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Business News/ Lounge / Food/  The mystique of saffron in a summer lunch

The mystique of saffron in a summer lunch

It is the world’s most expensive spice, but a few strands can transform your food. Some inspiration for an Indian kitchen from the Maghreb

Saffron lends a golden-yellow hue to food. (iStockphoto)Premium
Saffron lends a golden-yellow hue to food. (iStockphoto)

There’s a tiny plastic box in the dark, cool recesses of my larder, unremarkable in its ordinariness. I open it perhaps once or twice a year, but when I do, I cannot but feel a surge of excitement because of its fabled history and exotic place in our lives.

The box contains the crimson-red strands of an ancient spice that was probably discovered in the wilds of ancient Greece or Iran, its spread across the world marking the rise and fall and quirks of emperors—Cleopatra’s baths were infused with it—and empires. It has enraptured chefs and writers and lent a golden hue to the food of many civilisations over at least 3,000 years.

Also read: How to create an inviting summer table

Saffron, the dried, vivid crimson stigma—the reproductive organ—of the Crocus sativus flower, is a demanding and delicate spice that should ideally be picked by hand in the cool of the morning. It does not grow naturally any more, and there are only three strands in each flower, so a kg of saffron has tens and thousands of threads and require upwards of 100,000 flowers, about a football field of them. A kg can cost 3 lakh. It is the world’s most expensive spice, about four times costlier than the second-most expensive spice, vanilla.

So, I treasure my little box and use it sparingly.

I doused a few strands in water and dunked it in the North African entrée that I have for you today (see recipe). Apart from the characteristic crimson or golden-yellow hue it lent the vegetables, it infused them with a flavour so warm and intense that even the wife, who is often suspicious of my efforts at vegetarian food, approved.

That golden hue of saffron is commonly seen in biryanis, meats and pulaos, but many Indian dishes use saffron, from cold milk to biscuits. The Spanish use it in their paella, and the Italians in soup, pasta, and risotto.

Saffron is also experiencing renewed interest for its impressive medicinal properties, of which the ancients were aware. In medieval Europe, it was used as protection against the plague, but its medicinal uses there receded greatly with the advent of synthetic chemistry.

In India, saffron was held in high esteem in Ayurveda and later by the Mughals, especially the ruling classes, who were presumably the only ones who could afford it. It is known to be good for the hair, skin, digestion, and as an aphrodisiac. Medical research confirms its positive effect on the nervous and cardiovascular systems, the liver, and its antidepressant and cancer-fighting qualities.

My latest tryst with saffron came on a blazing summer’s day, when Bengaluru was experiencing record temperatures. I was struggling to impart some dash and verve to my attempt at vegetables inspired by the Maghreb, where indeed they love their saffron. Infused with saffron, poured over couscous, and finished off with lemon juice, they provided some one-pot summer relief.


Saffron-infused vegetables (left); and yogurt and mint sauce.
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Saffron-infused vegetables (left); and yogurt and mint sauce. (Photos by Samar Halarnkar)


Serves 5


15 strands of saffron, dissolved in a little water

3 carrots, sliced into discs, steamed

10 beans, half-inch pieces, steamed

Half a cup of cooked chickpeas

Half a cup steamed broccoli

10 cherry tomatoes

2 tbsp olives, halved

1 small white onion, sliced

3 tsp garlic, minced or sliced thin

1 tsp fresh ginger, minced

1 heaped cinnamon powder

1 tsp smoked paprika powder (add one more if you’d like some kick)

1 tbsp cilantro or coriander, chopped

Juice of 1 lemon or 2 limes

2 tsp vegetable oil

Salt to taste


In a pan, heat oil gently. Saute the white onion till translucent. Add the garlic and ginger and saute till the garlic starts to brown. Add a little warm water if things start to stick. Add cherry tomatoes and saute on moderate heat until the skins start to blister. Add chickpeas, broccoli, beans and carrots, saute for half a minute. Add cinnamon and smoked paprika powders and toss well. Add salt. Mix in the saffron and the water. Stir in olives, add lemon or lime juice and mix well, dribbling in some warm water if needed. Saute for a minute. Garnish with cilantro or coriander and serve over couscous.

Couscous: Add hot vegetable stock to half a cup of couscous spread over a flat dish, enough to cover it. Immediately seal the dish with clingwrap and let stand for at four minutes. Uncover, add two small knobs of butter and a little salt and fluff the couscous.


Serves 5


2 small Persian cucumber, finely chopped (no need to remove skin)

3 cups yogurt

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp mint, washed and chopped

3 garlic cloves, finely minced

Half tsp fresh black pepper

Pinch of salt


Smoothen the yogurt with a fork. Stir in olive oil until there is no visual trace of it. Add chopped cucumber, mint, salt, and garlic. Mix well. Sprinkle with pepper.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He posts @samar11 on Twitter.

Also read: The pickle platter of India

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Published: 04 May 2024, 03:01 PM IST
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