Yesterday, a gift was waiting for me at home. A chocolate and saffron cake, perfectly marbled with dark brown and golden orange swirls. Did I like it? Yes. One slice of it was an intense moment with spice.
So now I am thinking, why not warm some strands of kesar, crush it in a mini-mortar, add some milk to it and use this orange coloured intensely flavoured milk to knead some pizza dough?
Beyond the ordinary
No, I am not narrating a recent nightmare (well, chefs do dream of such creative stuff) but I genuinely want to research some extended uses of saffron away from the regular kulfis, Mughlai tikkas, biryanis, cookies and cream sauces.
If we can have chilli oil, why not saffron oil? That's a good idea too! By all means use your share of saffron in kheer, ice cream, rasmalai, pedhas and kulfi but never forget that these dried stigmas of a mauve-coloured flower, Crocus Sativus Linneaus, are precious because each flower contains only three stigmas.
These threads are picked from each flower by hand. And more than 75,000 flowers produce just 500 grams of saffron filament. No wonder then that it is the most expensive spice in the world.
Currently the cost of 0.5 grams of saffron varies from Rs 60 to 80, which means a kilogram of saffron could cost 1.25 onwards. Phew! But luckily a minuscule amount goes a long way. All you need to add is a tiny pinch to get its full flavour and colour.
Saffron or the colour kesariya is an Indian's privilege. Our Tricolour proudly displays it as the colour for patriotism for eternity. Jammu and Kashmir is the greatest producer of the spice.
Around 300 tons of saffron is produced worldwide every year. The greatest saffron producing countries are Iran, Spain, India, Greece, Turkey, and Morocco.
India is the third largest (after Iran and Spain) with the Kashmiri variety being among the most valued. It has an extremely dark maroon hue with a strong flavour and aroma.
Spanish Saffron is most visible and it is undoubtedly the soul of their national dish
Threads of gold
Available as threads and ground, your best bet is to go with saffron threads. Only ensure that you purchase it from a reputed shop because adulterated saffron is known to have coloured babycorn filament.
Saffron does not spoil, but it will simply lose its flavour with age. It has an ageing problem but helps in slowing our ageing.
Recent clinical trials have uncovered of saffron's antioxidant properties and potential as an anti-ageing agent.
Saffron has been used as a beauty ingredient for ages. In the olden days women would apply a paste on their faces to clear the skin of pimples and rashes, soothe the skin and give it a golden glow. Cleopatra can tell.
Indian Ayurvedic remedies for acne and skin ailments hold saffron in high regard. Saffron is also an excellent antispasmodic, helps digestion and increases appetite. It also relieves renal colic, reduces stomach aches and eases tension.
Of late it has also been used as a drug for flu-like infections, depression and as a sedative for its essential oils.
Mouthful of sea?
Someone asked me to describe the taste of saffron at a recent live show. I shot the question back and got answers like "It tastes like the sea" (tasted sea ever?) or "slightly bitter." Yeah, ‘bitter' is the better bet.
I tell you, it's difficult to put saffron's flavour in words. That is not surprising when you consider the fact that there is not one single ingredient known to us that can be substituted for saffron. Not one.
If someone advises you to substitute turmeric for saffron, he or she is telling you to create a completely different dish. So forget the substitution and go for the real thing (best is to buy saffron with colouring strength of 200 and above).
As a chef, I have realised that when working with saffron threads, avoid using a whisk. Avoid using wooden spoons that tend to absorb the saffron. Don't worry about using saffron to flavour more than one dish being served at the same meal.
It could be a Kesari Aloo (potato with saffron infused in yogurt gravy) with Kesar Ni Rotli (saffron flavoured bread dotted with nuts) wound up with Kesariya Kachoris UP-style (mawa kachoris, deep fried and steeped in sweet saffron syrup). Just be careful not to over saffron your dish, it will be difficult to salvage.
Add little by little and remember the flavour and colour intensifies on standing and we don't want to eat something too much ‘sea' tasting! (The writer is a master chef, author and television host.
(Reach him on email@example.com)