In tropical south India, our pantry had shelves running the length of walls that stored all types of basic provisions. Large brass containers held various dried legumes and smaller containers held dried spices and nuts. But saffron was not among them. My mother kept it in a small jar inside a large locked metal cupboard along with her silver utensils used for special occasions. She called it kumkumapoo — flower of the kumkuma plant; kumkuma is saffron’s Sanskrit name. The precious bottle came out only when special treats were made at home.
Saffron in cooking
Saffron has been a classic ingredient in various cuisines since ancient times. It is a versatile spice that adds a new dimension to savory and sweet dishes. Saffron threads are soaked in water, broths or other liquids, which become infused with the flavor and orange-yellow coloring, and then added to a dish.
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Typically, the saffron threads are crushed or ground before soaking them. Saffron threads may also be ground or crushed into a powder and added to a dish. Good quality saffron develops to a bright golden yellow color, poorer quality saffron to either a pale straw color or bright orange.
From paella to risotto to biriyani, saffron is the main flavoring ingredient in various rice as well as meat dishes. There are numerous desserts that incorporate saffron for its color and flavor. It is widely featured in Spanish, Mediterranean, Persian, Iranian, Iraqi, Indian, Greek, Moroccan and Italian cuisines. Saffron from Iran, India and Spain are considered the best quality.
Where does it come from?
Saffron, the spice obtained from the gently dried stigmas of the purple saffron crocuses (Crocus sativus), has remained the world’s most expensive spice throughout history. Saffron’s unmistakable traits are its color and flavor. Since the strength of color determines its flavor, the higher the coloring strength, the higher its value. Saffron is sold as threads or as a ground powder. It is usually sold by the gram — just a small bunch of slender red threads. Fortunately, most recipes call for just a pinch, and a pinch of saffron goes a long way. It is grown primarily in Iran (more than 90% of the world production), followed by Spain, Greece, India (Kashmir) Egypt, Morocco and Turkey.
Why the high price?
An ounce of Spanish saffron costs about $54 and, when it is labeled pure, the price can go up to $77. The orange-red threads of saffron are very expensive for several reasons. Cultivation of saffron requires particular climate and soil conditions. The flowers have to be individually handpicked in the autumn when fully open. Saffron stigmas are harvested between dawn and 10 a.m., as they lose their color and aroma if left too long in the plant. Each crocus flower only produces three stigmas of saffron and thousands of blossoms are needed to produce even a small amount of spice. The stigmas have high moisture content and are gently dried for preservation.
The history of saffron goes back to ancient Egypt and Rome, where it was used as a dye, in perfumes, and as a drug, as well as for culinary purposes. It was known since antiquity in Persia, Mesopotamia and surrounding areas. Cultivation of saffron was also widespread in Asia Minor far before the birth of Christ. There are conflicting accounts about saffron’s arrival in South and East Asia. One theory is that when Persia conquered Kashmir, Persian saffron crocuses were transplanted to Kashmir. It is believed to have reached China in the 7th century. Arabs introduced saffron in Spain by 960. Cultivation spread to Italy, France and Germany when crusaders returned from Asia Minor with saffron corms.
Many uses of saffron
Saffron is used as an aromatic, and also used in perfumes and dyes. Saffron is often added to many food products simply as a coloring, such as cheese, soups and even various alcohols.
Saffron has very significant nutrients and chemical compounds that provide many health benefits. Saffron is an important ingredient in a number of Ayurvedic, Chinese, Unani and Tibetan medicines. According to Ayurvedic medicine, it is oily and light in properties, bitter in taste, and helps to pacify vata, pitta and kapha (air, fire and earth, the three fundamental body humors that make up one’s constitution, according to Ayurveda).
Saffron is used by Ayurvedic practitioners to treat asthma, arthritis, cold, cough and flu, acne and skin diseases, inflammation and indigestion. It is also a cooling spice and said to be an effective antidepressant. Some studies have shown that saffron contains antioxidants and other healthful properties that may help prevent cancer.
Saffron Almond Milk
On a hot summer day a cool glass of soothing and wholesome almond milk flavored with saffron makes the perfect thirst quencher. Here is a recipe for this delicious cold drink made with almonds, saffron and milk.
½ cup slivered almonds and few extra for garnish
½ cup water
3½ cups low fat (2%) milk
⅓ cup sugar
5 cardamom pods crushed
10 to 15 strands saffron
1. In a blender, grind the almonds with half cup of water to a smooth paste.
2. Bring the milk to a boil in a heavy bottomed vessel. Take a tablespoon of hot milk and add to the saffron strands and set aside.
3. Add the sugar, saffron soaked in milk and cardamom to the milk and bring back to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
4. Stir in the almond paste and simmer at medium heat for another five minutes. Keep stirring the pot. Remove from the stove and keep it covered.
5. Chill in the refrigerator and garnish with silvered toasted almonds and a pinch of saffron before serving.
Main photo: Saffron almond milk. R.V. Ramachandran