Oakland’s Diaspora Co. Thinks You Should Put Jaggery in Everything

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Syrupy brown sugarcane juice is scraped with a metal tool as part of the process for making jaggery.
Diaspora Co.'s new "Madhur Jaggery" is produced by the Randive family at their facility in Daund, India. (Courtesy of Diaspora Co.)

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very time Sana Javeri Kadri flies back to California from a visit to her hometown of Mumbai, India, she stuffs her suitcase full of treasure: hefty, golden-brown bricks of the South Asian sweetener known as jaggery. It’s been 10 years since Javeri Kadri, founder of Oakland-based spice company Diaspora Co., first immigrated to the United States. And for 10 years now, she’s been lugging back this precious cargo. 

What Javeri Kadri hadn’t thought to do until very recently, however, is to sell jaggery. This, despite the fact that her entire business is built around sourcing single-origin spices from small farms in India. It was just too troublesome, Javeri Kadri explains — there were too many regulations designed to protect the domestic sugar industry. 

But a recent test batch that Diaspora Co. sold as part of its chai kit was so wildly popular that Javeri Kadri decided to give it a go. In an announcement that thrilled Indian home cooks, Michelin-pedigreed chefs and hardcore chai enthusiasts alike, Diaspora Co. is now selling jaggery online to customers anywhere in the U.S. (and beyond).

Jaggery, at its core, is sugarcane juice that’s boiled down and caramelized until it’s one step away from becoming sugar, Javeri Kadri explains. “It’s like sugar’s unrefined, much more nutritionally dense cousin,” she says. “I’ve been referring to it jokingly as the ‘OG, pre-colonial sweetener.’” 

Blocks of jaggery stacked on the ground, draped with colorful cloth.
Blocks of jaggery in its finished form at the Randive family's facility in the Daund region of India. (Courtesy of Diaspora Co.)

Up until this point, jaggery has received little mainstream attention in the U.S. But on the Indian subcontinent (and throughout much of Southeast Asia), many people use jaggery as their default sweetener, shaving chunks of it into a coarse powder. And in recent years, Javeri Kadri explains, the product has enjoyed a resurgence in India as health-conscious middle- and upperclass elites have started to use it more frequently as an “old-school ingredient” in place of refined white sugar. (Many Latin American food cultures use a similar unrefined sweetener known as panela.)

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The important thing, Javeri Kadri notes, is that jaggery also tastes better than white sugar — or, perhaps more to the point, it actually has a taste beyond just sweetness. As Javeri Kadri puts it, “Jaggery is not just lending sweetness, but it’s also lending a depth of flavor.” 

“You can pick up hints of saltiness and earthiness,” says Nik Sharma, a Los Angeles-based cookbook author and former San Francisco Chronicle food columnist. “It also has a unique, molasses-like caramel aroma to it.”

Sharma doesn’t limit his use of jaggery to its traditional Indian applications as the sweetener for masala chai and any number of curry recipes. His cookbook, Season, includes a recipe for jaggery ice cream spiced with saffron and cardamom. And jaggery’s earthy, caramelly qualities also make it perfect for Western-style fall baking. Sharma uses it in place of brown sugar when baking chocolate chip cookies, snickerdoodles and ginger snaps. Javeri Kadri, for her part, uses it to sweeten her morning coffee.

Here in the U.S., however, jaggery is mostly only available in communities that have access to a South Asian grocery store, which likely gets the sweetener from a distributor “who bought it from a trader who bought it from another trader who bought it from another trader,” Javeri Kadri says. “It’s just as convoluted a supply chain as other spices.” 

For that reason, she says, much of the jaggery she has purchased from Indian markets in the Bay Area hasn’t been very good, often tending toward dry and somewhat stale — hence the trips to bring it back from the source in India.

A smiling woman in a checkered pink and yellow apron shows off a box of jarred spices in a matching pink and yellow box.
Diaspora Co founder Sana Javeri Kadri shows off a box of her company's spices, including its new "Madhur Jaggery." (Courtesy of Diaspora Co.)

When Diaspora Co. launched five years ago, the company’s explicit mission was to “decolonize” turmeric and the broader spice trade. You may recall 2016 as the year of the turmeric latte — or at least the year that Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow and the broader wellness industry turned the centuries-old Indian home remedy known as haldi doodh into a hip menu addition at American coffee shops. The wellness crowd’s subsequent obsession with turmeric itself usually stripped the spice from its specific Indian context

At the time, Javeri Kadri told San Francisco Magazine that if turmeric was going to become this buzzy ingredient in the West, she at least wanted “brown farmers to make as much money off of it as possible” — especially in light of the many centuries of history in which the space trade itself was a prominent driver of colonialism. So Javeri Kadri launched Diaspora Co. in 2017 as a direct-trade spice company that started out selling just one spice — pragati turmeric, a very potent, marigold-orange varietal that she sourced from a single farmer in India, paying roughly four times the commodity rate.

Today, Diaspora Co. sells a full roster of 30 single-origin spices that it sources from 150 different farms spread across India and Sri Lanka. Its new “Madhur Jaggery” (“madhur,” a common Hindi name for a woman, means “sweet” or "gentle") follows the same basic model. After tasting 12 jaggeries sourced from different farms in India, the company decided to buy jaggery from the Randive family, whose product was notable both for its depth of flavor and its regenerative farming methods. The family farm in India’s Daund region has been growing sugarcane organically for the past 14 years, processing it into jaggery mostly by hand. The Randives pulp the sugarcane down together with wild okra — to remove impurities, Javeri Kadri explains — and then boil down the juices and pulp in giant 12-foot vats.

A man stands in a field of sugarcane, the stalks of sugarcane behind him rising above his head.
Farmer Kantilal Randive stands in a field of sugarcane at his organic farm in the Daund region of India. (Courtesy of Diaspora Co.)

For convenience, Diaspora Co. is selling the finished product in powder form rather than the traditional blocks — $8 for a 2.47-ounce jar or $25 for a 500-gram bag.

In the years since Diaspora Co.’s debut, the idea of “decolonizing” all kinds of different industries and products has gone mainstream. Folks have, variously, made it their mission to decolonize chocolate, farmland and museums, to name just a few recent examples. The term has also become a sort of shorthand to indicate that the people behind a particular business venture are non-white — and in that way, Javeri Kadri says, it’s largely lost its meaning.

These days, Javeri Kadri says Diaspora Co. no longer uses the language of decolonization, instead preferring to reserve the term for indigenous activists who are pushing for land rematriation.  “We can use ‘building a better spice trade’ or ‘giving power back to farmers,’” she says. “We don’t need that word.” 

One difficult thing about trying to change the spice industry is that the food media tends to be more interested in identity politics than in the ethics of sourcing within a colonized industry such as the spice trade. And there’s no question: The rise of a company like Diaspora Co., with a queer immigrant woman like Javeri Kadri as its CEO, does represent an important shift in power. But what’s even more important, Javeri Kadri says, is for Diaspora Co. to make the best choices that it can make within the framework of capitalism—choices that benefit, rather than exploit, the farmers that they work with in India.

“Representation matters,” Javeri Kadri says. “But in order to change a system, you have to go deeper than that.” 

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Diaspora Co.’s jaggery is available for purchase online. It ships throughout the U.S., as well as to Canada, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, the EU and the UK.