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Saffron - The Most Precious Spice in the World

posted on: Jan 20, 2021

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

For centuries, worth its weight in gold, pure saffron, was and remains today, the most precious spice in the world.  A miracle of nature with an enticing aroma and an exotic taste, saffron, without doubt, was one of the spices Columbus was in search of during his Voyages of Discovery.  Historically, it was so valuable that King Henry VIII of England, in the 16th century, condemned to death those who adulterated.  

Today, the days of King Henry are long past and most of the saffron sold in our times is adulterated.  The pure product, rarely found in the markets, retails for $3000.00 per pound and up.  It is so precious that chefs are known to not employ wooden utensils in preparing a dish with saffron as an ingredient, fearing that it will be absorbed it into the wooden utensils.

The earliest mention of saffron was found in the temples of ancient Egypt.  In Assyria, it was used for medicinal purposes and it was one of the spices named in the ‘Songs of Solomon’.  For millennia, saffron, especially in Asia, was used to dye royal garments and those worn by the Buddhist priests.  The Greeks and Romans were enamored with its color and employed it in their dyes and perfumes, for medicinal purposes, and as an aphrodisiac. 

It is said that Cleopatra used saffron in her perfumes and other cosmetics, as well as employing it in her baths.  Perhaps, she set a trend.  Today, it is a common ingredient in a good number of perfumes throughout the world.

Later, the Arabs, enamored with its culinary, medical, and other aesthetic attributes added it to their storehouse of kitchen spices.  After the spread of their empire westward, they carried it to the Iberian Peninsula from where its use in cooking spread to the remainder of the European continent.  Its odyssey through the Arab lands is attested to by its name, in most of the European languages derived from the Arabic, zarafan

Today, this bright yellow-orange spice is used to dye fabrics and as an ingredient in medicines and perfumes but, above all, to color and flavor food.  In the culinary world of India, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Spain, and, to some extent, in Italy and Sweden, it is a kitchen must.  In these parts of the globe, its strong and bright orange-yellow coloring power, as well as its exotic aroma and flavor has made it a favored item in all stratum of society.

Native to the Middle East, saffron is the dried reddish-brown stigma of the Crocus Sativus Linneaus and cultivated in our times in Greece, France, India, Italy, Morocco, and Turkey.  However, Iran and Spain grow some of the world’s best saffron and are the largest producers – accounting for more than 80% of the world’s production.

Each flower of the Crocus contains three sigmas and one grain of saffron contains the sigma of some nine flowers.  The sigma is harvested by hand then dried.  It takes about 200,000 dried sigmas to make just one pound of pure unadulterated saffron.

In folkloric history, saffron in ancient Greece was believed to be a sexual stimulant and was associated with fertility, while in other parts of the ancient world it was employed to regulate women’s menstruation cycles.  Today, modern medicinal research has established that this spice contains a good amount of vitamins A and B and increases oxidation.  

It has been determined that, to some extent, it lowers the cholesterol level, eases numerous types of heart ailments, and inhibits cell growth by anti-cancer activity in human tumor cells.  It also helps in the digestion of food, relieves some stomach ailments, and increases the appetite.  However, too much saffron at one time could be toxic and unhealthy. 

Saffron has for millennia not only been prized for its medicinal attributes, but also for its dyeing properties.  The Romans used it to dye their hair and manufacturers of carpets, fabrics and paper have for centuries recognized its dyeing qualities.

On the other hand, it is in the kitchen that saffron has always reigned supreme.  Employed to give foodstuffs color, flavor, and a distinct aroma, it is always in the storehouse of spices in many homes.  Foods such as cheese, eggs, ice-cream, drinks, meat, pasta, sauces, soups, syrups, and numerous sweet dishes are greatly enhanced by the use of this ancient seasoning.  However, saffron is a powerful spice carrying a powerful punch in that too much of this spice will give the dish a bitter taste.

In the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, saffron along with cardamom is added to coffee; in Italy, it is a basic in the preparation of risotto; in France, it is an essential in the Provençal soup, bouillabaisse; in Spain, it is always used in preparing paella; and in Sweden, there is a traditional Christmas bread prepared with saffron. 

Saffron can be purchased as a powder or in threads.  However, the filaments are preferable – the powder, in many cases, is adulterated.  Before use, a few threads of saffron should be crumbled and diluted in hot water, then added to the dish being cooked.

Pure saffron keeps well for some two years if stored in airtight containers in a dark storage area.  A pinch or a few threads will be enough to add color, flavor and give an exotic aroma to food.  Saffron threads need to be crushed before use and this is made easier if they are first toasted for a few minutes.  It is best, if possible, to add the saffron near the end of the preparation when the dish is almost done in order to preserve the color and flavor. 

Saffron Flavoured Eggs

Saffron - The Most Precious Spice in the World

Serves 4

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 large tomato, finely chopped

4 eggs

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

a pinch of toasted and crushed saffron threads, diluted in 1 tablespoon boiling water

Heat oil in a frying pan; then sauté onion over medium heat for 10 minutes.  Stir in garlic and tomato, then cover and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring a few times.

In the meantime, beat eggs with remaining ingredients then stir into frying pan contents. Stir-fry until eggs are done then serve hot.  

Moroccan Vegetable Harira (Soup)

Saffron - The Most Precious Spice in the World

Serves about 12

5 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium-sized onions, chopped

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 small hot pepper, finely chopped

1 cup lentils, soaked overnight

2 cups cooked chickpeas

2 cups stewed tomatoes

8 cups water

3 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons ginger

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

1/4 cup rice

4 tablespoons lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon toasted and crushed saffron threads, diluted in 2 tablespoons boiling water

In a large saucepan, heat oil, then sauté onions over medium heat for 10 minutes.  Add garlic, coriander leaves, and hot pepper, then stir-fry for a further 5 minutes.  Stir in remaining ingredients, except the lemon juice then bring to a boil.  Cover and cook over medium heat for 35 minutes or until the rice and lentils are well done, adding more water if necessary or if a more liquid soup is desired.  Stir in lemon juice and saffron, then cook for 2 minutes longer and serve.

Saffron Rice  

Saffron - The Most Precious Spice in the World

Serves 4

4 cups cooked rice

2 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon cumin

a pinch toasted and crushed saffron threads, diluted in 1 tablespoon boiling water

2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine all ingredients, except oil then set aside.

Heat oil in a frying pan, then pour in rice mixture and stir-fry over low heat until eggs set.

Saffron Flavoured Almonds and Rice

Saffron - The Most Precious Spice in the World

Serves 4 to 6

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup slivered almonds

1 cup rice, rinsed

2 1/2 cups water

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

a pinch toasted and crushed saffron threads, diluted in 1 tablespoon boiling water

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Heat oil in a frying pan, then sauté almonds until they just begin to brown.  Add rice, then stir-fry for a minute.  Stir in remaining ingredients, except parsley then bring to boil.  Cover and cook over medium/low heat for 20 minutes, stirring a number of times to ensure that rice does not stick to the bottom of the pan then recovering.  Turn off heat and allow to cook in own steam for another 30 minutes.  Place on a serving platter, then decorate with parsley and serve.

Cooked Broad Beans

Saffron - The Most Precious Spice in the World

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 cups fresh or frozen lima beans

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

pinch of cayenne

1 1/2 cups water

a pinch toasted and crushed saffron threads, diluted in 2 tablespoons boiling water

Heat oil in a frying pan, then stir-fry onions and garlic over medium heat for 8 minutes or until they begin to brown.  Stir in remaining ingredients, except saffron then bring to boil.  Cover, then cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes or until beans are cooked.  Stir in saffron then cook for 2 minutes and serve.

Saffron Lentils

Saffron - The Most Precious Spice in the World

Serves 4 to 6

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger

1 1/2 cups split lentils

5 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

1/8 teaspoon toasted and crushed saffron threads, diluted in 2 tablespoons boiling water

Heat oil in a saucepan then sauté onion until it begins to brown.  Add garlic and ginger; then sauté further until both onion and garlic turn golden brown.  Stir in remaining ingredients, except saffron, and bring to boil then cook over medium heat for 40 minutes, adding more water if necessary.  Stir in saffron then cook for 2 minutes and serve.

Chickpeas and Broad Bean Stew – Garbanzo y Habas a la Andaluza

Saffron - The Most Precious Spice in the World

Serves from 6 to 8

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 small hot pepper, finely chopped

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

4 medium tomatoes, finely chopped

2 cups cooked chickpeas

2 cups fresh or frozen broad beans

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3/4 teaspoon pepper

3/4 teaspoon cumin

2 cups water

1/8 teaspoon toasted and crushed saffron threads, diluted in 2 tablespoons boiling water

Heat oil in a saucepan, then sauté onions, garlic, and hot pepper over medium heat for 12 minutes.  Add coriander and tomatoes, then stir-fry for another 8 minutes.  Stir in remaining ingredients, except saffron then bring to boil.  Cover and cook over medium heat for 40 minutes, checking once in a while and adding more water if necessary.  Stir in saffron then cook for few 2 minutes and serve hot or cold.

Chicken and Almond Couscous

Saffron - The Most Precious Spice in the World

Serves about 10

2 cups couscous

2 large onions, sliced

1/2 cup olive oil

1 chicken, about 4 pounds, cut into serving pieces

2 cups cooked chickpeas

1/2 cup raisins, rinsed

1 cup lightly toasted blanched almonds

3 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

1/8 teaspoon toasted and crushed saffron threads, diluted in 2 tablespoons boiling water

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

7 cups water

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Soak couscous in warm water for a few seconds, then quickly drain and place in the top part of the couscousiére or double boiler with a perforated top.  Thoroughly break up the lumps in the couscous and set them aside.

In the bottom part of the couscousiére or double boiler, place onion and oil, then cook over medium heat for 8 minutes. Add remaining ingredients, except water, butter, and paprika, then stir-fry for about 5 minutes.  Add water – make sure it generously covers the chicken pieces, then bring to boil.  Fit the top part with the couscous to the bottom part with stew then seal two parts together with a flour impregnated piece of cloth. (Should be sealed only if steam is escaping between the two parts).  Cook over medium heat for 1 hour or until chicken is done, stirring couscous every few minutes to make sure kernels do not stick together, then stir butter into couscous and remove from heat.

Place couscous on a platter pyramid style then makes a wide deep well in the middle.  With a slotted spoon, remove chicken pieces, chickpeas, raisins, and almonds and place in well. Sprinkle paprika over couscous then serve.  The remaining stew and sauce can be served as a side dish with each person adding extra stew to taste.

Paella

Saffron - The Most Precious Spice in the World

Serves 6 to 8

When the Moors were defeated in the Iberian Peninsula and all Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity, everything with a Muslim connotation was prohibited. Among the items forbidden was Arabic food.  The once-proud Moors who were used to and loved their many types of couscous devised ways to make similar dishes.  In the Valencia region where there was a large converted former Muslim population, rice introduced into the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century by the Arabs was not banned.  Substituting rice for couscous, and changing the method of preparation, they invented paella.  This modern version of paella below is my own simple to prepare adaptation of this traditional Spanish dish. 

6 tablespoons cooking oil

1 pound boneless breast of chicken, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2 medium onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small hot pepper, finely chopped

1 1/2 cups rice, rinsed

3 cups chicken broth

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/8 teaspoon toasted and crushed saffron threads, diluted in 2 tablespoons boiling water

1/4 pound frozen shrimp, thawed

1 can crabmeat (4 oz 113 g)

1 can clams (5 oz 142 g), drained

1 cup fresh or frozen peas

Heat oil in a frying pan, then sauté chicken pieces over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon then set aside.

In the same oil, sauté onions, garlic, and hot pepper over medium heat for about 12 minutes or until they begin to brown, then add rice and stir-fry for further 2 minutes.  Stir in chicken broth, salt, pepper, and saffron then transfer to a casserole and cover.

Bake in a 350EF preheated oven for 20 minutes then spread chicken pieces over top. Re-cover then bake for a further 10 minutes.

Top with shrimp, crab, and clams, then spread peas over seafood and bake uncovered for a further 10 minutes.

Serve hot from the baking dish.