suite, Curio Spice Co. and Rumi Spice—that are working to bring flavorful, traceable, fresh spices to U.S. consumers while also empowering farmers and local communities.
Disrupting the Spice Industry
"I became fascinated by spices, how they are produced and traded and how disconnected we are, especially here in the West, from these incredible aromatics. I wanted to make a difference both in the way we cook and think about food, so I started Curio as a mission-driven business," said Claire Cheney of Curio Spice Co. Through her company, which includes a brick-and-mortar store in Massachusetts (currently closed due to coronavirus) and her e-commerce site, Cheney sells pure spices and blends she sources directly from small farmers in New England and around the world. She also teaches cooking classes and sells her spices at other retailers, including Whole Foods.
For sourcing, she travels extensively, tracking down unique varieties she wants to sell. "It's not a straightforward process," said Cheney, adding that in some cases, it's taken up to a year to source a particular spice. While Cheney sources the spices she sells from multiple countries, includ Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Cambodia among others, Javeri Kadri's model is to source from one country. Of the four spices, Diaspora Co. currently sells, she spent anywhere from two to 14 months sourcing them, making multiple farm visits. For instance, when choosing which farmer to source her cardamon from, she tested roughly 13 different varieties, both for taste and for pesticides and heavy metals through a lab. All of Diaspora Co.'s spices are pesticide-free, but a positive lab test doesn't necessarily preclude a farmer from becoming a farm partner. Diaspora Co. is committed to working with farmers to grow their standards.
The Benefit of Being Female in a Male-Dominated Industry
An outsider to the spice world, Javeri Kadri spent the first couple of years in the industry lying about her age, even pretending she had a husband at times. "I no longer do that, I wear my youth as a badge of honor," Javeri Kadri said. "Being a femme-presenting person and having a worldview of an Indian woman who grew up in a really patriarchal society informs my lens of what true justice and fairness looks like."
Like Javeri Kadri, Angel Anderson of The Spice Suite is one of only a few POC females in sourcing positions within the spice industry, which remains a largely male-dominated field. She also came to the industry with little experience, something she sees as a benefit as she didn't know enough to know if she was doing anything the so-called "right" way. An assistant principal at a high school in Washington, D.C., she loved working in education, but when in 2015 she walked by an empty store-front with a for lease sign in the window, she was immediately curious about the space. "I called the number on the sign, I wanted to know the cost of the building," Anderson recalled. "The landlord wanted to know what I was going to do with it, and I said I wanted to open up a spice shop. It was the most serendipitous thing ever."
Anderson still isn't exactly sure what made her say spice shop, but she went with it, opening up the Spice Suite less than a month after seeing that for lease sign, filling the space with spice blends, and selling her signature SpiceBoxes through the website." I approach creating the blends as I do fashion," Anderson said. "I think what's pretty, smells right, feels good." Since opening her shop, Anderson has traveled to more than 20 different countries to source her spices and she's also focused on lifting up others within her community. "Fighting for space as a woman, especially as a Black woman is difficult, and it's pushed me to bring more women around," said Anderson. "I share the space with 23 Black women that have their own businesses."
Relationships with local communities are at the heart of each of these mission-oriented spice companies. Kimberly Jung co-founded Rumi Spice after serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan."I felt there was a commitment we needed to fulfill beyond our military one," Jung said. More than 80 percent of the Afghan population depends on the rural agricultural economy. Rumi Spice sources saffron, cumin, and other whole and ground spices and blends directly from small farms across the country, paying their wages directly and supporting infrastructure projects.
Similarly, Javeri Kadri's focus on her home country allows her to have a profound impact. Last year Diaspora Co. rolled out a health program for farm partners. This year they ensured that all of their farm partners were fully paid, roughly $6.68 (500 rupees) for one kilogram compared to the market value of $1.07 (80 rupees) for turmeric even when work ground to a stop during the pandemic. They did this through pre-orders, all the while connecting costumers to the farmers. "I love that our customers know the name of our turmeric farmer." Javeri Kadri said.