Once when I was visiting India, I made a business detour to the Indian saffron towns of Pampore and Srinagar in Kashmir, an area located at the foothills of the majestic Himalayas. As I visited several of the local saffron farms, I had fascinating interactions with the saffron farmers, who mostly come from multi-generational farming families. I was excited to be able to learn directly from the growers.
Saffron is known as “the king of all spices.” It is the most expensive spice in the world, due to the difficult farming and harvesting process, a truly impressive operation. I’ll explain it with a bit of botany that I learned at the farms in Kashmir. Saffron comes from the flower of the crocus plant. Each plant grows 14 to 18 inches high and bears up to four flowers. Each of the flowers contains three orange-colored stigma and three yellow-colored ones. The orange stigmas are considered pure premium saffron. In India, we call this premium grade of saffron kesar, a word which also means “orange-colored.” Farmers have to hand-harvest the stigma from 4,500 plants for just one ounce of pure saffron spice.
Benefits of Saffron
I always have saffron on hand for cooking to take advantage of its flavor and aroma, but I also use it for its medicinal properties. Saffron has many health benefits:
- Fights Alzheimer’s disease
- Reduces anxiety and lifts your spirit
- Prevents cancers by inhibiting promotion of tumors
- Helps with harmful effects of chemotherapy treatment
- Antioxidant and antiviral qualities
- Prevents heart disease
- Lowers blood pressure
- Slows progress of macular degeneration
- Improves digestion
- Improves memory and cognition
- Powerful anti-depressant; increases serotonin
Ayurveda considers saffron balancing for all three doshas in the body. It has the properties of sweet, astringent, and heating. Saffron is considered beneficial for lifting one’s mood, improving complexion, improving memory, as a liver detoxifier, blood cleanser, blood thinner and for clearing up colds and congestion. Saffron also helps improve visual acuity and helps reduce light sensitivity of the eyes.
Naturally, this delicate spice is featured frequently in my cookbook Turmeric & Spice, which features authentic Indian recipes based on the ancient principles of Ayurveda. Saffron is not only excellent in sweet dishes such as my Authentic Indian Chai, Coconut Burfi, and Shrikhand, but it is also an excellent addition to many savory dishes as well, including my recipe for Curry Chicken for Biryani (Biryani meaning “fit for a king”). The beautiful orange-yellow color of saffron lends cheer to dishes cooked with it, including saffron potatoes and curries.
A few tips about cooking with saffron: just a pinch goes a long way. It begins to release its flavor, aroma, and color when soaked in a bit of warm water. Add this saffron water to your dish along with the saffron strands. Never try to infuse saffron in oil; it won’t work well.
My popular Aromatic Chai spice blend contains a hefty serving of saffron, in addition to cardamom and cloves. Add it to milk and black tea for the perfect Authentic Indian Chai. This blend can also be used to flavor cakes, muffins, French toast, puddings, and panna cotta.
To infuse a serving of saffron into your day, here is my recipe for Authentic Indian Chai, featured in my cookbook, Turmeric & Spice.
Authentic Indian Chai
Heat 2 cups of almond milk in a saucepan over medium-high heat.
When you smell the nutty aroma, reduce heat to a low simmer and add 1 tablespoon of Bina’s Aromatic Chai spice blend.
Whisk together slowly, breathe in the fragrance, and exhale positivity. Enjoy in peace.
Serve it to friends and family for an instant boost of their spirit or to anyone who needs a dosha balancing boost of herbal medicine.
Aromatic Chai can be used to flavor warm or cold milk of your choice. If the milk is warmed a bit, it helps release flavors of the spices. To sweeten the milk, add a little bit of blended boiled dates or golden raisins or some honey.