At the beginning of September, Bay Area foodie Rushi Sanathra launched a subscription spice box, with a bit of a twist. Each box comes with a spice, a few recipes from him and his mom—often with a hand-written personalized note.
The twist is not the mix of traditional Indian recipes and sustainable packaging, but the focus on the broader ecosystem. Zameen (meaning earth in Hindi) aims to expose the world to spices grown and harvested by small farmers. Zameen's twist includes a focus on the farmer, the environment and social justice.
While the idea came to fruition this month, the seed was planted over 10 years ago when Sanathra worked in a rural village in the state of Gujarat. Sanathra describes his initial foray into cooking as "Top Chef meets Survivor." In 2009, he swapped his corporate job to volunteer in rural India. "The village, Dhedhuki, in the state of Gujarat, had few amenities. No public transit or grocery stores," Sanathra wrote in a recent social media post.
"I've lived with farmers," he said, but even ten years later the farmers he's in touch with said they wanted to do organic farming. "But we're still looking for a market." (full disclosure: Sanathra and I first met in India around this time.)
Rushi Sanathra creator of Zameen in Dhedhuki, in Gujarat, India.
Sanathra, also known as Mr. Thaliwallah on Instagram—loosely translated to Mr. plate-guy, said his initial desire to start Zameen came from two main reasons: to bring traditional Indian recipes to a U.S. audience and supporting organic farmers in India. The concept to share spices has been roughly two years in the making. "Indian food traditions are being lost," he said. Sending spices along with recipes is one way to revive those lost traditions.
He was working for Little Passports for the past few years, until he lost his job in January. Then, when the pandemic hit, he said he had no reason not to at least try. "In any other time, I would not have done this," he said. While he has struggled with wanting everything to be perfect, he is adjusting to the idea that his vision won't be perfect just yet, and he's continually working to improve all aspects of the company.
He's also using his platform on social media to encourage people to talk about their own food stories and think through food and waste by hosting Instagram lives to talk about recipes and topics like kitchen composting.
As a self-described queer Desi, Sanathra talks about tasty food and the importance of supporting regenerative farming with equal enthusasm. He sees his work as an act against colonialism. "Having everything at your fingertips is a very colonial thought-process," Sanathra said, "is there a way to encourage people to purchase locally, support local economies? And also support international regenerative farming?" he asks.
At the moment, he's working with an organization that works with farmers in Southern India on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In addition to the recipes, Sanathra intends on bringing stories of the local farmers as well. The region of southern India he is currently sourcing some of the spices from has been impacted by climate change and sees less rainwater. "Cardamon is intensive on resources — a lot of cardamom farmers are using groundwater," he said as we went on a tangent about water usage, crops, and how some farmers in India are thinking about regenerative farming and integrating crops that grow well with less water.
In terms of cost, Sanathra admits the price could turn some people away, but he said on a broader scale, "It's deciding how we are going to use our money." While some South Asians in the U.S. may devalue their spices, Sanathra said this is a different way of looking at the plight of farmers, and another way of combating climate change. "A lot of my Desi friends want to buy the subscription for the recipe, not because they are helping farmers," but for Sanathra it's about more than just the recipe it's about the food and what a well-meaning business can do.
In an effort to ensure as little waste as possible, Zameen is using glass jars.
So far, his clients have been pleased with the product. "It was cool to try it out and learn how to use a spice differently," said Joylani Shibata, who subscribes to Zameen and tried out the recipes. She knows Sanathra and trusts his taste as well as his judgement."It's nice knowing it will be a good quality spice — and learning how to use it differently," she added. There's also an element of excitement since she said she didn't know what spice would be coming next.
Sanathra would like to be able to grow the business to have enough capital to be able to purchase all of a farmer's crop. "I want it to be like Patagonia—for spices," he said.
This article was written by Lakshmi Sarah for KQED Food.