A Conversation with Sana Javeri Kadri
We talked about how she got into this line of work, developing her visual sense, shifting notions of success, and more.
Sana Javeri Kadri is a photographer turned spice trader focused on decolonizing the industry in her native India. With her strikingly designed Diaspora Co., she sells single-origin Pragati Turmeric, Sannam Chillies, Aranya Pepper, and more, and in collaborating with like-minded businesses, she gets people to think about using these spices in new ways, from pickles to nut butters.
We talked about how she got into this line of work, developing her visual sense, shifting notions of success, and more. Listen here, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Sana. Thank you so much for being here.
Sana: Hi! Thanks for having me.
Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Sana: Yeah. I grew up in Bombay, India, or Mumbai. It's complicated; I stick to Bombay as the name. And I grew up eating a kind of wacky mishmash of things. My mom is Gujarati Jain, and so her home food was like traditional Gujarati food: dhokla, bajras. And then my dad is half Hindu, half Punjabi Hindu, and then half Gujarti Muslim. My dad's siblings, who we all lived very closely with, married South Indians and North Indians. We're a very unique family in how mixed up we are. And food was definitely a thing that everybody collaborated over very enthusiastically.
And then, at the same time, my parents had gone to grad school in Berkeley and were very influenced by the ’80s in Berkeley, before they moved back to Mumbai. And so my mother's idea of incredible cuisine was tofu sandwiches and asparagus mousse, like asparagus from the Green Giant can. So, on one hand, there was this plethora of regional Indian food smashed together into one house. And then, on the other hand, there was really wacky, vegetarian, hippie white people Berkeley food translated to Mumbai and the ingredients we had available in the early ’90s.
But yeah, I think the love of food for me was always there, because it was a way to understand all these differences within my family. I often talk about the fact that I knew that my grandma, my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandmother, were very different classwise and just background wise because my paternal grandmother's yogurt at home was made from the thick, full-fat buffalo milk, whereas the yogurt at my grandmother's house was made with the skim cow's milk and was much more watery. And there's a lot that you can say about class right there. So, I think for me, looking at food and looking at how my own family ate differently while not—whilst they didn't fully articulate why there were these differences within the family—was, yeah, was a mode of investigation, almost.
Alicia: Wow. You describe yourself as a former food and culture photographer. How did you get into that line of work and what drew you to working in food—obviously, that you had this really fascinating upbringing in terms of the cuisine you were eating and its diversity. Did that inspire your work in food?
Sana: I think it's a few things. My work in food came from this lens of consumption, being interested in how consumption happens. I got a scholarship to go to high school in Italy to a high school called the United World Colleges. If you know any amazing 16 to 18 year olds, please encourage them to apply. It's a full scholarship for an amazing program.
But during that time, you don't get to pick where you get sent, and I got sent to the UWC on the Adriatic coast outside Venice in a tiny village on the Adriatic Sea. And I didn't speak a word of Italian. Neither did anybody else at my school. And so food and kind of wandering the grocery store, the local Italian grocery store, became a way to understand this bizarre new place that we had kind of been dropped into, a kind of post–Cold War experiment.
And then from there moving to America again. I was expecting to come to America and fit in and just understand this place. And instead I got here and—I was expecting that mostly because my parents had talked so much about America my whole childhood. My mom talked about Berkeley as this magical place where feminism existed freely. And I got to Southern California and it was a huge, rude cultural awaken—like, shock. And again, the grocery store was a way— and the farmers’ market and farms—were a way to understand more about this country. It was a lens to see things with.
I've always photographed. My mom was a kind of amateur photographer her whole life and taught me how to use her camera. When I was very young, and when I was in the 10th grade, I dropped out of school for a year. And that year, I was allowed to just sit at home and do whatever I wanted and give my exams from home. And I was handed my mom's camera, and the expectation was very much that you can do whatever you want. It just has to be interesting and just have to be learning things.
And so I started photographing. I started developing film. And I think food, and then this camera, became a way that I could discover the world and actually grow into adulthood and understand the world. So, I think all through my young adulthood I used photography as a way to tell stories but also understand the way the world worked, and then soon the way America worked.
A lot of my earliest work post-college was photographing for the People's Kitchen Collective here in Oakland, California. They were really the folks that introduced me to what food justice can mean, what radical hospitality looks like. They were bringing together all the ideas around kind of progressive food justice that I was excited about and letting me document it for them. And it wasn't just—the whole point of PKC is radical hospitality and equity in food. And so it wasn't about food porn. And I think that's why I differentiate saying I'm a former food and culture photographer. There was more about the culture that surrounded food.
Alicia: Right. And you have such a strong vision-
Sana: That was such a long, windy answer.
Alicia: No, no. I was gonna say, it's clear that you have, I think, that kind of visual background because the branding for Diaspora Co. is so vivid and striking and—Did you do the visual branding for the spice line?
Sana: I didn’t. My kind of former work wife from when I worked at Bi-Rite, Sophie Peoples, she did the branding for us. But I definitely creative directed it. Just this morning, my mom was making fun of me about the fact that I took my two favorite colors from when I was about three years old and built a company around them, which is pink and yellow. And I'm now painting every wall in my home pink and yellow.
Also, my parents are architects and I was raised around them. And actually, in India, nepotism runs deep. So I was raised with the expectation that I would take over one of their architectural practices at some point. And so art classes, design, that was highly encouraged in my childhood. And it was only at about 15 or 16 where I was like, ‘I want nothing to do with architecture.’ But that stayed with me, that strong sense of visual aesthetics.
Alicia: Right. And what inspired you to found Diaspora Co., and how did you go about doing so? Were there any particular challenges to creating that transparent supply chain that you have?
Sana: Yeah, there were many challenges, mostly that I was a 23-year-old who didn't know what I was doing.
So in 2016, I was working for Bi-Rite, which is a grocery store here in San Francisco. I was working in a marketing role. And largely, as a young postgraduate, it felt super exciting to be paid money to take photos of produce for a living.
But there was this feeling that I would—whose stories was I telling? And I was telling the stories, usually, of white people's food, white people's ingredients for white people. And I think back in 2016, what was most being discussed, or I think what was in all of our consciousness, was just representation, like, ‘Why am I not visible?’ Or like, ‘Why are people that look like me not visible?’
And so the initial kind of impetus for Diaspora was really wanting to just claim space and say, ‘What can I build that'll be by us, for us? That'll be super queer, super Brown, like super radical? And maybe people will buy it; who knows? But first, let's stake this claim.’ And an early hater wrote me an email being like, ‘First build a successful company, then get onto your soapbox.’ But that—I had no interest in that. I wanted the soapbox first. And I stand by that.
I was in San Francisco and noticing the farm’s stable supply chain and had—largely had respect for it. I loved discovering the Masumoto Family Farm here that makes these beautiful peaches, and seeing how every summer the food-loving humans of San Francisco, of the Bay Area, kind of flock to the peach harvest.
But seeing that that same supply chain doesn't extend globally at all—the minute anything came from the quote-unquote ‘ethnic food aisle,’ nobody cared. And I started asking buyers, I started asking chefs, where their stuff was coming from. And nobody had an answer for me. If it was coming from Spain or France, that was one thing. Like espelette peppers, Spanish saffron. Well, that's a whole other thing. But there was more discussion around that. Whereas when I talked about, ‘Well, what about India? You're saying this stuff is coming from India. Where is it coming from?’ I got the most absurd responses.
I had one very prominent chef tell me like, ‘Oh, it's coming from India, and farmers there, they don't have much. So you know, it's basically organic.’ And I was like, ‘Eh, eh. India has the largest rate of fertilizer runoff in the world.’
Sana: So, that's complete trash.
Okay, anyway. So all that compounded into Donald Trump getting elected, the Muslim ban happening, I came out. I was 23-year-old queer, hot mess. And so obviously I made the great decision of quitting my job and buying a one-way ticket back to Mumbai.
And I had this idea, kind of at the back of my head, that I would love to do a story—maybe a photographic photo essay—on where the turmeric that—San Francisco's turmeric lattes are, is coming from. In my head, it was—that it would be similar to the quinoa story. And similar to the fact that quinoa became the superfood, and for lack of a better phrase, the supply chain for it was just fucked as a result of that huge boom in demand.
And so I went home. And cocky, young person started emailing people and WhatsApp-ing people. I was like, ‘Can I come visit your farm? Can I come visit your company?’ And nobody got back to me, and nobody responded to me. And so I started just showing up places. And I started showing up at farms unannounced, which was not the best move, but it got the job done. And eventually, I was able to show up at the Indian Institute of Spices Research in Kozhikode, Kerala, which is formerly Calicut; it was the Portuguese spice trading hub.
The scientists and the folks at ISR were the ones who, I think, kind of baited me into starting this business, where they were explaining to me that one, even though they have been working on really interesting varieties of spices, and working with farmers to develop varieties that are pest-resistant, that have higher yields despite being pesticide-free, there just was no market for those varieties and that they were doing all of this work kind of in a bubble. And it wasn't translating over to the trade market for spices
And they were kind of explaining to me that essentially, in the trading—Indian trading world of spices—nothing had really changed since the 1850s, where the variety, kind of brand names that the British had given to spices, which were largely based on size and color and not on actual, botanical varieties, were still used to this day. So, to give you an example, Tellicherry pepper is a size of pepper, it's not a variety of pepper. And so farmers are literally just measuring their peppercorns in order to sell it at a premium as Tellicherry pepper.
Yeah, I often joke that Dr. Prakash kind of sat back there and said, ‘Well, you're good at marketing. Why don't you sell this? And you would be doing so much good for Indian farmers.’ And I jumped at it and was like, ‘Okay, absolutely, I'll do it,’ not having a clue what I was getting myself into, not having kind of a dollar to my name. In retrospect, it was all a bit comical, and I was very naïve. But I also don't think I would have gotten into it and done it if I wasn't so naïve. So, I guess I'm kind of grateful.
Over the next three years, I guess to fast forward a bit, I've basically started—with the help of ISR tremendously, working with farmers who are growing single varieties, usually varieties that they've either developed themselves over the years to be pest resistant or to be more aromatic, or varieties that they've been saving and protecting from going extinct and trying to bring them to market here in the U.S. And that road has been incredibly bumpy, ’cause an art major turned photographer turned spice dealer is a bumpy journey.
But yeah, I think the magic of it is that I get to make up what I do every day and I make up the answers. And from day one, there's been this idea that I'm doing it with the goal of decolonization. And that's a big word. It's a scary word. But I think it really holds us to the fire kind of, to constantly check back in and be like, ‘Well, if the work is decolonization, how can we continue to do that?’ And last year, that was piloting the healthcare program. This year, it's trying to figure out how we can start to give our a farm partners ownership stake in the company. But yeah, it's an evolving goalpost. Decolonization is a forever kind of work.
Alicia: Of course.
No, it's so interesting because I actually just wrote, for next Monday, my newsletter. And I'm gonna have to go back and add a quote from you that you just said, but no—just—the idea that people have—when foods come from Europe, people care so much about the origins. And they care so much about the provenance. And you get to charge a premium for that because, ‘Oh, it was grown in Spain, it was grown in France, it was foraged in Italy, etc., etc.’ These things are so inherently valued in our system.
And then things like turmeric from India, people are like, ‘I don't know. It comes from India.’ Or coffee from Latin America. It's like, ‘I don't know. It's coffee. I don't think about it. I just drink it every day.’ Chocolate. It's like, ‘My Hershey's has 11% cacao. I don't know where it came from. I mean, we know that that 11% of frickin’ cacao in a Hershey bar came from the Ivory Coast of Africa, and that it was harvested by people—
Sana: Largely in inhumane working conditions.
Alicia: Exactly, yes.
And so it's like, we know why these things are highly valued and considered precious and why these other commodities are treated simply as commodities. And it's read via how ideas of luxury are born out of those notions, which are colonialist. Full stop.
So, it's such an interesting project what you're doing, especially because—I mean, I have my friends at Burlap & Barrel, they're all over the world kind of sourcing. But it's so interesting how focused you are, and how that allows you to do these kinds of bigger projects where—these healthcare initiatives and that sort of—right. I think that's so cool.
Sana: I mean, for me, what allows me to do the sourcing work—and it’s the sourcing work that's definitely being challenged right now, because of the pandemic and because I can't be in India for half the year, is the speaking multiple Indian languages. Having a very, very deep Indian network and being able to culturally understand certain issues.
But at the same time, own up to what I don't understand. I can't pretend that as an urban Bombay girl, I understand what a farmer in Andhra Pradesh goes through just because we speak the same language. But I do feel that over time, I'm able to build that relationship where I can start to understand and address that within the business model.
For me, I'm just not sure—this big word of decolonization, I could do that work if I was working with, say, a farmer. Even in Sri Lanka. We've talked to farm partners in Sri Lanka. And I've come back being like, ‘I don't know what I'm getting into, unless I brought on a business partner from Sri Lanka. Or some kind of deep partnership with folks who are invested there.’ I'm not sure I would be comfortable. And that's just our method.
Alicia: Right? Of course.
And I've noticed you posting a lot lately on social media about ideas of success, and how appearances can be deceiving. And I'm very obsessed with ideas and notions of success, and how people define that for themselves. And I know that social media completely messes with our senses of what success is, and how we can even begin to create kind of an autonomous way of deciphering what that looks like.
Alicia: Yeah, so how has your definition of success changed or not? Since you began Diaspora Co.
But I think, especially on my personal Instagram, I started out as a baby queer who was hoping for other queer role models for—I turned to Instagram for inspiration on how to build a life that I never grew up seeing. Right? But I also therefore turned to Instagram for definitions of success. And then in the past few years as I have, quote, unquote, ‘attained’ a lot of the kind of signifiers of success, I've noticed a similar flood, just like myself, of young girls, specifically young Indian girls from India, who DM me and follow me turning to me for the same cues.
And on one hand, I love that and I love that in being who I am, I can provide—you can't be what you can't see. I can provide that for another generation. But on the other hand, nobody told me how depressed I'd be. Nobody told me just how insanely anxious a lot of this would make me. And I think I'm now starting to define my role on social media, especially personally, not from the brand, as somebody who will talk as honestly about that as possible. And of exactly how hard it's been.
And I don't want to be too cynical. But I have a lot of young women who reach out to me for mentorship and say that they want to start their own businesses. And I always fire back being like, ‘Do you have a safety blanket? Do you have, in access to savings, or just privilege for the next couple years if you can't afford a salary?’ ’Cause that's not something I knew going into this, that I wouldn't be able to really pay myself a salary for a couple years by starting my own business. And on one hand, I have managed. I did things and had some amount of privilege to manage. But I wish somebody had told me that, and I wish I had known that.
So to, I guess, to circle back about your idea of success. I have attained a decent level of success, I suppose, with Diaspora Co. And I still, to be perfectly honest, I'm not happy. And so a lot of this summer has been trying to figure out like, ‘Well, how do you get happy? How do you deal with that?’ And realizing that when I'm not on my phone, even though I was raised on Instagram, I'm happy when I'm not on my phone. So what does that say about the tool that raised me? I'm happier when I'm on a hike with my dog, and—or, I'm happier actually around friends who know nothing about my work or business and who have known me since I was 10 years old.
All the networking that I've done to kind of build a network here from scratch in the past eight years—sure, that was profitable and useful. And there's connections that I cherish. But I don't need to rely on those for happiness and my sense of self-worth. Basically, it's been a big summer for Sana’s mental health.
Alicia: Yeah, social media—everyone has to—and the phone, I definitely need to get rid of that.
It's actually funny because—I have now like 12,000 followers on Twitter. And I don't know if that's ironic or not—
Sana: Damn, you hot stuff!
Alicia: No, no, I'm just on Twitter too much.
But the idea that I have 12,000 followers has kind of made me be like, ‘Okay, I can't just use Twitter to say whatever I feel like anymore.’ I have to be intentional about it. Because people are going to use these things against me. Weirdly getting 12,000 followers out of nowhere has made me less obsessed with Twitter. And so, that's good. Like, I feel like the more—
Sana: I echo that completely. I used to be very, very—and I still am quite personal on my Instagram. But, especially deep, deep stories about my family, my life, Instagram used to be my place to share that. And I've really been catching myself over the past few months being like, ‘Maybe you don't have to share that. Why does this platform or audience need that? It's okay to keep that for yourself.’ More recently, I've been like, ‘Keep that for the book. Keep that for the book, like 20 years from now. It doesn't have to be on Instagram right now.’
Alicia: No, it's so real. And I go through this too with the newsletter, which is—it's good actually, because it gives me a space where I'm able to explain myself in depth and way better than I would—
Sana: Right, with context.
And so I'm like, ‘All right, you know what, stick to writing with context. Do not just throw all this shit at the wall all the time. Because all it does is bite you in the ass.’ [Laughs.]
You do so many collaborations with your spices, usually with other BIPOC-owned food companies. Why is that an important part of your business practice, and how do you decide with whom to work?
Sana: Yeah, we're gonna ignore the scandalous part of that question.
Alicia: I wasn’t asking to get into the scandal. [Laughs.]
Sana: [Laughs.] You read it very well, so we're gonna walk right away from that.
For me, I knew that we were going to be sourcing slowly. We started with one spice. Last year, we added on three more. This year, we're adding on three more. It's a slow crawl. We don't have 40 spices all at once. And so I knew that I needed to find interesting and inexpensive ways to have people engaged with these spices and try them that didn't involve buying a whole new spice rack, because I didn't have that available. The way our sourcing works is that it takes time.
So initially, the collaborations were really like, ‘How do I get people to taste turmeric in different ways and not just associated with haldi doodh,’ or a turmeric latte, which personally I can't stand. And the collaborations were a really fun way to do that, where I—my favorite food in this world is masala bhindi, which is basically spiced okra—mixed stir fried, spiced okra. And my friend Kelly of McVicker Pickles was like, ‘Well, why don't we make a masala bhindi pickle?’ And we did. We work out of the same co-working space in San Francisco called The Ruby, which is a women and non-binary focused arts and letters co-working space. And so we did four different versions of the masala bhindi pickle and let Ruby members vote on it. I think that was our first ever collaboration for Diaspora.
But it was so fun. It made me feel in community, to use the word that is in—a hotly contested right now, with other brands that we admire and I enjoy working with. And from there it kind of just spun out, where I realized that Diaspora has built this really strong direct-to-consumer base where we have this newsletter that people follow incredibly. Our newsletter has like a 60% open rate right now, which is wild for a branded newsletter. And so anything we offer, there is a trust built into our customers, which I love. And it became an opportunity to introduce them to other brands and other people doing cool stuff.
Especially our new fall lineup I'm very, very excited about. It includes Sonoko Sakai’s Japanese curry bricks. So, yeah, I think it's been a way to have fun—sourcing and adding on new spices has been tiresome and slow. And this allows us to kind of sprinkle in fun, more easy to eat products, I guess. Also, a lot of folks are scared of, ‘what do I do with the whole jar of turmeric?’ But they can polish off a jar of pickles in a day, or I can at least.
Alicia: [Laughs.] No, absolutely. I mean, yeah, I can polish off a jar of pickles.
It’s been interesting to see, I think, how people's relationships with their spice racks are changing—at least people who are slightly conscious of the fact that we, in the U.S., we definitely grew up with old-ass jars of God knows what. And you just had this idea that like, ‘Uh, it's good forever.’ You don't do anything with it but very specific things. And I think it's been really encouraging and interesting to watch people's minds change around—
Sana: Grow around this? Yeah.
Alicia: Exactly. Yeah, it's been interesting.
So, for you, is cooking a political act?
Sana: I was thinking of that a lot. And I don't think so.
I think for me, cooking has always been a way to express myself personally. And I think cooking provides the opportunity to tell stories around food and give context. I think cooking can introduce people to ideas that they would otherwise be apprehensive about and be close minded about. And I think that that's a cool thing.
The whole thing of food is political and the personal is political. I've been wrestling with it a lot. Because every time I send out one of my reading lists that have very distinctly progressive links and articles, I'll get a few haters being like, ‘Stick to food. What's your problem, lady?’ And I always have to be like, ‘Bye. I can unsubscribe you. It's really fine.’ I think I see it much more as I use food as a—and cooking—as a—tool for storytelling. And some of my favorite people—Stephen Satterfield of Whetstone, Samin [Nosrat]—yeah, a lot of the most wonderful people out there use it similarly, and I think that's what's beautiful about it.
Alicia: Absolutely. So, thank you so much for coming on today.
Sana: Thank you. Yeah, this was great.