NEW THIS MONTH
I started following Sana Javeri Kadri on instagram about a year ago. I was mesmerized by the colorful photos of food, travel, and beautiful people. And the captions that accompanied these stunning photos were so on point. Sana's instagram quickly shot to the top of my favorite IG's to follow. Realizing we lived in the same city, I reached out to Sana to connect IRL and see if she'd be interested in collaborating with AFO. We met at Navi Kitchen (an incredible restaurant owned & operated by Chef Preeti Mistry, the brilliant, creative mind behind Juhu Beach Club, and one of Sana's mentors). We enjoyed incredible food while discussing projects and dreams for the future. I was and am still so inspired by the work Sana is doing. And recently, she started her own business, Diaspora Co., which you can read about below. Enjoy!
Aiano Nakagawa: Ala Heben & Tracy from Another Round - What do you do, and why?
Sana Javeri Kadri: These days I breathe, eat, dream and hustle all things food- justice, access, culture, politics, wellness, agriculture – all the damn time. Somehow, every aspect of my life has coalesced to focus on understanding food systems and navigating my roles within them. I’m a photographer, a writer, a feverish cook, and most recently – the chief feelings officer running Diaspora Co. – a direct trade spice company working with Indian farmers to cooperatively and creatively radically change what the spice trade looks like. More on that later!
Aiano Nakagawa: Can you talk a bit about “food justice” and what that means?
Sana Javeri Kadri: To me, it’s about equity. We eat food several times a day, every day. If that food isn’t coming from a just system (lol, it’s not) – from the ownership of the seed, to the farmer’s access to water, to earning a living wage anywhere along that broken supply chain, to land stewardship, to the use of harmful fertilizers and pesticides, to a short sighted industrial model of agriculture, to the inflation of prices by middle men, to the crazy amount of food miles involved in urban grocery, to obesity and malnutrition disproportionately affecting communities of color, to the unbelievable amount of additives that the corporate food lobby is allowed to feed us.
The food system is broken, acknowledging that is the first step. Actively working to change that is food justice. Shopping at whole foods is not food justice, that’s elitist conspicuous consumption. Personal purchasing isn’t food justice. If it isn’t affordable, it isn’t radical.
I struggle with the affordable part especially. Systemic change, organized communal change is radical. The farm to table movement created an exemplary, transparent supply chain for agriculture that far exceeded its predecessor. But it places itself far out of the reach of the ordinary consumer - it’s a great beginning, but VERY far from an ending. Do I know what that ending looks like? Not entirely. I take hope in organizations like the People’s Kitchen Collective (who I am lucky enough to be the photographer for), or in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or in the amazing Los Angeles Food Policy Council, or Conflict Kitchen- there are so many different communities doing “the work” in a huge spectrum of interesting, meaningful ways.
AN: How did you get involved with food, photography, and decolonization?
SJK: I grew up reading so many Enid Blyton British children’s books. With such little access to Indian literature that embodied my own lived experience, until I was about 18, I felt like I was only allowed to write about British things. About vague, placeless, easily sunburnt characters that echoed what I felt, but had to mask their cultural context with scones and treacle pudding.
I remember writing a very sad, angsty story about a girl who was so full of rage and disappointment with the world - that little girl was me. I felt forced to cloak that story in poetic flowery language and a Victorian England landscape, just like my English Lit Wordsworth Poetry workbook had taught me. Talking about the fact that she lived in the mucky cusp of Indian urban development, or that her class privilege overwhelmed her ability to navigate the world without unproductive guilt, or how she longed to be white because she’d never seen her skin be called beautiful - those were issues I’d never experienced in literature. I’d largely experience the words of pale, dead, white men, who’s fascinations for daffodils and haystacks were lost on me.
I’d been raised on western culture, western media, and western ideas - and it severely impaired my ability to exist freely and honestly in the world, as well as to feel validated. What, as a young girl, felt like just a whole lot of angst, as a young adult, felt like 200 years of colonization raising a generation of postcolonial, culturally adrift young capitalists. In fully grasping and digesting the term decolonization, I feel like I’m gaining an ability to take up space in the world. To see systems of oppression and domination from a lens of rebuilding and creating whatever we feel is lacking. There is so much happening in the space of decolonization right now too. From the seminal cookbook Decolonize Your Diet, to a whole generation of brown millennials taking to the internet to create their own culture - it feels like a pretty relevant time to be thinking about these things.
AN: For readers who might not know, can you talk a bit more about colonization/decolonizing specifically within the context of food?
SJK: The easy example is always chai. When I first moved away from India, everyone I encountered expected a fluent chai-literacy and authenticity of chai-making from me. I grew up hating chai and certainly had no idea how to make it. It was hot and sweet and milky and I much preferred kool-aid from the imported foods store down the street from my house.
1) Why do I have to love chai in order to be authentically Indian? (PLZ WATCH Chimamanda’s Danger of a Single Story!). 2) You’re American, if you don’t adore tater tots, guess what?! You’re a terrible citizen of these United States! Yeah, that’s what I thought. SO ANYWAY - Chai was not my nostalgic taste of home, but it still made me grumpy to see “Dirty Chais” in coffee shops and “chai tea lattes” popping up everywhere. So I dug deeper, and turned my entire undergraduate thesis into a Post-Colonial Tea Party investigating the history of tea and its consumption.
With the perennial favorite, English Breakfast Tea (EBT), it's the politics of naming at work. English Breakfast Tea is a blend of tea from India, Sri Lanka and Kenya - the empire’s best tea growing regions. And so, EBT offered a taste of the "exotic" faraway East, reeking of its Orientalist gaze, to a pale, wealthy Western consumer in convenient teabag form.
In fact, tea was brought to India from China by the British, and in a desperate attempt to create a market for tea drinkers in India, rather than just growing it for British consumers, the East India Company introduced mandatory tea breaks to factories across India, ensuring that factory labor became tea’s captive audience. Adding milk, sugar and spices to tea was actually an act of defiance in a way. Tea vendors took this alien beverage and bastardized it to make it appeal to the Indian palette.
For me, decolonizing chai was really understanding the history and origins of the drink, and recognizing that there is so much power in reclamation. Sita Bhaumik, an incredible artist and educator does a Chai, Decolonized! Workshop where she walks folks through chai’s history, and ensures that folks understand the depth of the drink, before they feel able to attach their own assumptions onto it. The term Dirty Chai (chai with a shot of espresso in it) connotes that the coffee is making the chai, dirty in a risqué sort of way. This is hilarious, because masala chai, cut with spices, sugar and milk, is already the risqué, dirty if you will version of the English Breakfast Tea that the Brits hoped to make our national drink.
So much of the Indian identity is tied up in colonialism. Understand that in still using colonial names: Saigon Cinnamon, Allepey Turmeric, Ceylon Tea, we are ascribing a brand value to colonialism. I wrote an entire article about the postcolonial mango, which you can read here.
AN: How has your relationship with food evolved throughout your life?
SJK: My family is super mixed up from every different part of India. Between us, we cover Pakistani Punjabi Hindu, Gujarati Muslim, Gujarati Jain, Mangalorean, Delhi kids and now, a pretty serious California contingent. We’re a diverse, kooky bunch.
I grew up navigating the world through food. With two grandmas from two different parts of India, living less than a mile away from each other in Mumbai, their kitchens could not have been more different. My paternal grandmother was who I turned to for buttery, oily North Indian food – sweet rotis dripping with ghee, everything in cream, fried okra, all that goodness. My maternal grandma was Gujarati home food at its simplest – ice cold buttermilk poured over hot, mushy rice, steamed okra, lentil dumplings. Understanding their completely opposite worlds was easier done over lunch, and through the kitchen. Sometimes class, state and cultural differences aren't explained to children, and i think teaching myself to understand those worlds, and how their realities, cultures and contexts were different was easiest over steaming plates of lunch, and the sights, smells and tastes of their kitchens.
On a different note - I also grew up with a tremendous pressure to be thin - to be a lanky, skinny feminine Sana. Let’s just say that I failed at that heroically and much of the anxiety and angst I’ve struggled with over the years has stemmed from that image of a person I was never cut out to be. Here I am, short, wobbly in the middle, queer and not particularly keen on performing femininity. Like my body image and identity journey, food was a damn struggle. I went through just about every dramatic phase – starve yourself diet, binge eat diet, self-righteous vegan diet, obnoxious paleo diet, surprisingly long lived gluten free diet, and then the eat whatever the fuck you want and embrace your thighs diet. Food may be my passion, my lens to the world and my site of research, but as is often the case, it's also often been my site of struggle, which is probably why I'm so deeply invested in it.
AN: What are some projects you’re currently working on? *hint hint* What’s your experience of being a millennial, queer, brown bizz lady?
SJK: As I mentioned earlier, I’m currently the Chief Feelings Officer of Diaspora Co., a single origin, direct trade spice company between India and California. I moved back to Mumbai earlier this year on a dramatic, quarter life crisis sort of one-way ticket (I wrote about that here). I had just finished a stint working on the Marketing team of the Bi-Rite Family of Businesses, which if you’re not SF-food-world-fluent, is sort of the grocery store pinnacle of the good food movement, and probably has the best produce in the world. I’ve never lusted after a peach or a satsuma quite like I have in the aisles of Bi-Rite. My biggest takeaway from my time there, beyond a disturbing amount of citrus trivia, was understanding how supply chains play such a huge role in the equity and end result of a food system (Raj Patel elaborated on this idea in his book Stuffed & Starved, which is an absolute must-read).
Basically, ten years ago, coffee and cacao were also colonial commodity crops, grown in the Global South for very little profit, and literally zero traceability from farm to cup. The farmer earned nothing, and the consumer knew nothing. Third wave coffee made direct trade trendy, and in doing so, has changed the face of coffee farming. Thanks to bean to bar chocolate, cacao is going through a similar renaissance. 2016 was the year of turmeric. Suddenly everyone was buzzing about it, but nobody was tracing it far enough, especially not Goop. The exotic signifier of “Made in India” seemed to be enough of a marker of legitimacy. I’d been struggling to find my place in the food world - I felt too brown and too political and my inability to rock a beard and distressed demin made me feel even more out of place.
I’m still probably too brown, too queer and too political, but fuck it. When Trump got elected, I suddenly felt like it was time (so too did Ruby Tandoh, Mayukh Sen, Esteban Castillo and so many other POC) to claim my space. I started with a single line: if white women are going to drink turmeric lattes, I’d like to make sure that as many brown farmers as possible make money off of it.
The company has grown so much in our mission, values, hopes and dreams since then, but the essence remains the same: put power in the hands of Indian farmers, import the highest quality spices, and share delicious food. All the while decolonizing the terms, ideas, and narratives around turmeric and Indian origin food + produce.
My farmers don’t fully understand that there’s a market out there for the highest quality product they can produce, and it’s been a hilarious stream of Whatsapp messages and phone calls over the past six months, to fully convey to them the business we’re collectively dreaming up. It makes me excited to wake up in the morning. My place in the food world is right in this bright yellow, queer, brown, radically transparent, sustainable and delicious spot I’ve found myself in, and I can’t wait to watch it grow.