The Dyke Kitchen: Diaspora Co. Queers Your Spice Cabinet

The Dyke Kitchen is a bi-weekly series about how queerness, identity, culture and love are expressed through food and cooking.


“How do you use Instagram as a part of your art practice?” one of my friends asked me one morning as I was stirring my pot of oatmeal. I paused to think about what I’m truly on there looking for, how all the images I see and put up create a narrative about the world I tune into.

There are illustrations of hot Asian skater girls with scraped knees smoking cigarettes from @helllllenjjjjjo, an audiogram from my friend’s new podcast episode on power and the body, adrienne marie brown’s selfie face, queer parties, art parties, drag shows, chocolate chip cookies, many shots of pages of books. I do think about my Instagram feed as a form of world-building, even if my own self-projections are pretty basic, and so it was no surprise that it’s how I came across Sana Javeri Kadri and her radical spice company, Diaspora Co., there. It fits perfectly in my world.

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Part of that is because, as Javeri Kadri will tell you, she’s a powerhouse at marketing, and a professional photographer, who, I’ll say, takes gorgeous photos. She started Diaspora Co. in Oakland, CA in 2017 because she saw an opportunity to provide well-sourced turmeric, from small farmers in India to the kinds of people who care about what they eat and where it comes from. I’m from Oakland, I’m half-Indian, I’m queer, I’m into food as politics: I’m one of those people.

I saw a photo of a friend-of-a-friend modeling a Diaspora Co. tote, and got totally reeled in by the ethos of decolonizing the spice trade in India. Javeri Kadri partners with small farmers who would not be able to work with giant spice companies, who sustainably grow things like organic, single-origin, heirloom strains of turmeric, black pepper, chilies, and cardamom. Diaspora buys directly from farmers, which gives them a much higher cut, and means we get the spices at their freshest, with madly potent flavor.

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I wanted to talk to Javeri Kadri because she’s excellent at what Toni Cade Bambara proclaims is the job of the cultural worker: she makes the revolution irresistible. “I wanted my own little esoteric, queer island,” Javeri Kadri says. I wanted to know how she made that island, how her past relationships with food, family, culture, race and her queerness all merged to prepare her for this radical business. We spoke over the phone on what was a cozy evening in LA and a bustling morning for Javeri Kadri in Mumbai. She shared with me some of the personal history that led her to Diaspora Co.


Javeri Kadri grew up in Mumbai, and food played a big role in her life from the start. She tells me about a kindergarten graduation party, where nobody could find her to take a group photo, and it was because she was hidden away, eating all the bowls of popcorn for the celebration afterward. “My dad had to hide whole fishes from me at the table, or else I’d eat it all before he even got it,” she says matter of factly. “My food identity always existed, but I didn’t know that it was possible for my queer identity to exist until later.”

However, when Javeri Kadri looks back, her queer beginnings are easily revealed. “I grew up fairly wealthy, but sometimes the very rich kids, they’d get copies of Teen Vogue and we would go to the paper recycler, and get old copies for ten rupees. I’d then very methodically cut out the Abercrombie & Fitch models and put them up on the wall, and I knew I was enamored of them, this happened for years.”

Javeri Kadri remembers when she was in sixth grade and there was a girl who she knew she wanted to be her best friend. “One day she held my hand after for lunch from the first floor to the third floor to our class. I never thought of it as, ‘we’re going to get married’, I didn’t think of it as romantic love, it was just the feeling that we were going to be best friends for the rest of our lives. So it caused me a lot of turmoil when she held someone else’s hand the next day! I felt so wronged and rejected by so many girls for so long, and of course, now I know why, it’s because I wanted something more than they did.”

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The more I hear, the more I get the sense that Javeri Kadri is someone naturally inclined to want something more, and figure out her own way to do it. Javeri Kadri did eventually discover the possibility of queerness when she went to high school at the prestigious and famously progressive United World College — “I’m the perfect product of my school: crunchy, queer, wacky, believes in world peace” — but she took a while to come out to her parents.

She comes from a tight family unit that she loves, and had internalized messages that being queer was a toxic Western value. “Subconsciously I knew that it would sever me from these families and cultures that I wanted to be a part of.” When she did come out it was when she was 22, and it was for someone she was dating, which she now realizes wasn’t the right way to do it. “White women were like, ‘Just come out!’, but third culture and POC kids, we need help and support. You have to do it on your own terms, and you can stand to the side of it as long as you need, it’s a revolving door.”

“I saw that people like us, the brown people who run kitchens and the food industry, weren’t represented and I didn’t feel comfortable expressing myself in that space. But that’s changed since 2016.”

Though it’s been a source of struggle, Javeri Kadri seems to adeptly navigate the role being an outsider who is inside, and finds power there. Since age16, she’s worked in every aspect of the food industry imaginable — “line cook, waitress, farm agriculture, ice cream delivery truck” — and when she came to the U.S. when she was 18, she says the food industry gave her a crash course in the racial dynamics of America. “I saw that people like us, the brown people who run kitchens and the food industry, weren’t represented and I didn’t feel comfortable expressing myself in that space. But that’s changed since 2016.”

Javeri Kadri was doing marketing for a boutique, high-end grocery store, when she realized that she needed to start her own project. “All the white people at work seemed so comfortable bringing their moms to work, and showing them around because they felt a natural belonging to this high-end food world. My mom is a super accomplished badass architect and I had one of the best educations available in India, and I still felt like we didn’t belong? And I was what, shooting citrus all day? It was clear across the board that I wasn’t feeling comfortable with who I was or where I was.”

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In that way, Diaspora Co. is the place where Javeri Kadri’s truest identities collide. She can support farmers in India and spend more time there, be part of a socially-conscious food movement in the U.S. (she mentions that her Oakland community and her People’s Kitchen Collective family have always believed in Diaspora Co, even when she hasn’t) and give people the tastes of home that grocery stores don’t offer. Javeri Kadri is also open about her queer identity as part of the brand. “It immediately signals your values and ethics, it tells people what you care about. I’ve had older customers be like ‘Why do you have to bring sex into it?’ but other people want products that are relevant to them.” The company has grown massively, by 600 times, in the past two years, so she’s clearly not wrong.

Finally, Javeri Kadri has found Instagram to be an incredibly useful networking tool. She’s met a lot of her food industry contacts and heroes that way. “It’s a great equalizer. I’m competing with intergenerational American wealth and old boy’s clubs that I don’t even know exist because I only moved here 7 years ago. So Instagram is my new girls club,” she says with a laugh.

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It’s also a place where her practice is beautiful, visible, clear. “Something needed to change,” Javeri Kadri said when I first asked about the origins of Diaspora Co., and it’s inspiring to follow her as she makes those changes, with every new farmer, new chili, new snack, new post with her girlfriend, Rosie Russell, new admission of human vulnerability. It’s a practice that livens up my feed, my food, and also brings actual people together — my own sister and my parents now text me to report on the ways they use the Diaspora Co. chilies, turmeric, and pepper I gave them for Christmas. Following Javeri Kadri makes my own esoteric, queer island feel even more viable every time I get a glimpse of hers, and if I can get that on Instagram, I feel like we’re doing something right.

Kamala Puligandla lives in LA and is the writer of various autobiographical fictions. She is the distinguished recipient of her parents' leftovers and hair compliments from strangers on the street. Her first novel is forthcoming from Not A Cult. Find her work at kamalapuligandla.com.

Kamala has written 13 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. Oooh. What an unusually effective newsletter signup pop-up on the Diaspora Co. website: “We write a pretty great newsletter.

    Seasonal reading lists, highly cookable recipes, feelings-filled harvest reports, and lots more.”

    YEP SIGN ME UP

    Thanks for highlighting this!!

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