“Bite one,” said Sana Javeri Kadri, holding out a palmful of green cardamom pods scooped from her Ziplocked stash. Most store-bought cardamom contain only five or so seeds, but these pods were brimming with black, aromatic little kernels. Kadri, 25, had brought this special, wild-harvested heirloom variety from India — where she grew up — and will soon offer it for purchase through her spice company, Diaspora Co.
Barely two years old, Diaspora Co. has already swept up numerous accolades for its organically farmed, direct-trade turmeric. Its mason jars and tins of vibrant gold powder are a result of what was first just a personal curiosity about India’s spice supply chain, leading Kadri to the unsettling truth that most purveyors don’t know where their spices originate, or that many spice farmers barely make a living wage.
“I recognized there were these big questions that needed to be answered, and given that I have deep Indian roots — and now deep California roots — I was very uniquely positioned to answer them,” said Kadri, her body comfortably sunken into her living room’s velvet purple sofa. Her home doubles as the company’s headquarters. Diaspora Co. paraphernalia sits near shelves of colorful cookbooks, family photographs and illustrations that say things like “Matriarchy” and “The Future is Flavor.”
“I basically made up the job that worked for me… To not be just a visiting Indian-American, but to work there is really the meaningful connection I wanted with my country.”
From its humble beginnings, Kadri’s core goals have always been to give power back to the farmers and their land. After several trips to India and with the guidance of many trusty confidants, Diaspora Co. officially began selling its first spice, an heirloom turmeric grown seasonally and milled by a farmer named Kasaraneni Prabhu in Andhra Pradesh, a state in the southeastern region of India. Kadri had asked Prabhu what a fair price would be, then found a way to pay him exactly that. It was then a “happy accident” that consumers benefitted from this arrangement.
So far, consumers have been willing and eager to pay a little extra for a turmeric with a radically transparent supply chain and an above-average curcumin content (the anti-inflammatory property of the spice.) Diaspora Co. products can be found in its online shop and at Oaktown Spice Shop in Oakland and Albany.
Kadri hopes the response to Diaspora’s cardamom will be greeted with similar enthusiasm. It isn’t cheap, but it is a really special variety, straight from the “Cardamom Hills” of Southwest India in Kerala.
“I refer to [Kerala] as Las Vegas in the sky, because you climb four hours into the mountains and get to this super developed city that is made entirely from cardamom money.”
Beyond the cityscape of spice money-funded gambling houses and fancy bars lives a farmer, Abraham Chacko, who’s been wild-harvesting cardamom for the past 15 years. While his product isn’t yet certified organic, he has a “do nothing” approach to farming and only harvests every three months, a philosophy influenced by the work of celebrated Indian agriculturalist, Subhash Palekar, who tends to the soil with a deep regard for the local ecosystems. In their eyes, farmers are devoted guardians to a land that would do just fine without their help.
Before meeting Chacko, Kadri had run nearly 20 pesticide residue tests on several other farmers who were certified organic, but all had failed. Every test Kadri ran on his cardamom came up clean.
“His test was blank because he’s old-school in that he wants a food forest. Ultimately, agroforestry is an incredible way to be growing things (…) This guy was doing something beautiful and holistic… [He] has spent 15 years selecting and propagating the best seeds to create the magic that you see now.”
Prior to meeting Kadri, Chacko was barely making ends meet selling his spices to an auction house. Because the pods of his cardamom are of a more subtle hue than some other varieties, the sublimity of their insides went undervalued. Generally, cardamom is still priced by size and color, not by flavor or aroma, a grading method Kadri reminds us was created by the British East India Company in the 17th century. With Diaspora Co., Kadri begins to dismantle this unequal and outdated system of trade by giving agency back to the farmers she works with, allowing them to have a say in how and what they grow.
To finally inaugurate cardamom to the cadre of Diaspora Co. goods, the company is launching a Kickstarter on April 15. If the company reaches its $30,000 goal — and Kadri feels confident it will — the spice will be available for purchase within a month.
Cooks and eaters stay tuned, with the on-boarding of a new sourcing lead, Kadri said Diaspora Co. plans to eventually initiate a whole spice family: “After cardamom comes black pepper, three different kinds of red chilies, cumin, the works.”