The King of Spice: Saffron
Variety is the spice of life. Worded a little differently, we can also say that spice adds variety to our life. The distinctive aromatic smells of any Indian kitchen are the result of the variety of spices lining our shelves that are loaded with flavor and are the key ingredients to Indian cooking. No seasoning is complete without the crackle of mustard seeds in hot oil and garam masala, a combination of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin and other spices, often plays a major role in spicing up most of our dishes. These versatile ingredients add pungency, tang and flavor to savory cuisine as well as desserts, soups and snacks.
Saffron Fact file
Botanical name: Crocus Sativus
Origin: Asia Minor
Cultivated in: Spain, Austria, Italy, Greece, France, Iran, Kashmir
Commercial part: Stigma(each flower contains three stigmas)
Also known as, in
The undisputed King of all these spices is the Saffron,which, when included in the recipe, gives a royal touch to any dish, savory or dessert. Also known as the Golden Spice, Saffron is unique in many ways. Exquisite, elusive, exclusive, exotic, delicate and the most expensive, this is a spice to be reckoned with and is worth its weight in gold! Elusive because saffron is the stigma of the saffron flower (Crocus Sativus) and each saffron flower contains only three stigmas. These stigmas or saffron threads are handpicked by elderly women from the centre of the crocus flower and it takes anywhere around 70,000 to 250,000 flowers to get one pound of saffron. Thankfully however, only a very little quantity is required to be added to a dish to get that distinctive aroma, flavor and color.
History of Saffron
Saffron has a very interesting and exotic history. Deeply rooted in ancient history of the Sumerian, Phoenician, Minoan, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Persian myths, saffron was initially used as a dye, perfume and medicine. The Minoans used saffron to adorn their bodies, homes and temples. Bright yellow saffron bindings, to which urine was added, (to preserve the deep golden color) were used to wrap Egyptian mummies. Cleopatra used saffron infused water in her bath, while Alexander the Great swore by the healing powers of this spice and encouraged his army to use saffron in their cooking.
Buying, Storing and Grading Saffron
There are three important criteria to look for while buying saffron
- Saffron threads (Stigmas) are all red and have no other color.
- Saffron threads must be dry and brittle to the touch.
- Saffron aroma is strong and fresh, never musty.
Storing: Saffron has to be stored in an airtight container away from heat, moisture and light. If stored carefully saffron can retain its potency, aroma and coloring properties for almost three years.
The best quality saffron can be found in Iran and Spain. Iranian Saffron is deeper red in color and has a more pronounced and distinctive, musky aroma, but is hard to obtain due to ban on export by the Iranian Government. Spanish saffron is also of a high quality and readily available. It is graded into Coupe, Superior, La Mancha and Rio, with Coupe being top of the line since it contains highest amount of crocin, one of the key essential oils in saffron and also contains very few of the flavorless yellow stems. The other grades are also good enough and not as expensive as the Coupe.
Uses and Benefits of Saffron
Saffron is a very versatile herb and has many Culinary, Medicinal, Cosmetic and Commercial benefits. In spite of its prohibitive price, this spice finds pride of place in most Indian households and is used in special dishes, desserts and soups.
Benefits of Saffron in cooking
The saffron mantra could well read as, “a little saffron goes a long way!” It takes only a few strands of this spice to give the recipe its flavor and taste and this versatile spice can be used in baked dishes, sweets and desserts, confectionery, seafood dishes, curries, liquors, meat dishes and soup. For best results it is better to combine the saffron to the dishes earlier on, so that the flavor infuses better into the other ingredients.
- Saffron has to be soaked in water, liquor or the cooking liquid so as to best release its flavor and essence. For one teaspoon of saffron strands use three teaspoons of liquid and soak for around one or two hours to get best results.
- Do not use wooden vessel to mix saffron as wood absorbs the saffron easily.
- Turmeric can be used as a cheaper substitute for saffron to obtain the color, but not the flavor.
- Though a smaller quantity of powder is required in recipes in comparison to saffron strands, it is not very feasible as the powder has a shorter shelf life.
Medicinal benefits of Saffron
Saffron has been used in the traditional medicine of many cultures since ancient times. According to papers written by the Central Council for Research in Ayurveda and Siddha (Department of Ayush, Ministry of Health, Govt. of India), Saffron has shown convincing evidence for the biological activity of its constituents.
- The chemical Crocin, found in abundance in saffron, reportedly inhibits the proliferation of breast cancer cells.
- Saffron aids in digestion, helps to lower cholesterol, helps in alleviating asthma attacks and also helps in the circulation of the blood to the retina in the eyes.
- It is also used as a remedy for cough, fever, epilepsy, pimples and skin problems, alcoholism and tuberculosis.
- Saffron also helps in menstrual and other uterine problems and soothes menstrual cramps.
- In the last decade, there has been a lot of focus on the biological and medical properties of Saffron and recent scientific findings show that “saffron and its components can affect carcinogenesis and currently have been studied extensively as the most promising cancer chemopreventive agents.” (rsmjournals.com)
- According to an article published in the Journal Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, Saffron has been known as an effective and safe treatment for early Alzheimer’s disease.
Saffron also finds a place in alternate medicine, especially in Ayurvedic, Unanni, Chinese and Tibetan medicine. It is a popularly known stimulant, warm and dry, and helps in aiding to alleviate digestive disorders, urinary and uterine problems. Ancient Ayurvedic texts have also suggested that this herb was used as an aphrodisiac. In Unani medicine saffron is used as a remedy for enlargement of liver, infection of bladder and kidneys and diabetes.
Benefits of Saffron for Skin & Hair
Saffron plays a vital role in the beauty industry. It is one of the main ingredients in most fairness creams as it promotes fairness of complexion and removal of skin blemishes. Apart from these fairness creams, there are several home remedies using saffron which are more effective and safe since they are devoid of any chemical additives found in most creams.
Massaging face with honey to which a few strands of saffron have been added is an excellent home remedy, which provides oxygen to the skin thus promoting blood circulation.
Add a few strands of saffron to milk and let it soak for two hours. Rub this milk all over the face and neck and rinse off after about twenty minutes. Use continuously and watch your skin turn several shades lighter.
A pinch of saffron added to liquorice and milk, when applied on bald patches on the head encourages hair growth and prevents hair fall.
Mix one teaspoon of sandalwood powder, 2-3 strands of saffron and 2 teaspoons of milk. Apply this paste on to a clean and freshly washed, moist face and massage thoroughly using small circular motions with the tips of your fingers. Allow to dry on your face for about 20 minutes and rinse. Use this paste once every week for a radiant and glowing complexion.
Saffron for a glowing skin: Add 2-3 strands of saffron to one teaspoon of water overnight. By morning the color of the water will turn yellow. Add to this one teaspoon of milk, 2-3 drops of coconut oil or olive oil and a pinch of sugar. Dip a piece of bread in this mixture and spread all over your face. Leave this mask on face to dry for fifteen minutes. This mask freshens up dull skin instantaneously and helps erase dark circles under the eyes. It also is an effective way of exfoliating the skin, helping in blood circulation and leaving behind a smooth and glowing skin.
Adding few strands of saffron in your daily glass of milk also helps to give you a glowing complexion.
Expectant mothers regularly drink milk into which 2-3 strands of saffron have been soaked in the belief that the fetus in the mother’s womb will get a fair and glowing complexion.
Saffron as a dye
Saffron has been used as a dye for a long period. A few strands of saffron are sufficient to impart a yellowish orange color to fabric. In India, Tibet and China, saffron has been used to dye the robes of the Hindu and Buddhist monks, and in ancient India “donning the saffron robes” meant becoming a Buddhist Monk. The main dyeing component in saffron is the chemical crocin and the stigmas of dried and cured saffron when soaked in water yields a high quality dye and colors the fabric a rich golden yellow color. However, a cheaper alternative of using turmeric is generally adopted which does not produce almost the same results.
Interesting Saffron facts
- Saffron was used as a seductive and aromatic essence in ancient Egypt and Cleopatra used it in her bath. It was also used in temples and sacred places.
- Henry VII is said to have condemned to death adulterers of saffron.
- In ancient Egypt, Romans used expensive pillows stuffed with saffron which is supposed to have been good to clear hangovers.
- Greek courtesans used saffron as a perfume and an aphrodisiac to lure the royals and wealthy men.
However, as the saying goes that anything in excess is not good, so also, consuming an excessive quantity of saffron can be dangerous. This spice is also said to have an adverse effect in pregnant women which could sometimes lead to an abortion or even the death of the expectant mother. Saffron taken in excess can also have a neurotic effect on the brain and sometimes leads to a feeling of ecstasy.
(Images via sxc.hu)