When Chitra Agrawal first released her roasted garlic achaar, it was the only product of its kind on the market. The 42-year-old has been running her Indian condiment brand Brooklyn Delhi since 2014, and until she came around, no U.S. company sold an Indian garlic pickle quite like hers, she said.
“You don’t find roasted garlic achaar,” Agrawal told NBC Asian America, noting the garlic pickles she grew up eating were made raw. “That was my innovation.”
Brooklyn Delhi products are already housed in national chains like Whole Foods and meal-prep brands like Blue Apron, so Agrawal wasn’t surprised when she was emailed by Trader Joe’s last January. A representative for the grocery giant told her they were interested in her products.
After a group tasting, Trader Joe’s zeroed in on Brooklyn Delhi’s Coconut Cashew Korma, a mild simmer sauce. Things seemed to be moving along slowly; then communications stopped.
Three months later, customers and friends began flooding Agrawal’s inboxes. Trader Joe’s had released a new item. Called “Indian Style Garlic Achaar Sauce,” it was uncannily similar to Brooklyn Delhi’s bestselling product.
“Customers were saying, ‘Oh my God, your garlic achaar is at Trader Joe’s,’” she said. “I remember getting those messages. My heart just dropped.”A viral TikTok posted last week brought the issue back to the surface for a national audience, accusing Trader Joe’s of co-opting and watering down traditionally South Asian products. Social media has become a forum for conversation about cultural appropriation, and Indian Americans are pointing to the long history of brands whitewashing and marketing ethnic products.
Trader Joe’s did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Karen Blakeslee, co-director at Kansas State University’s Value Added Food Lab, says the time it takes to develop a product at a major grocery store like Trader Joe’s is approximately two years, but a host of factors could impact that timeline. Those include a desire to meet consumer trends, recipe sourcing, package design and food safety testing.
The packaging and lettering on the Trader Joe’s jar bear a resemblance to Brooklyn Delhi’s simmer sauce products, but the biggest tell for Agrawal was the use of the word “achaar” itself. It’s uncommon for companies — even large Indian pickle brands like Pataks and Shan — to call their merchandise “achaar.”
Including in South Asian grocery stores, it’s more customary to see jars labeled “pickle” or even “relish.” Agrawal says she made the conscious choice not to do that.
“We specifically decided not to call it pickle because we thought Americans were going to confuse it with, like, a dill pickle,” she said. “And we’re the only U.S.-made Indian pickle brand sold widely in mainstream American markets that spells achaar with two A’s, which is what was on Trader Joe’s label.”
When Trader Joe’s initially contacted Agrawal by email, they discussed a range of products, including achaars, she said. But as pricing came up, the grocer honed in on her lower-end items.
“The garlic achaar is actually very expensive to make,” she said. “Given Trader Joe’s is very price-conscious, they were interested in two of our other products … Eventually it came to a standstill.”
The representative told Agrawal they were adding a different Indian product, so they had to put hers on hold.
It’s impossible to trademark a recipe, and with cheaper ingredients — like garlic paste instead of fresh roasted garlic — the grocer has significantly undercut Agrawal’s product.
Brooklyn Delhi’s achaar is priced at $12 a jar, while Trader Joe’s product is $2.69.
When it comes to accusations of appropriating traditional foods, Trader Joe’s has a history. In 2020, they famously said no to changing racist label names like “Trader Ming” and “Trader Jose,” which the grocery chain used to market pre-packaged Asian and Mexican foods.
“We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist,” the company said in a statement posted on its website.
They recanted a few weeks later and agreed to change the names after a petition against them gathered thousands of signatures.
“While this approach to product naming may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness, we recognize that it may now have the opposite effect,” a representative said to The New York Times.
None of this was lost on Pragadish Kalaivanan, a TikToker based out of Boston, who read about the achaar controversy and decided to use his platform of over 55,000 followers to spread the story.
“It was extremely annoying just because of all of their past behavior,” Kalaivanan told NBC Asian America. “They have a huge double standard when it specifically comes to Asian food. They always have a tendency of watering it down. I literally get annoyed shopping in the Indian section because they have continually misrepresented it in the packaging.”
In his TikTok about Brooklyn Delhi, which now has nearly 200,000 views, Kalaivanan calls out Trader Joe’s for giving consumers a false introduction to Indian flavors.
“They basically position themselves as being better than other stores and create a false idea of inclusivity, which is harmful at the end of the day,” he said. “It ends up just leading to a misrepresentation of what this food is because they are introducing it to such a wide range of people.”
Achaar, known by different names across South Asian languages, is a pickled condiment made of chopped pieces of fruit or vegetables which are marinated in spices and fermented. It’s common to see it made with mango, lime, carrot or gooseberry, and it’s meant to be eaten on the side with a rice or chapati dish.
Trader Joe’s version of achaar clearly deviates from authenticity, Kalaivanan said. The grocer calls their product an “achaar sauce.” It contains no chunks, as it’s made with a garlic puree instead of fresh garlic. In fact, garlic comes fourth on the ingredient list.
Commenters under Kalaivanan’s video shared frustrations about seeing a product on the shelves that was masquerading as something they grew up with. They reflected on the teasing they endured at school over meals that sometimes contained homemade achaar, only to see it marketed by a megacorporation.
This happens a lot — and across industries, Kalaivanan said, and he’s dedicated several viral TikToks to breaking down issues of famous brands’ cultural appropriation. “[W]e’re essentially a product of what we’re being taught by things we see not just on the shelves, but also other bigger influences.”
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, for example, has been called out for profiting off of pseudoscience and the fetishization of ancient ayurvedic practices, claims she has pushed back against. In the lifestyle brand’s history, they’ve marketed a $1,000 yoga mat, a turmeric latte powder, and ayurvedic herbs marketed under the label “Organic India.”
“It’s a repeat process,” Kalaivanan said. “It’s a behavior we’ve seen often. And Trader Joe’s has just shown that they don’t want to take accountability.”
Achaar is personal for Agrawal, a familial undertaking that has been shaped by generations. Growing up, she learned how to make pickle by watching her mom and her aunt go through the process.
“I can just remember my aunt giving me and my cousin pieces of the lime pickle, and we would just be sitting underneath the dining room table sucking on them,” she said. “I have loved intense flavors since I was really young.”
With family from both North and South India, she has tried pickles that run the gamut of fruits and flavors. “It was definitely on the table and part of the meal every day,” she said.
Yearly trips to India solidified her knowledge of the processes, and she found that making achaar brought her closer to the older members of her family.
“I just kind of was just experimenting and then sharing,” she said of Brooklyn Delhi’s beginnings. “Achaar is not as widely known so there has definitely been a large educational component to selling it.
In Agrawal’s perspective, generations of knowledge and a deeply personal connection that go into her pickles have now been cheaply remade.
“People kept on coming back to me and saying that they thought that it was us that packed it, when it clearly was an inferior product,” she said.
She said she was initially hesitant to say anything, but customer confusion and the clear signs of co-optation drove her to speak out.
“If Trader Joe’s put out a curry ketchup, I would not feel the same way because curry ketchup is a product that exists out in the world,” she said. But roasted garlic achaar is uniquely hers.
Her main fear is for the consumer whose first experience with Indian pickles comes from a product that isn’t quite pickle at all.
“At the end of the day, they’re not getting the real deal,” she said. “They’re divorcing it from its roots.”