How Kula Nursery and Diaspora Co. bring heritage ingredients to diaspora communities and beyond
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler
On a rainy day in March, faint afternoon light filters into Zee Husain’s greenhouse on the southwest corner of the O2 Artisans Aggregate compound in West Oakland. It glints off a disco ball and gives a welcome summery glow to the orange paper flower garlands draping the interior. “I want this to be a place for community,” the grower says to explain the party décor.
The community gathered at Kula Nursery today is simultaneously large and small: Thousands of seedlings in small pots line the greenhouse tables, and a couple dozen saplings—mostly Pakistan mulberry trees—huddle against the wall outside. Tulsi basil, lemongrass, Indian okra, and tamarind nestle up against 1,500 tiny kadipatta (curry leaf) trees and various mints from faraway places. Several sweet potatoes rest gently in earthen beds like babies in a preemie ward. Flats filled with spindly amaranth seedlings give just a hint of the brilliant magenta inflorescence that will unfurl before these plants go to seeds in late summer. Cooks around the globe—from Peru to Pakistan—pop amaranth seeds like popcorn and use the tiny puffs in various traditional dishes, some holding deep ceremonial significance.
Husain points to a collection of hairy brown roots suspended over cups of water on toothpicks. They turn out to be taro roots. “My favorite plant to grow,” she says, and indeed, a large glossy taro leaf appears on the Kula Nursery logo. “We cook the root in a variety of ways, but the leaves are a delicacy in the Gujarat region of India.” Patra, she adds, is the name of the dish.
Taro is a colocasia/alocasia, which puts it in the same genera as a range of popular indoor/outdoor houseplants popularly known as elephant ear. But taro, Husain adds, is the only alocasia that’s edible. “The leaves are difficult to find fresh in the [United States], so growing it has finally given us access to preparing that dish.”
From SoCal to Sacramento Via Patagonia
Zee’s path is one that many can relate to. A civil engineering major at UC Irvine and a first job as a hydrologist did not instill passion. “I knew it was not going to be a forever career,” she says.
Doing what many secretly long to do, she quit and lit out on a backpacking expedition in Patagonia, then wound up working on a permaculture farm. “It felt so special to be growing food and working at a place that was self-sustaining,” she says.
By March 2020, Husain had a master’s degree in international agricultural development from UC Davis and was researching water quality issues among disadvantaged community members in the Central Valley when the pandemic shut everything down. She started growing starts for popular vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce, squash, and kale in a West Sacramento greenhouse and also planted seeds for amaranth and Indian okra.
Born in Pakistan, Zee was one year old when she arrived in the United States with her family to join her grandparents in Southern California. Zee recalls that when her mother saw the okra and amaranth in the West Sacramento greenhouse, she said, “I haven’t seen these foods in 30 years,” a sentiment similar to what Zee heard each week while selling plants at the farmers’ market, interacting with a large group of customers from local diaspora communities.
“People drive to the Fremont Farmers’ Market from all over the Bay Area to get South Asian plant starts like Indian eggplant and bitter gourd,” she says. Through conversations with customers, she assembled a list of these missing tastes of home or “culturally significant foods,” as she calls them, that she could grow. Many would require searching for seeds and cuttings (which are difficult to import) and then habituating the plants to Bay Area growing conditions.
“I just recently saw a statistic that 27 percent of our residents are within the AAPI community, but when you go to the grocery store, it doesn’t represent that 27 percent of the population,” she says. “If you go to an Indian store or an Asian grocery, you find spices that have been sitting on the shelves for years or vegetables and herbs imported from another country, and you don’t know what the growing practices are like, what kind of pesticides have been used. There’s this need for fresh spices because those spices go into everything that we cook and then there’s also this need for fresh vegetables and not just any vegetables, but the vegetables that we use for our traditional medicines and for our spiritual practices and for our cultural familial dishes.”
Mom, Grandma, Kristyn Leach, and Samin Nosrat
A person of great significance to Husain’s endeavor has been Kristyn Leach, a South Korean immigrant who came to the United States as an adopted child. Leach became interested in growing Korean heritage foods while tending rows at a farm in Bolinas and in 2015 established Namu Farm at the Sunol AgPark to supply produce to Korean-modern restaurant Namu Gaji in San Francisco. In 2018, she moved her work to Winters, where she’s established a heritage seeds project called Second Generation Seeds that’s attracted a network of growers with interests like Husain’s working up and down the West Coast.
Husain and Leach are among a millennial demographic that embraces its multicultural upbringing and is unafraid to name colonialism for its lingering effects on the world’s food systems. There’s wind in their sails from popular shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Gordon Ramsay’s Uncharted, but Zee describes an episode of Salt Fat Acid Heat as her transformational moment. She was watching with her mom as Chef Samin Nosrat worked with her own mom in the studio kitchen preparing a dish from their Persian tradition.
“We both were just awestruck to see this mother-daughter duo—two brown women—in the kitchen cooking ancestral foods together,” says Husain. And here was this highly skilled chef asking her mom, “Oh, is this how you do it?” the same way Husain questions her own mother. “I know my mom does that with my grandmother, too,” Husain says.
The Kadipatta Collab
Fast forward several years to March 2023. Husain is rushing to fill an order for Diaspora Co., a spice importer based in Oakland. Sana Javeri Kadri, the company’s vibrant and personable 29-year-old founder, describes the start of their collaboration:
“Zee wrote to me years ago asking whether [any of] my farm partners would be open to sharing seeds with her, and it felt like a very exciting prospect. But the more we looked into it, the more it seemed extremely hard to bring seeds over and a very complicated endeavor,” Javeri Kadri says during a recent phone interview from her home in Oakland. Both women tell the same story of how the conversation resumed last summer when Sana showed up at Zee’s farmers’ market stand and the two discussed a particular item both knew to be in demand.
“For South Asians, there’s this feeling that your cooking is not the same without fresh curry leaves, or kadipatta, as I call them,” Javeri Kadri says. “Initially [Zee] said, ‘It’s going to take me nine months [to grow them],’ and I wasn’t really sure if much would come of it. But I said, ‘If you grew about 500, I think I could probably sell them.’ We didn’t really talk, and then about six months later she’s like, ‘Well, I grew them, and they’re here.’ We had to figure out then how we were going to sell them and sure enough, over the course of two days, we sold out of the 350 that passed our quality check.” Left with a long waiting list for the plants, Javeri Kadri placed a second order for 1,500 plants.
The Diaspora Co. team expected that most of those buying the plants would be South Asian, but it turned out to be people from every background who like cooking dishes from a wide range of cultures. The plants were marketed primarily as a special item for the largely millennial and Gen Z members of Diaspora Co.’s Club Masala, who assemble online and on the Discord app to share their excitement about cooking with the company’s spices, no doubt wandering off into broader interests in dining and travel. It’s turned out that quite a few also like growing herbs and spices at home, which another Diaspora Co. collaboration is currently proving:
“We bought about 300 seed packets of Kristyn’s Gyopo Gochu chiles, a variety that she’s been breeding for a very long time,” says Sana, who like Zee, describes Kristyn Leach of Second Generation Seeds as a mentor and beloved friend.
Customers purchasing a Diaspora Co. chile spice four-pack of varieties from across South Asia received a packet of Leach’s Korean Gyopo Gochu seeds to plant this spring. “Kristyn included a little booklet to teach folks how to grow them, and our Discord has been super active with people really excited about their chile harvest coming in,” Javeri Kadri says.
Diaspora Co. sources most of its 30 single-origin spices from 150 farms across India and Sri Lanka, all direct relationships developed since 2016 when Javeri Kadri self-funded seven months of on-the-ground research across South Asia. It largely proved her understanding that the world spice industry, a commodity-based system, was stuck in a model of the colonial past that continues to exploit farmers and farm workers while leaving consumers with a tired set of options and spices that can take years to reach store shelves.
“We’re paying our farmers four times the commodity price on average,” Javeri Kadri says. “Sometimes it can be 10 times; sometimes it can be two times. It’s so they are making enough [for] a sustainable living, but I think we’re combating hundreds of years of injustice. The place that we found that there still was an inequity in our supply chain was with farm workers, more often migrants and tribal communities and just the most at-risk community within our supply chain. Last year we raised $22,000 for our farm worker fund, and this year that’s going primarily towards building women’s toilets on each farm specifically for the farm workers. It felt like a really easy solution to make them feel more comfortable.”
Fair Trade initiatives, which began way back in the 1970s and ‘80s, transformed consumer interest in place-specific flavor profiles for coffee and chocolate and alerted consumers to colonial-era practices disrespectful of producers and workers, but the spice trade is only beginning to catch up with a similar transformation. With its media buzz and rapid growth, Diaspora Co. appears to be on a leading edge of that effort, and they are able to do so with vivid storytelling about their individual producers and the teams of people who grow those spices, revealing the cultural richness infused with those flavors.
Javeri Kadri asks, “How do we tell all the regional nuanced stories rather than the dominant narrative? It’s really important for us to say we’re a South Asian spice company and we’re working with a Pakistani immigrant grower . . . or getting recipes from a Sri Lankan [chef. We’re] getting specific about where these [spices and] recipes come from, because you don’t need to simplify it.”
The chef referenced is Sri Lankan Karan Gokani, co-founder and creative director at London’s popular Hoppers restaurant, whom Javeri Kadri counts among her friends and community at Diaspora Co. She says his Mussel Hodi recipe is a perfect way to enjoy your Kula Nursery curry leaves, should you manage to get on the kadipatta plant waiting list. ♦