One day while I was walking, I saw some crocuses blooming with beautiful purple flowers. I realized it was the Crocus sativus plant—none other than saffron! I had an a-ha moment, and I immediately went home and bought 50 bulbs online. I cannot wait to plant them in my garden this spring! I am going to enjoy them so much.
I have always been fascinated by saffron. Its strong, pungent, intoxicating aroma brings back nostalgic memories, like when my mother made fresh squeezed lime juice with saffron and cardamom. And after dinner, she would make homemade ice cream with pistachios, cardamom, and saffron. I loved it so much, it still brings me joy when I think about this special dessert.
But saffron is not just for dessert. Because of its exquisite taste and aroma, it can be used in savory dishes as well. In my cookbook Turmeric and Spice available at BinaMehta.com, you’ll find saffron in Tandoori Chicken, Coconut Burfi, Golden Milk Elixir, Biriyani, and Shrikhand, a yogurt-based dessert. My friend Karel made the Shrikhand recipe and called it pure ambrosia, a phrase that alludes to Food for the Gods.
Saffron has long been treasured as medicine, perfume, dye, and a spice for seasoning in India and Persia. It was cultivated in these regions since ancient times and glorified by the phrase “Perfume of the Gods”—rightly so because a tiny amount produces a remarkable fragrance, flavor, and color. The orange golden color became royal, kingly, and sacred, since the monks dyed their robes orange with saffron. Greeks discovered saffron for their erotic needs and used it for perfuming their baths, women, and villas. Newly married brides had their breasts and arms colored and perfumed with saffron for their wedding night. The Spanish use it in their national dish called paella. Temples in India used saffron water during their rituals.
Saffron consists of three yellow stigmas and three red stigmas of a flowering purple crocus, Crocus sativus, which grows to about 15-20 cm tall, with each plant bearing four blossoms. The three yellow stigmas are considered inferior and are often dyed red and sold as premium saffron. But it is the three red stigmas that are pure premium saffron—the true red gold. In India, we call this kesar, which means “orange colored” because the red stigmas turn orange when infused in water as tea. And in milk, the red stigmas turn yellow when heated. It takes stigmas of 4,500 blossoms—about an acre of flowers—to make a half ounce of saffron. Each stigma is hand harvested from these beautiful purple crocus flowers. This spice is very difficult to harvest and process, making it labor intensive and thus, very expensive.
Stigmas can be bought as saffron threads or in a powder form. This red gold is like fine wine; the flavor gets stronger and more intense as it ages if stored correctly. I prefer saffron threads, and my favorite is a Spanish saffron that comes in a golden tin with a seal from a company with a quaint name, The Gathering of Saffron.
I have also bought saffron in India in Pampore where it flourishes and thrives right from the source to guarantee the highest quality. On one of our yearly family vacations, we visited the fields of saffron crocuses in bloom in Kashmir, located at the foothills of the majestic Himalayas. It was an exhilarating and endearing experience to listen to the stories of the farmers who have been in the saffron business for generations. The residents in this small village are dependent on the saffron farmers for their livelihood. Such are the intricacies of life where we are so interdependent.
Beyond the culinary and ritual uses of saffron, there are health benefits galore. In particular, saffron tea has the virtue of suppressing coughs, settling upset stomachs, inducing sleep, and can be used as an antidepressant. Choose saffron not Prozac to enhance your emotions and mood. It balances and nourishes the body, enhances mood, and soothes the spirit. This deceptively rare spice has so many health benefits because of its medicinal properties. Here are a few:
• Fights Alzheimer’s disease
• Reduces anxiety and uplifts your spirit, thus lowers blood pressure
• Prevents cancer by inhibiting promotion of tumors
• Antioxidant and anti-viral qualities
• Prevents heart disease
• Slows progress of macular degeneration
• Improves digestion, memory, and cognition
• Liver detoxifier and a blood cleanser
• Powerful antidepressant, increases serotonin.
It is no wonder that saffron is now recognized for the value and benefits it provides. Remember, a little saffron goes a long way, so use it sparingly for best results. Ayurveda considers saffron balancing all three doshas in the body. It has the properties of sweet, astringent, and heating. Enjoy the following saffron-inspired beverages for a variety of benefits for mind, body, and spirit.
Bina’s Soothing Saffron Tea
This soothing and mood boosting saffron tea is dosha balancing. Add to your favorite hot milk, and enjoy before bedtime.
3 cups water
1/4 teaspoon saffron
2 drops rose water
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
Honey, sugar, or alternative sweetener (to taste)
Boil 3 cups of water in a pot, then remove from heat. Add ¼ teaspoon of saffron to boiled water, and allow it to steep with 2 drops of rose water and 1 teaspoon of orange blossom water. Add honey, sugar, or alternative sweetener to taste. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight bottle for up to three weeks.
Warm Milk with Bina’s Aromatic Chai
3 cups almond milk or your choice of milk
1 tablespoon Bina’s Aromatic Chai
Honey, sugar, or alternative sweetener (to taste)
Heat 3 cups of almond milk or your choice of milk in a saucepan over medium high heat. As soon as tiny bubbles appear on the edges, add 1 tablespoon of my Aromatic Chai blend. Whisk together slowly until it boils. Sweeten it with honey, sugar, or an alternative sweetener.
Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice with Saffron and Cardamom
Spring is here with hotter days to come. This drink is refreshing, cooling, and helps rehydrate your body. Add a little tequila and Grand Marnier and make margaritas to enjoy on your patio.
2 limes juiced, 1/2 cup
4 cups water
1/2 cup sugar or alternative sugar substitute (adjust to taste)
1/8 teaspoon saffron soaked in 2 tablespoons warm water*
1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder*
A pinch of salt
*Note: If you don’t have saffron or cardamom powder at home, you can use my Aromatic Chai spice blend. A quarter teaspoon will be enough.
Mix all ingredients together. Allow sugar or sweetener to dissolve. Chill, serve, and savor.