Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. We aren’t arguing that fact, however.
And why is that?
Because it takes 75,000 flowers to make one pound of saffron, and the flower is said to bloom only one week of the year. No wonder the spice is said to be priced as much as gold — maybe not literally, but almost.
My first recollection of being introduced to saffron is from the jingle of Zahoor Zaafrani Patti Tambakoo. This catchy jingle holds a bell for all those born between the 1950s and the 1970s. However, what’s never been established is that was saffron really an ingredient in this two-bit chewing tobacco product? A mystery yet to be solved, and one that makes me chuckle.
One of the myths surrounding the origin of saffron tells the tale of the Greek god Hermes, where he accidentally killed his friend Crocus, and whose spilling blood germinated saffron. God only knows how this can be true; all we know is that Hermes products now are also worth their weight in gold, or saffron.
Beautiful, war-ravaged Kashmir is one of the places where saffron is cultivated. The spice and its mehek (fragrance) is a big part of the dishes included in Kashmiri wazwaan, and is the oomph factor in it. However, it is said that it was first cultivated in Greece and then further moved east to Morocco, Iran, Turkey and Japan in Asia, and to Spain in Europe. Currently, Iran is said to be the largest producer of the spice.
Saffron is a magical spice, and having experienced its aroma there is one thing I know about it for sure, it’s hard to describe it. If I had to, I’d say it’s a smell that has a taste.
According to Sarah Salkin, an editor at cookstr.com, “Wherever saffron is grown, foods have been developed to showcase its magic: The French have bouillabaisse, the Italians have Risotto Milanese, the Spanish have paella, the subcontinent has biryani, curry and kulfi and Iran has a whole host of saffron-infused dishes. And saffron can be added to any number of plain foods to make them magical. But in order to make the most of saffron, you need to know how to handle the precious threads. The secret is infusion.”
Like tea leaves, saffron threads have to be infused in hot water for maximum fragrance — usually for 30 minutes or so, a few threads in eight to 10 ounces of water, or any other liquid, hot milk, broth, etc.
Sitting at a Kashmiri family friend’s dinner table, I learnt an interesting little anecdote about the spice. Uncle Rasheed Mir, while passing a platter of Roghan Josh, said to me, “A Spanish dish will taste perfect when made with Spanish saffron, while a Kashmiri dish is best flavoured with saffron cultivated in Kashmir.”
Saffron is high in riboflavin and vitamin B and has long been acknowledged for its medicinal uses. Europeans used it to treat the common cold and cough, and ancient Persians thought it to be an aphrodisiac. I don’t know about it being an aphrodisiac, but I do know that there is nothing as delicious as the zaafrani kulfi, and here it is from my kitchen to yours.
2 litres whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp cardamom
4 to 5 tsp corn starch, dissolved in 2 tbsp of water
1 tbsp rose water
2/3 cup pistachio, chopped
A pinch of saffron dissolved in 1 tbsp of milk
Soak saffron strands in one tablespoon of milk and set aside. In a separate bowl dissolve cornstarch in water and let it rest. Pour milk in a heavy-lidded pan to boil. Once it comes to a boil, lower the flame and let the milk thicken. Half an hour in, add the cornstarch, saffron and sugar to the simmering milk. Stir the dissolved cornstarch before adding to the milk, and keep stirring while doing so. Add cream and pistachios and keep stirring. Let simmer for an hour and a half, or until desired thickness is reached. Add cardamom powder, rose water and switch off the flame.
Let the mixture cool completely and pour into kulfi moulds. Freeze overnight. Your saffron kulfi is ready.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, March 17th, 2019.