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Interview

Sana Javeri Kadri on Building a Pantry You Love

We sat down with Sana to learn more about building a pantry with your budget, values, and traditions in mind.

In this week's Girls' Night In newsletter, we're taking stock of the kitchens around us in an effort to create a space that can provide some real comfort through everything going on in the world right now. To get to the root of the many questions we had about pantries, ingredients, and building such a personal space, we turned to Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of Diaspora Co. and a champion for farmers, food systems, and BIPOC- and queer-owned small businesses like her own. Diaspora Co. is working directly with farmers to build a more direct, delicious, and equitable spice trade (just look at these spices!) — a mission that challenges each of us to take a look at our own food values to determine where we can make room for some good. It's no surprise that Sana had plenty of answers when we came knocking to ask for her advice on building a pantry that's deeply intertwined with our lifestyles, needs, finances, values, cultures, comforts, and beyond.

Do you have any personal pantry-building tips that can get us away from the prescriptive “here’s a checklist of everything you should have in your pantry” way of thinking? I find that that approach can take individuality, traditions, and peoples’ whole food stories out of the equation.

To make space and budget for the foods I want, I buy most things wholesale, directly from the vendor. If you were to buy the one-pound bag of Koda Farms rice at the grocery store, it would be like $4, but I buy the 25-pound bag. It's one-fourth of the price. Until recently, it was living under my bed, and that's okay... I’ve learned that on most food brands’ websites there’s a wholesale section and if you can prove you’re buying it for you and maybe some neighbors, they will allow you to buy it wholesale. I do the same with olive oil. I’d rather store my olive oil in my closet and pay less, but, it’s a reflection of outlining your priorities when it comes to food.

Right now, I’ve built my pantry around three cuisines: Korean, Japanese, and Indian. I think establishing what your favorite cuisines are from the start is important. Then you can prioritize and make sure you have a nice kombu or gochujang instead of like good lavender or thyme or oregano.

How does someone who is building out their pantry and their kitchen balance equitable and affordable foods in that pursuit? 

Something I strongly believe is that if you can’t afford something, you shouldn’t buy it. I don’t think we should ever go into debt for olive oil or spices.

My perspective as somebody who until recently made very little money is to prioritize. Personally, I don’t always buy organic, for instance. I usually cannot afford free-range meat. It’s expensive so either we don’t eat it or we eat it only sometimes. In the past, I'd buy nice things that were pantry-uplifters. My splurges were slightly better rice, olive oil, or nice chocolate. But things like broccoli or butter, I didn’t care as much about. It’s very personal — and it’s an exercise in finding what items are worth the money for you.

My rationale, and this is an example of my politics personally, was always: If I can support a BIPOC community by buying this directly, I’ll pay more money for it. But I really encourage people to develop nuanced, researched, and yet personal practices around how you source your food.

What does your list of favorite pantry items look like? 

1. The Diaspora Co. Essential Trio
2. Tiipoi's Longpi Karipot
3. Brooklyn Delhi Garlic Achaar
4. Shaquanda Will Feed You Hot Sauce
5. One Stripe Chai Co. Unsweetened Concentrate
6. Sonoko Sakai's Curry Bricks
7. Miss Good Herbs Smoked Chilli Flakes and Fennel
8. Seka Hills Olive Oil
9. Koda Farms Kokuho Rose Rice

How do you use food as a source of care right now? 

Food for me has always been a source of nourishment. I started to cook because I left home when I was 16 not knowing how to cook and being away from home for years at a time. Initially I learned how to cook just with the memory of what home used to taste like. Now, I can have a day where I’ve worked 24 hours but at 7pm, my brother, my partner, and I all go to the kitchen; and it’s the one grounding thing that I have in my day. It’s also the thing I look forward to — my brother and I are known to plan our dinner for the next day the day before.

In the same vein, how do you see food as a source of change? 

Food allows you to have conversations around it — especially when you begin to talk about origins. I’ve found that what I’ve consumed has connected me to so many systems bigger than myself — like the bean-to-bar-chocolate movement, which introduced me not just to really delicious chocolate but to an understanding of the history of cacao and the cacao supply chain. What I love most about food as an agent of change is you can learn global, geopolitical histories through something that you eat. With spices, it unlocks a whole new flavor but also a whole new level of connection. People often tell us that Diaspora is a global brand but feels like a local brand. You know the farmer, you know when he grew it, what he grew it with, and so on. I love this idea that food allows you to bring the world closer together in an intimate and honest way instead of in an icky globalized way.

What do you personally do when you’re in need of a reset?

I organize intensely. Like this weekend, I was supposed to take time off but instead I completely deep-cleaned and reorganized my office and it made Tuesday morning so wonderful. I’m trying to figure out now, six months in, with not much changing, how should I work? What should a day look like for me?

It’s like, for you, organizing is less of an act of productivity and more of a gift to yourself.

Exactly. I’m looking around and thinking about my needs. I recently realized I needed more pantry space so the corridor outside my office became an extension of my pantry.

Do you have any recipes from the Diaspora site that you find yourself recommending time and time again?

The turmeric poached eggs, the turmeric popcorn, and then my masala chai. I’m lactose intolerant and sensitive to caffeine so recreating that spicy chai flavor with my dietary restrictions was my pride and joy.

What tips might you have for somebody who’s trying to look a little deeper for recipes online that are beyond the first page of Google search results? How can someone do the work, especially in these slower winter months, to find original sources and honor those?

I personally use cookbooks for this exact reason. There’s an app I found called Eat Your Books, which is a digital archive of your very own cookbooks; so I don’t even search Google anymore. I search Eat Your Books. I have a code that people can use for a free month — it’s SJK2020. (Disclaimer: I don’t get anything out of this but it WILL help you search your cookbooks more easily.) I’m obsessed with it because it allows you to use your cookbooks so much more easily. You can just search one ingredient and get all the recipes from your collection that include it, and I love that.

What have you learned about food in 2020?

I don't think I completely realized just how volatile our food system was. Earlier this year, our farm partner got Coronavirus. I had it earlier in March. We’ve all gone through the wringer. He was so sick and he lost half of his crops for next year. The crops that were supposed to get to us in March are finally just now arriving in September. This really made me realize we need to work very hard to secure some of these food systems and support them from very young stages. Same goes with good coffee, chocolate, and more — all farms need our support more than ever before. Anything that was already unstable became more unstable in the pandemic.

Maintaining volatile supply chains and an ethical food system has been a big learning. For me, that meant rerouting my paycheck to support farms and the food system. That’s where I want my money to go because I want to see them exist next year. If we don’t give them our monetary support, they’re not going to exist. We wouldn’t have existed if our readers didn’t support us this spring.

Credit: Gentl and Hyers

How can GNI readers or someone reading this, then, turn around and play their part in supporting these systems?

Number one: Pre-order spices. And we need to learn to manage our expectations to not expect Amazon-like service and speed when we do. Having empathy and being willing to — if you can — do some work to support these systems is a big part of it. An example of that could be picking up fish from the docks if you have access to them. It’s work on our part but it means the fisherman is selling direct to us. Now is also a really good time to sign up for a CSA. So many farms are hurting without restaurants buying from them anymore. Those are the easiest ways: find ways to go direct to the source. Seek out your faves and support them hardcore.

Lede Image by Aubrie Pick.