It’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.
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.