For over 4,000 years, saffron has permeated human history with its vibrant golden hue, strong aroma and distinctive flavour, infusing the cooking, clothing and medicinal practices of civilisations across the world.
Where does it come from?
Saffron is derived from the dried styles and stigmas (collectively known as threads) from flowers of the Crocus sativus plant.
This plant – commonly known as the saffron crocus – is relatively unfussy in its growth requirements. Providing the soil is well-drained, it can thrive in disparate locations across the globe, from Egypt to Essex. Iran sits comfortably in the lead, however, accounting for about 90% of the world’s supply.
What’s it used for?
Saffron has been used extensively throughout human history, both in and out of the kitchen. While its use as a food seasoning is well-documented, its vivid colour and pungent aroma have also made it a popular ingredient in perfumes, fabric dyes and even paint.
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Saffron also features abundantly in Eastern medicine, where it’s been used to treat maladies from acne to arthritis. Modern science supports a therapeutic role for the spice, too, particularly in reducing blood cholesterol and preventing cancer.
Why is it so expensive?
Retailing at around £1,500 per kilogram, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice by quite some margin—second and third place go to vanilla (£300/kg) and cardamom (£50/kg) respectively. However, contrary to popular belief, saffron doesn’t quite dethrone gold in terms of cost per unit, although gram for gram it’s about five times more valuable than silver. In Medieval Europe, saffron was so highly valued that selling adulterated forms of the spice was punishable by death under the so-called Safranschou code.
The reason for these dizzying prices is twofold. Firstly, a large volume of raw material is required to obtain a modest amount of product. It can take as many as 150 flowers to produce a single gram of saleable saffron. Secondly, a series of biological quirks has rendered the saffron crocus incapable of sexual reproduction. This means that the plant can only be propagated by human hands, which, in addition to picking and drying the threads, makes the entire process an incredibly time-consuming and labour-intensive one.
Don’t let these lofty prices put you off, though. A little of the spice goes a long way, and after a steep initial investment, you’ll be rewarded with a plethora of deeply flavoursome dishes for months or even years to come.
Saffron in Asian cuisine
Saffron imparts a subtly sweet, almost hay-like flavour in cooking. Though perhaps best known for its use in Spanish dishes – particularly paella – it also features heavily in Asian food, where it serves to add colour as well as taste.
Since picrocrocin, the compound responsible for saffron’s flavour, is soluble in water, many recipes suggest steeping the threads in boiling water for a while prior to cooking. The threads and the infused water are then added to the remaining ingredients in order to extract maximum flavour.
Rice is perhaps the most common canvas for a touch of saffron paint. Pulao is a dish from South-Central Asia that involves cooking basmati rice in a heavily seasoned broth, in which saffron is a key player. Indian saffron rice offers another marriage of spice and rice, and is noted for a dark colour and rich flavour that are somewhat absent from the Spanish and Italian incarnations.
Saffron also lends an earthy depth to curries, and is widely used in Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan cooking for this reason. Chicken biryani and Kashmiri lamb curry are just two examples of dishes that are uplifted by the resonant undertones of saffron. The spice also features prominently in Zafrani chicken, a dish harkening from North India, in which saffron lends its voice to a symphony of flavours, including turmeric, chilli powder and mustard seeds.
Saffron may be a pricier option, but its strong aroma and distinctive flavour make it a store cupboard essential for Asian cooking. If the dishes above have got your taste buds tingling, check out our range of authentic Asian snacks, now available at over 600 Iceland stores throughout the UK.
Chicken tikka masala with saffron rice: By Miansari66 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons