The story of saffron.

saffron flower.jpgIt’s the color of Hinduism and dearer than gold. Praised to the heavens, and priced just as high, saffron has a place in the Indian kitchen that can be taken by no other herb.

Its distinctive aroma typifies the essence of Indian cuisine, its spectacular color symbolizes the core values of my country’s culture. Reserved for very special guests, saffron is truly the King of Spices.

The many names of saffron: Despite its Sanskrit name ‘Kashmirajanman’, saffron is not native to our country. Kashmir accounts for less than 1% of the world’s saffron output. Iran leads the world in saffron production, by a long distance.

Crocus sativus is the systematic name. Saffron’s common name comes from the Latin ‘safranum’ and that in turn comes from the Arabic ‘assfar’, meaning yellow. In Ayurveda, saffron is also known as ‘kesar’, meaning ‘eyebrow’, because the useful part of the saffron flower is thin and thread-like.

Dearer than Gold:  There are several reasons why saffron is worth more than its weight in gold. Saffron is a very finicky flower to grow. It flourishes only under direct sunlight, dry windy conditions, and in loose, well-drained clay-like soil. There are not many places in the world that meet these requirements. Timing and spacing are crucial. Saffron blooms only in autumn, during a narrow window of just two weeks. Flowers must be harvested rapidly, because they’ll wilt by noon. Further, just a tiny part of the saffron crocus is used. The tiny, thread-like stigmas are about the only useful parts of the entire plant.

It takes about 150,000 flowers to produce one kg of saffron. These 150,000 flowers need two square kilometers of land to grow in. Saffron flowers are prone to infections and insect attacks and can rot easily, so they have to be dried very carefully indeed.saffron-ps.jpg

No wonder then, that only about 300 tons of dried saffron are produced each year across the world. Of this, about 240 tons comes from Iran alone, and only about 50 tons is considered top-quality. Compare this to the amount of gold produced in 2014 – 3114 tons – and you’ll understand why you’ll have to sell your house to buy a kilo of top-quality saffron.

Chemicals of Iridescence:  Saffron is an iris, and hails from the Iridaceae family. This highly colorful family of flowering plants is the source of the word ‘iridescent’.

Saffron’s glorious color is caused by a group of phytochemicals called carotenoids. Chief amongst them is alpha-crocin. This yellow-orange phytochemical is mainly responsible for saffron’s characteristic color. Also present in saffron is the red-hued zeaxanthin. This carotenoid is naturally found in your retina too. This is why saffron is believed to be good for your eyes. There is no hard scientific evidence to prove this, though.

Lycopene is another phytochemical found in saffron. Like many other carotenoids, lycopene is an antioxidant and a natural sun-block. That explains why saffron has been used since antiquity for improving complexion, and why expectant mothers in India take it even today, in the completely mistaken belief that their children will be born fair.

Saffron’s aroma is mainly because of a chemical called 2,6,6-trimethyl 1,3-cyclohexadiene-1-carboxaldehyde, better known as safranal.

Saffron’s constituent chemicals are very potent and soluble in water. The color and aroma are so strong that you’ll need just one part of dried saffron in one hundred and fifty thousand parts of water to feel its presence. So don’t get rattled by its cost. A tiny bit of one saffron thread is all you’ll ever need for your dishes.

To your health: An important ingredient in several Ayurvedic remedies, saffron is considered a Tridoshahara, a herb that balances vata, kapha and pitta, the three formative elements of the body, according to Ayurveda.

Charaka Samhita and Susruta Samhita, the two main treatises in Ayurveda, mention several formulations with kumkuma, saffron’s other name in Ayurveda.

Ayurveda uses kesar for several ailments, for eye problems, arthritis, as a tonic for the heart, for liver ailments, for kidney problems and for all kinds of skin problems.

Preliminary animal studies indicate that crocetin in saffron may reduce cholesterol levels. Perhaps that might be one reason why the incidence of cardiovascular disease is low in Spain, where saffron is widely used. (But then, it’s widely used in India too, where the incidence of cardiovascular disease is quite high).

Suffice it to say that saffron might be good for you – but only in small doses.

Caveats: There is no such thing as a safe herb. Like any other herb, saffron is toxic at high doses. Prolonged use of saffron can damage your liver and kidneys. Saffron is a narcotic at high doses and it can knock a person out. It was in fact, used for this purpose in old Europe.

Over-enthusiastic consumption of saffron can induce an abortion and it definitely cannot make your baby fair, so please do not use saffron during pregnancy.

Buy saffron like you would buy gold, with utmost care. Buy it only from the best shops and buy only the best brands. Do not waste your money on saffron powder. It’s easy to adulterate saffron powder with turmeric powder, so be warned. It’s safer to buy whole saffron threads. Even so, adulteration is possible. Saffron threads are sometimes soaked in glycerine, to increase their weight.

To get the best of saffron, soak a small bit of saffron thread in half a cup of warm water or milk, overnight. The next morning, the milk or water will be a deep yellow, and you’ll need one teaspoon for each dish, that’s all.

Do not directly add saffron threads to a dish, unless the recipe specifically says so. It will take prolonged cooking to release the color and you’ll lose the aroma in the process.

Used correctly, and in small doses, saffron imparts a touch of royalty to any dish.

Go ahead, pamper yourself!


Cheers … Srini.


Key references:


Gaga over Garlic.

garlic ps.jpgThe spices and condiments that are typically used in Indian cuisine, have their origins in the world’s oldest medical system, Ayurveda. You use them every day in your food without a thought about the real reason why they’re there. They’re there because your body needs them and because, in many cases, Ayurveda says so.

Stinker in your kitchen

Meet this pungent little bulb, lovingly known in the West as the Stinking Rose. The distinctive odor of Allium sativum will assail your nostrils anywhere you go in India. Love it or hate it, you just can’t ignore it.

It’s a spice, herb, medicine, patentable cash-cow, and it stinks, depending on your point of view and which side of the table you’re on. Garlic is one odoriferous package of surprises.

Garlic has been in our kitchens since five thousand years. From its origins in China around 3000 BC, garlic has spread its tantalizing odor all across the planet. From the Med to the Atlantic, from one Pole to the other, you’ll find garlic bulbs adorning the kitchens of every country on earth.

According to Ayurveda, garlic is a promoter of agni, the body’s digestive fire, and is used as a carminative (appetite stimulant) and for gastric distress in general.

Regular consumption of garlic is believed to improve circulation and revitalize the body. For the same reason, garlic is believed to be a potent aphrodisiac. That’s why since Vedic times, the scriptures forbid its use by students, Brahmins and anyone engaged in spiritual pursuits, lest they get aroused by naughty ideas.

The French, on the other hand, take large amounts of it, for exactly the same reason. No wonder they also make the world’s best perfumes. The Russians use it a lot in their cuisine, mainly for rheumatism and joint pains.

Believe it or not, garlic makes a good face pack. It is effective against skin disorders like acne and pimples. That’s because garlic is a fairly strong antibacterial agent. Raw garlic paste directly applied on to the affected area will drive acne and worms away (and have the same effect on the general public).

The science behind the stink.

Garlic’s benefits and its smell are both caused by a group of sulfur-containing chemicals. Chief among them is allicin. This sulfurous phytochemical is responsible for many of garlic’s effects. There are so many scientific studies on garlic and allicin that one can mention just a handful of them here.

Blood pressure: Garlic is a vasodilator, that is, it dilates small blood vessels, and increases blood circulation. It brings down blood pressure as a result, and both Ayurveda and modern medicine recommend the moderate consumption of garlic by hypertension patients.

Cholesterol: Clinical studies on garlic show that it can potentially reduce cholesterol levels.

Antioxidant: Allicin has been studied as an antioxidant and for its effects on tumors. The results are encouraging. Allicin has been shown to inhibit a process called apoptosis or cell death. It can inhibit aging, in other words. So, an allium a day, keeps old age at bay, and everyone else away.

Statutory Warning ( I mean it!) 

Garlic is known to interact with several drugs. Eating large amounts of garlic when you’re on blood pressure medication can be a genuine health risk. Garlic can decrease blood pressure by itself. In combination with anti-hypertensives, it can have a nasty synergistic effect.

Garlic can cause bleeding when used in combination with blood thinning drugs that are commonly prescribed to heart patients (like myself). Garlic can react adversely with herbal formulations and other nutritional supplements, so be careful if you’re the type who falls for nutraceutical TV ads hosted by nubile nymphets.

If you want to use garlic for its health benefits, the golden rule is: First ask your doctor. More so if you want to take garlic capsules for their claimed benefits. No matter how you use garlic, please do so in moderation and reap its benefits without any worries.


Size does matter. Large bulbs stink less. The extra-large variety has a mild, nutty flavor and can be cooked as a vegetable by itself.  The tiny variety, on the other hand, will definitely make its presence felt in your breath, so use it sparingly.

Garlic cloves can get charred quickly, so always fry them on a gentle flame, along with onion or ginger, never alone.

There’s no point in gargling desperately with mouthwash after a garlicky meal. Garlic breath happens because garlic’s breakdown products are partly eliminated by the lungs. Even if you swallow a garlic bulb without chewing it or gulp a garlic capsule, you’ll still get garlic breath an hour later. Try chewing a few coriander leaves and keep one clove (lavang) in your mouth for a few minutes, and hope for the best. If you’re a heavy eater of garlic, one would strongly recommend a regular sauna to flush your skin of garlic by-products. Or else, your body will exude garlicky fumes all day long.

A recipe for you from my part of the world: Belluli Rasam (or mulligatawny soup, if you will).

Blanch and peel ten medium-size garlic cloves. Gently heat two tablespoons of pure ghee or butter, sauté a diced onion till light brown, add the garlic cloves, and sauté gently. Add a pinch of freshly ground pepper, a dash of cinnamon powder, one finely chopped green chilli and one thinly sliced finger-size piece of ginger. Fry for a minute and add a blanched and roughly chopped tomato, sauté till the tomato turns dry. Then add a teaspoon of commercial rasam powder, sauté for a minute more or until the aroma fills the entire building, add three cups of warm water (about 400 ml), bring to a gentle boil. Simmer for ten minutes.

At the end, add half a teaspoon of salt, simmer for one minute. Then drive out your salivating neighbours, lock the door, and, as we say in Bengaluru, enjoy like anything only. Serves three, but who cares?

Stay healthy. Stay safe. As Nature intended.

Cheers, Srini.


Key reference:

Garlic National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, US Dept of Health and Human Services.


Herbs can cure. Herbs can kill.

Centella asiatica. Better known as Brahmi.

Medicinal plants are useful. Indeed, many modern drugs have been derived from plants.

However, there is far too much quackery in herbal medicine. Far too many rogues. Far too many “scientists” with dubious PhD degrees from cut-rate institutes. Far too many self-styled experts.

Here’s how the quacks and the “scientists” will con you:

1) “It’s herbal. No side-effects”.


This is an utter lie. If any herbalist tells you this, no matter how many PhD degrees he has, please run. Run far and run fast. Only a genuine quack would make this claim. The belief that herbs do not have side-effects is the most common and most dangerous myth out there.

Reality check: Most plants are in fact toxic to humans. Very few of them are edible, and very very few of them are useful as medicines. By “useful” one does not mean that these few herbs are harmless. Far from it. There is no such thing as a safe herb. Doesn’t exist.

2) “It’s time-tested, over centuries, over thousands of years, used by millions of people. Do you think millions of people across the world are fools”?


Just because a herb has been in use since centuries, it does not mean that it is safe or even useful.

As an example, here’s a very popular herb that has been in use since 6000 BC. It has been in continuous use since eight thousand years. WHO says that across the world, one billion people consume it several times a day, every single day. That’s one-seventh of the world’s population. The herb provides a living to millions of farmers world-wide. Trans-national corporations have built their multi-billion dollar empires because of it. Wars have been fought over it.

How can such a herb be anything but safe and useful? Do you think that one billion people across the world are fools? The answer is yes. Because the herb we are talking about is tobacco.

See what I mean?

3) “It’s guaranteed”.

Of course it’s guaranteed. So is a visit to the hospital. “Guaranteed” is not a scientific term. You will not find the word “guaranteed” in any peer-reviewed scientific publication. This word is specifically used by door-to-door salesmen, by street-side peddlers, by snake-oil merchants, by smooth talkers in expensive suits with MBA degrees hanging on their walls – and by certain “scientists”.

If the herb has been studied by real scientists, using accepted methods of science, written about in research papers that have been critiqued by other scientists, and then approved for use by national-level regulatory agencies, there would no need to “guarantee” its safety and efficacy.

4) “It’s a gift to mankind from Mother Nature. How can you dare question Mother Nature? What are you, an atheist?”

I love this argument. Herbalists and “scientists” throw these phrases at me all the time. As if it is blasphemy to use one’s common sense.

Plants, like all other life-forms, have evolved over a few billion years into what they are today. Do you really think they exist for your sole benefit? Plants produce phytochemicals for their own use, for their own survival, for their own metabolism needs. Not for you. Any effect those phytochemicals may have on your body is totally co-incidental.

Do you really think any plant on this earth cares about your diabetes or blood pressure or your cholesterol or your dysfunctional dick? Plants do not get diabetes. Why would any plant produce phytochemicals to treat your diabetes, then?

As I said, these effects on your body are entirely co-incidental. Be thankful for that co-incidence. And don’t believe everything you hear or read. Be thoroughly skeptical.

5) “Several published studies have proven that…”, “The latest research shows that …”

This is a dangerous trap, that deceives even qualified people. It’s called Argument from Authority. To quote Wikipedia, this is a “logical fallacy that argues that a position is true or more likely to be true because an authority or authorities agree with it”.

Simply put, people will believe anything if they hear it from someone who looks like an authority. And this is exactly where the catch is. How do you know that the quoted authority is really an authority? How do you know the scientific journal that published that research study is in fact a reputable journal? How do you know the research study is itself not a total fake?

About fifty percent of research papers published from India are either outright fakes or riddled with dubious data, erroneous results and unreliable conclusions. Did you know that?

Many “reputable” journals are in fact published by semi-literate nitwits operating out of their homes. Any body with a PC and an internet connection can create a scientific journal with an impressive name. Mind you, anybody.

If I were tell you that my research study was published in The International Journal of Advanced Herbal Medicine and Plant Science, you would be suitably impressed. Except that this journal does not exist. I thought it up just now.

The real question you should be asking is, who sponsored that research study? If a research study on a herbal product is sponsored by the manufacturer himself, do you really think it will be totally honest and unbiased? Really?

6) That eminent scientist and his fellow eminent scientists have set up an international research foundation for this herb. Do you mean to say those eminent scientists are liars?

Yes, sometimes they are.

Adolf Hitler recruited one hundred physicists, including Nobel laureates, to write a book refuting Einstein’s theory of relativity. Einstein’s only response to that book was, “Why one hundred? If I am wrong, just one would have been enough”.

Just because a whole bunch of “scientists” gets together and says the same thing, it does not always mean they are correct – or telling the truth. Many such research foundations that have been set up by such “scientists” are sponsored by companies with a strong profit motive.

In fact, the more the number of “eminent” scientists mentioned in a research foundation, the more skeptical you should be about what they’re telling you.

7) “No need for “allopathic” medicines. They are poisonous chemicals. Stop all chemicals, and use only my herbs”.

Yeah sure. Please write up your will before you do that. Phytochemicals are chemicals too. And they are just as toxic as any other chemical, if not more.

Get this into your head. Pharmaceutical companies make drugs specifically for you, designed for your ailments, tested for you, certified as safe for you. And they spend millions of dollars and many many years to bring those life-saving medicines to you.

Plants do not produce phytochemicals for you. They do not even know you exist. They don’t care about you and your multiple ailments.

Got the picture?

As I said before, a few herbs are certainly useful. If you do want to use herbs for your health, that’s your choice. But first talk to the right people, get your facts right, and use your own judgement.

Do not ever take herbal remedies along with your regular medicine. Ever. Even a simple condiment like turmeric interferes with many life-saving drugs.

And do not ever, ever stop taking your regular medicine, without talking to a real doctor first.

Mother Nature has not made plants for your exclusive benefit. Mother Nature, however, has definitely given you something for your exclusive benefit. It’s called a brain. Use it.

Stay healthy. Stay safe. As Nature intended.