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Saffron - the queen of spices


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Zeynab
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« on: July 16, 2007, 04:34:51 am »



Saffron spice tufts and saffron flower


Saffron is my favourite spice.  It's indispensible for enhancing the taste of elaborate party delicacies -  meat dishes and desserts - cooked in the typical Asian or Middle Eastern style.  I make sure I always have at least a small box of saffron (preferably Iranian) in my kitchen drawer.  It's constantly handy and can be needed anytime for selected foods.

Though a very expensive commodity (in some countries being almost as costly as gold), fortunately the tiniest amount of saffron can go a long way.  So, in spite of it being the world's most expensive spice, it is still within the budget of the home cook.

Saffron has an interesting course of history that really takes one back into time.  The following is a brief discussion on the saffron episode ..

Saffron comes from a purple plant called Crocus.  It is derived from the Arab word 'Zafran' meaning 'yellow.'  Saffron is often known as the queen of spices.  The saffron crocus flower withers after a few days, and then the red saffron tufts are obtained. It is valued for its uniform yellow colour when soaked. It can be used to aromatise almost anything.  Today in South Asia and the Middle East, saffron is a highly popular and expensive ingredient used for flavouring desserts and various spicy meat dishes.

There are various stories, myths and legends about the early use of red saffron in Greece during the 17th century when it was brought by traders from Austria.  They say that for 300 years, Greek red saffron was systematically cultivated under the warmth of the Greek sun and the rich soil.  However, today we hardly hear of Greek saffron.  The two countries where saffron is largely grown are Iran and Spain.  Iranian saffron is of an infinitely superior quality. 

History of saffron cultivation goes back to 3,000 years across many cultures, continents and civilizations. 

Romans, Greeks and ancient Egyptians
For the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean, the saffron was one of the the most valued commodities particularly for use in perfumes and ointments.  In ancient  Egypt, Cleopatra used a quarter-cup of saffron in her warm baths because of its colouring and cosmetic properties. She is also said to have used it before encounters with her lovers with the idea that the saffron fragrance would enhance her romantic personaltiy.  Saffron baths were considered to be a luxury among the elites in Rome.  The ancient Greeks and Romans also prized saffron for its use as a perfume and deodoriser. They scattered it about public spaces such as royal halls, courts, and amphitheatres. They also used saffron in cosmetics such as mascara, stirred saffron threads into their wines, and used it in their halls and rooms as a potpourri.

Saffron came to France around the 8th century.

Middle East
Babylonian saffron was the best for use in treatments against gastrointestinal and renal ailments.  Egyptian healers used saffron as a treatment for all varieties of gastrointestinal ailments and when stomach pains progressed into internal haemorrhaging.  Urinary tract conditions were also treated with an oil-based emulsion of premature saffron flowers mixed with roasted beans. 

Longest history of the use of saffron has been in the Middle East and South Asia where's it's been a highly popular ingredient in the making of perfumes and medicines, and as an indispensible spice in food and desserts.

In ancient Persia, saffron was first cultivated in the 10th century BC in Isfahan.  Persian saffron threads have been found interwoven into ancient Persian carpets and funeral shrouds.  It was also used as a brilliant yellow dye, a perfume, and a medicine. Thus, saffron threads would be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas for its taste and for curing bouts of depression.  Also, Persian saffron was dissolved along with sandalwood into water for use as a body wash after heavy work and perspiration.  Later, Persian saffron was heavily used by Alexander the Great and his forces during their Asian campaigns. There, they mixed saffron into their teas and dined on saffron rice. Alexander himself used saffron sprinkled in warm water as a bath. He hoped that it would heal his many wounds, and his trust in saffron grew with each treatment.  Many of his Greek soldiers who returned home continued the similar uses of saffron.   During this era, use of saffron also reached Turkey.

Saffron was introduced in South Asia after the conquest of Kashmir by the Persians sometime around 500 BC.   It had similar uses as in the Middle East.

In China, saffron was introduced by the Mongol invaders who came in through Persia.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, saffron cultivation declined sharply throughout Europe, till the Muslim rule in Spain when it was resumed.   Then, when the outbreak of bubonic plague ravaged Europe in the mid 14th century, the demand of saffron skyrocketed for the preparation of medicines.

Though saffron was mostly grown outside Europe, the finest saffron threads from Muslim lands were unavailable to Europeans for a long time because of the hostilities of the Crusaders toward the Muslim Empire.  For many years the trade of saffron to Europe suffered much. 

North America
Use of saffron spread to North America in the mid 18th century when many West Europeans (mostly Germans and Dutch) moved to Pennsylvania to escape religious persecution in Europe.  Saffron cultivation quickly proliferated and began being exported to Spain and other parts of Europe. 

Saffron has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries in the past, but in modern times it is said that saffron to be used in medicines only after consultation with medical experts.  It is commonly thought that consumption of abnormally large amounts of saffron can have harmful affects. 

In modern days saffron cultivation has been offered as an ideal alternative to Afghan farmers in place of the illicit opium production. 

Last but not least, everyone must be aware of faked or copy-cat saffrons.  Safflower, which is a plant of the Daisy family is nor fragrance.  It's often known as American or Mexican saffron.  Secondly, tumeric which is known as Indian saffron also gives a deep yellow colour to meat and vegetable dishes but has no flavour.  It's from the ginger family.  Most importantly, a warning!  A plant by the name of Meadow saffron is poisonous and should never be confused with the real and popular saffron.
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« Reply #1 on: July 16, 2007, 09:12:52 pm »

This is sooooo interesting.  great history of a great spice.  saffron is also my favorite kitchen ingredient though I hardly know any saffron dishes.  Of course it's a rich spice and is used in rich foods.  but the aroma is mesmerizing to say the least.  It's great for oriental milk drinks.  My mom used to make it.  A jug of cold whole milk, a handful of sliced/blanched almonds and pistachios, a tablespoon of Rooh Afza (the red concentrated pakistani fruit cum rose water drink), sugar to taste, and a big pinch of saffron soaked in a tablespoon of warm water for 30 minutes.  Mix everything together, stir well and chill.  Tastes just as fantastic as it looks.  The Rooh Afza flavor is very compatible with saffron flavor.  They both compliment each other and enhance the fragrance of one another.

Can you please mention a list of saffron recipes.  I don't mean posting all saffron recipes .. that's too much work laugh  I mean simply listing those recipes or giving the links.  So far I've only learnt the pakistani recipe of biryani or pilaff and the pakistani rice pudding called kheer where saffron is used. 
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« Reply #2 on: July 16, 2007, 09:28:48 pm »

Salaams and hi rose  hiyaaa  yeah I know, that milk drink tastes lovely.  It's very popular in pakistan and also in many middle eastern countries along the gulf .. probably introduced by pakistani expatriots.  It's particularly refreshing during the month of Ramadan at Iftar time.

Till sometime ago I was under the impression that saffron is only used in pakistani and persian foods.  However, a little bit of search told me that there are plenty of other continental recipes with saffron as well.  In pakistani and persian culture, saffron foods are the richer ones .. cooked during parties and celebrations normally.  One wouldn't use saffron in the plain every day food eaten daily.  Thus, among pakistani foods, saffron dishes are namely biryani, chicken korma, chicken mussalam (which I don't know how to make  Grin), and desserts such as kheer as you mentioned, all kinds of halwas, the pakistani bread pudding called 'shahi tukra,' and saffron is sparingly used in the milk & vermicilli pudding.  This is a speciality on the occasion of Eid.  The vermicilli pudding is called 'sheer.'  It's made in exactly the same way as kheer, except .. in place of a small quantity of crushed rice, you need to use some roasted vermicilli. 

Check the website for persian foods.  You'll get some saffron recipes there such as saffron chicken, saffron rice and the halwas.  It's at Squidoo Persian Recipes.

Also, you'll find a long list of saffron recipes from all countries in the site called Homecooking Saffron Recipes.  I was surprised that some cultures also used saffron in sea food. 
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« Reply #3 on: July 17, 2007, 01:46:49 am »

Fantastic topic!  Correct me if I'm wrong, but in Pakistan don't they also make saffron tea?  Putting saffron and tea bags together in hot water?
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« Reply #4 on: December 04, 2010, 01:14:28 pm »

Aw, I absolutely love this spice.  But it should be sold in a jewellery shop because it's more expensive than precious stones!

More interesting info on this amazing red spice

Persian saffron is the same as Iranian saffron and is globally renowned for its exquisite aroma, superb coloring-strength and delectable flavor.  Other than Iran, saffron is also grown in Spain, Morocco and Kashmir.  But these are of slightly inferior quality compared to the renowned Iranian saffron.

Be very careful while buying saffron, as most of the time it is mixed with other spices. Real saffron is deep red and used as a natural food color. More the redness better the quality. Saffron of yellow color of much inferior quality with almost no medicinal properties. Also for the best quality buy saffron strands rather than powder.

You know why it's so costly, because it takes more than 100,000 flowers to acquire just 1 kg of saffron! 

Its medicinal benefits are huge

Medicinally, saffron has fallen out of favor because of its very high cost, and cheaper herbs have been found to replace it.  In ancient times, saffron was popular as a treatment for period pain and uterine bleeding and to bring on menstruation. But it's said that pregnant women in the middle ages avoided consuming large quantities of saffron thinking that it causes abortion if taken in large amounts.  But most likely this isn't true.

Saffron has been used to treat indigestion and is still used in Chinese herbal medicine to relieve abdominal pain.

Some herbalists do recommend saffron to treat high blood pressure as it contains a blood pressure-lowering agent called crocetin.

Recent studies have demonstrated that saffron promotes memory retention. Crocin is responsible for this beneficial effect.  On the basis of this, scientists are hopeful that saffron might be useful in the treatment of age related mental impairment like Parkinson's disease.

Saffron is useful to cure digestive problems, asthma, common cold, inflammation and even depression.

Research also states that saffron can protect against cancer. It has potent anti-oxidant and anti-cancer effects. It has been extremely valuable in liver cancer, ovarian cancer, colon cancer, and in leukemia.

In the culinary field, saffron is used in Arabic, Persian, Pakistani and Mediterranean cuisine.  It particularly compliments meat and rice dishes and desserts. 


A bowl of red saffron.  Beware folks, that huge a quantity
of saffron might cost you more than gold!  Saffrom is
generally purchased in small quantities, in tiny boxes
no larger than the size of a match-box.  You only need
a pinch to flavor the food you cook.




Video on Iranian saffron.  Very interesting.
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« Reply #5 on: June 25, 2011, 01:17:17 am »

..  Correct me if I'm wrong, but in Pakistan don't they also make saffron tea?  Putting saffron and tea bags together in hot water?

I think u r right.  I've often heard of traditional spiced tea being prepared in Pakistan on special occasions with saffron and cardamons.  When we were kids and my parents were living in Syria, we had a neighbor who was of Afghan origin and she made great saffron tea.  As kids we weren't allowed to drink tea or coffee .. only milk or chocolate milk among beverages  Grin .. but we could get the fragrance of saffron tea whenever we visited her house.  Smelt fabulous!
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« Reply #6 on: June 25, 2011, 01:23:02 am »

Some pics of saffron farms. 



Saffron picking in a saffron farm in Iran, Mashhad.




Saffron farm in occupied Kashmir.
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