Monday, January 9, 2012

Saffron – The Golden Spice

Saffron Crocus
According to Greek mythology, Krokus was a mortal boy who died in an accident while playing discus with Hermes, the messenger god and guide to the underworld. In remorse, and because he loved Krokus very much, Hermes transformed the dead boy into a lovely purple flower with five petals, a gold center, and red stigmas. Today we know this plant as crocus sativus or, more commonly, saffron.

The saffron crocus is native to the dry plains of Central Asia and was cultivated by the ancient Persians as long ago as the 10th century B.C. Iran is still the world’s largest producer of saffron (accounting for 90 to 96 percent of global consumption), most of it grown in the eastern region of Khoresan, which borders Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Other saffron-producing countries are India, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Italy, and Spain. In Afghanistan, saffron cultivation is replacing opium in some areas, due to the high prices it commands. (It takes 70,000 to 250,000 blossoms to produce one pound of saffron.)

The spice is derived from the dried stigmas of the crocus, which must be harvested and processed by hand. With each bloom yielding only three crimson threads, it’s no wonder that saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. Fortunately a little goes a long way.

Saffron Threads
To use saffron in cooking, the threads must first be soaked in hot water to release their brilliant color and delicate aroma. Iranian cooks prefer to use the spice in powdered form. My mother-in-law was horrified the first time she saw a celebrity chef on American TV toss whole filaments into a cup of hot water. “Don’t they know how to use saffron?” she exclaimed. “Such a waste!” In powdered form, saffron’s flavor is intensified so you don’t need as much.

The women in my husband’s family grind saffron with a sugar cube in a mortar and pestle. The sugar’s abrasive texture helps shred the saffron threads into a fine powder. However, salt can be used instead of sugar. The powder dissolves easily in hot water and creates a reddish-golden liquid that you can add to khoresh (stew) and sauces or mix with rice dishes to create lovely flecks of gold.

Iranian saffron is a staple in my house. I always stock up on every trip to Iran and beg relatives to bring me more when they visit. Persian cuisine is unthinkable without it. Cooks prize saffron for both its intense, yellow-golden color and distinctive aroma and use it to flavor chicken and fish as well as desserts. Because saffron pairs well with tomatoes, I sometimes add it to tomato-based pasta sauce as well as Persian dishes like abgusht (a hearty stew of lamb, beans, potatoes, and tomatoes) and kabab boshghabi (a type of kebab made from ground beef or lamb that is cooked in a frying pan and topped with chunks of stewed tomatoes).

In addition to its culinary uses, saffron also has health benefits. A few weeks ago, when I was recovering from a bout of the flu, my husband’s aunt advised me to drink a cup of hot milk infused with saffron to sooth my lingering cough. A common Iranian folk remedy for a stomachache is nabat, saffron encased in a lump of crystallized sugar. Dissolved in hot water or tea, nabat is the best cure for indigestion. Trust me, it really works.

If you’ve never cooked with saffron before and would like to try a simple recipe, here is a quick version of Persian chicken kabab:

Stovetop Jujeh Kabab

1 lb. chicken tenders
1 onion, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
½ teaspoon ground saffron
2 tablespoons hot water

1.   Combine the chicken and onions and marinate in the refrigerator for about an hour.
2.   Remove the chicken from the onions and toss with the oil, salt, and pepper.
3.   Dissolve the saffron in the hot water, cool slightly, and mix with the chicken until thoroughly coated.
4.   Fry the chicken tenders in hot oil in a frying pan for several minutes on each side.

Noosheh Jaan! Bon appetit!

What is your favorite spice?


  1. I love saffron. Three places producing saffron in Italy have protected status which means that the saffron produced there is of top quality. These are Sardegna, San Gimignano, and L'Aquila. It is illegal to label saffron produced elsewhere with these geographic designations. The saffron of L'Aquila is probably the most sought-after because there is such a small amount produced annually. Lorenzo di Medici is said to have purchased saffron from a L'A'quila merchant named Jacapo Notar Nanni.

  2. That is such an interesting myth, Heidi. I'm a little surprised I hadn't heard it before. Saffron plays a big part in Indian cuisine as well but probably not as much as in Persian cuisine. We add to a few types of rice dishes, such as biryani (layered pilaf rice and meat and/or vegetables), as well a number of desserts, such as kulfi (Indian ice cream) and some kinds of custards. I'm not sure if it's used in any home remedies, but I do know relatives who mix a little sugar and turmeric in warm milk as a remedy for cold and coughs -- a tradition I always found odd since in the West, we say milk can exacerbate those problems. I'm wondering if saffron might be used as well? It's such an expensive ingredient in India, used sparingly and mostly on special occasions, that I suspect it is not.

  3. I bring saffron from Turkey every time I travel there. I knew it was made from a flower, but I never knew it was dried stigmas of a crocus! Maybe the next time my crocuses come out in the spring, I can harvest enough for a half a dish. :) Don't know if my crocuses are sativus, but they looks very similar to those in your picture!

  4. Very interesting about the Italian saffron, Patricia. I can see why the Italians from those saffron-growing regions want to protect their product. Good quality saffron is divine. Poor quality can be awful. What kind of dishes to they used saffron for in Italy?

    Supriya, biryani sounds like Persian tah cheen (which is also made with saffron). And there is also a kind of Persian ice cream (bastani) flavored with saffron and rosewater. When I buy saffron in Iran, it always seems inexpensive to me, compared to the price here, but I think it's expensive for the people living there. Though that doesn't stop them from using it a lot.

    Lina, saffron is harvested in the fall, so if your crocuses bloom in the spring, they might be the wrong kind. But if you try them, let me know how it goes. You'll probably have enough for a whole dish. You really don't need much. Is saffron used much in Russian cooking?

  5. The most famous Italian dish using saffron is risotto alla milanese that traditionally accompanies osso buco. To make it, saute chopped onion in a bit of butter. Add the rice and cook to coat the rice with butter. Splash in some white wine. Stir in beef broth, one small ladle at a time until the rice is almost done. Dissolve the saffron in a remaining ladle of broth, then stir into the risotto. Finish cooking. Serve with lots of Parmesan.

  6. That sounds divine, Patricia. I'm going to try it - thanks for the recipe.