Undoing hundreds of years of exploitation starts with your spice cabinet

Sana Javeri Kadri
Originally Published: 

Chances are, you’ve been cooking way more since the pandemic started. As your confidence in the kitchen has grown, maybe you’ve begun experimenting with different flavors, which means you’ve probably expanded your collection of spices — but have you considered the journey they took to reach your kitchen cabinet?

While many of us more social justice- and sustainability-minded millennials and Gen Z-ers care deeply about who farmed the coffee in our latte, or whether the greens in our salad were grown organically, few of us can describe our spices with the same specificity. That’s largely because, for the most part, the spice trade is as convoluted as it was when it began thousands of years ago. “The structures that exist today are really very similar to those historic structures,” explains Ethan Frisch, cofounder of New York City-based origin spice company Burlap & Barrel. They involve a dense tangle of farmers, brokers, exporters, and many, many others, resulting in exploitation, a lack of transparency, and a worse product for consumers.

Burlap & Barrel, along with Diaspora Co., Rumi Spice, and a handful of other small, direct-trade spice companies want to change that. They imagine a spice trade that cuts out middlemen, empowers farmers, and yields more flavorful, higher-quality products. By decentralizing power in this way, they could repair the harms of colonialism, perhaps the most notorious legacy of the spice trade — indeed, European nations’ desire to dominate the source of spices in Asia and northeast Africa is often what motivated them to conquer these regions.

A typical supply chain in the spice industry starts with farmers who grow a fairly small quantity of spice that they then sell to a buyer, who often purchases spices from other farmers and stores them in a warehouse, Frisch, 34, tells Mic. That buyer might then sell all those spices to someone with a bigger warehouse, and so on. “So essentially you have a funnel effect,” sometimes with hundreds of thousands of farmers at the top of the funnel, and far fewer exporters at the bottom. Middlemen pocket much of the profits — and farmers very little.

“At every point in that chain, spices are being mixed together and stored, sometimes for years,” Frisch says. Because farmers’ spices end up simply being mixed with those of many other farmers, they don’t really have an incentive to distinguish their product through initiatives like organic farming, and if they do, they aren’t financially rewarded. The spice industry also follows a commodity model, which “endlessly pushes prices down and down and down.” It also emphasizes quantity over quality, as reflected in the spice grading system, based on characteristics like color and size — which have little bearing on flavor.

All of this is why Burlap & Barrel and similar companies want to shorten the supply chain. Burlap & Barrel’s journey begins in Afghanistan, where Frisch, who has a restaurant background, worked at an NGO. He’d bring duffel bags filled with cumin and other dried goods to his chef friends back home. Realizing that the farmers who grew them didn’t have access to global markets that reflected their value, he founded Burlap & Barrel with entrepreneur and friend Ori Zohar, 35, in 2016.

Aubrie Pick

Sana Javeri Kadri, 27, founded Diaspora Co. around the same time. While working at a specialty grocery store in San Francisco, she found that farm-to-table sourcing had a major impact on local food supply chains — “but I kept noticing that when it came to global food supply chains, there was a complete lack of care,” she tells Mic. Meanwhile, turmeric lattes were exploding in popularity. She wanted to see not only turmeric, but other goods that came from her native India, sourced more thoughtfully.

“That’s really a vestige of colonialism,” she says, the idea that “the British set up a system, and it still works, so why change it?” She learned more about how traders profited the most from this system — while farmers made little, customers got stale, old product, and the fertilizers and pesticides used to maximize output ravaged the earth. “It really felt like there was a case to be made for, how do we design a system that’s better for the Earth, that’s actually tasty and delicious for the customer, and where the farmer makes money?”

To shorten the supply chain, Javeri Kadri, as well as Frisch and Zohar, build strong personal relationships with farmers, often finding them through WhatsApp and Facebook groups. Burlap & Barrel looks for farmers who grow their spices sustainably and in other ways the commodity model doesn’t appreciate, Zohar says. They spend time with them on their farms to ensure a good fit. (Burlap & Barrel currently imports spices from 16 countries, Frisch tells Mic.)

Similarly, the Indian Institute of Spices Research refers farmers who’ve inquired about wanting to grow organically to Javeri Kadri. She’s interested, too, in farmers willing to scale up their production and start milling on their farms, so Diaspora Co. can buy finished product directly from them.

Frisch and Zohar often stay in touch with farmers via WhatsApp, checking in on them about their harvests and families, even sending them photos of New York City. Javeri Kadri spends around four months out of the year with Diaspora Co.’s farm partners, allowing her to build trust with them, as well as note improvements in their farms over time and what still needs improving.

“I think a big reason, despite being a small business, our quality has been so high is that I am on the ground,” she tells Mic over Zoom from her childhood home in Mumbai, where it’s 10:30 at night. She’s headed to a coriander harvest at 5:00 the next morning, and has been to 10 different spice harvests in the past month.

Sana Javeri Kadri

Candid conversations with farmers about pricing are also crucial. For Frisch and Zohar, settling on a price involves walking farmers through Burlap & Barrel’s costs, from shipping the farmers’ spices to the U.S., to the price of the jar, lid, and label in which they’re packaged. Sometimes a small rural farmer will find Burlap & Barrel’s prices — which hover around $10 a jar — too high. “We need to contextualize with them that it’s not that much money,” Frisch says. They also have detailed conversations about the farmers’ costs and offer advances as much as they can.

In some cases, farmers tell Javeri Kadri at the outset that they deserve more than the commodity price because, for instance, they grow sustainably and offer a superior product. “If I believe in the quality of the product, I’m like, ‘Absolutely,’” she says. Others are so used to the commodity price and just ask for, say, 20% more, at which point she draws attention to costs they might not have considered, such as the cost of growing extra crops, like garlic or jaggery, to fertilize the spice crop. This honest back-and-forth then allows farmers to trust Javeri Kadri enough to request an advance so they won’t need to take out high-interest loans, for example.

“It’s been really important to me to establish these very deep relationships so that we can undo some of the harm that’s been done for 150 years to these farmers,” she says. She points to “this very Western assumption that folks that are less well off than us are trying to rip us off.” But since she partners with farmers based on shared values, “there’s no interest in ripping us off because they’re thrilled to finally have a partner that believes in the same things that they do.”

With this personal, reciprocal relationship, farmers, retailers, and customers win. A jar of, say, turmeric sourced the traditional way can include turmeric of different varieties, from different countries, harvested at different times, Javeri Kadri explains. “One of them might be super delicious, but it was mixed with something that was super stale.” In contrast, each type of spice Diaspora Co. sells comes from a single variety, from the same farm or region.

“When you’re mixing from different origins, there’s a complete lack of pride in the final product,” Javeri Kadri says. “In this case, the farmer owns what gets put into that jar… It is on them and their responsibility to make sure that it’s excellent. If it’s excellent, we’re able to give them more money.” Also, this way, traders can’t try to underpay farmers by telling them they had a poor crop this year — which is easier to do when it’s been mixed with other farmers’ crops.

For Javeri Kadri, undoing the harms of colonialism in the spice trade stretches beyond supply chains, to Western perceptions of Indian cuisine. Diaspora Co. could give its spices sexy, gimmicky names, like "Best Chili Ever," but “we find that it’s important that people know what the indigenous name for something is… what people have called this spice for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”

Take Guntur Sannam chillies, often sold to the West as cayenne pepper, when they’re actually a chilli from Andhra Pradesh. The Portuguese introduced them in the 1600s, and they've since become an integral part of the region’s culture. “Indian cuisine is so vast, and so regional, and there’s so many parts to it, and so I think the fact that we’re able to use our spices to then spotlight each of those regional cuisines is really exciting,” Javeri Kadri says. Although some might dismiss the spices as “all from India,” India is huge, with many regions and climates.

Javeri Kadri also believes explicitly identifying Diaspora Co. as queer woman of color-owned is important, especially in an industry that’s long been led by white men. “Making it clear who I am and what I am, taking up space, is important.” And it signals to her community that Diaspora Co. welcomes everyone, including them, with all their messy identities, and that it’s a business different from what’s come before.

If you have the luxury to invest in ethically-sourced spices, Javeri Kadri recommends looking into learning why they need to be more expensive, and asking companies for harvest and mill dates (which Diaspora Co. includes on its labels), which should be no more than two years ago. Ask about the origin of the spice, Frisch adds, and who farmed it. Also, trust your nose to detect quality — literally, open the jar and take a whiff, if you can.

Ideally, we’d would shop for our spices the way we now often shop for our coffee, chocolate, produce, and so many other food products. Undoing the harm of colonialism continues this trajectory of redistributing power and imagining a system that benefits all of us. We can all eat.