There are few herbs that conjure far-flung exotica like saffron, the rare and exquisite seasoning of ancient Greece and Assyria.
Today, its subtle, fragrant flavour can transform a dish, while its pigments, rich enough to dye textiles, add a rich golden yellow to everything from Italian risottos to Indian curries.
But exquisiteness doesn’t come cheap: Saffron is and has always been one of the world’s most expensive spices, because it’s so labour intensive to produce. And there are no shortcuts: Discount saffron is always substandard, half-disintegrated or even simply dyed corn silk.
What is saffron?
The reddish, thread-like spice known as saffron comes from the magenta-petaled saffron crocus flower (Crocus sativus). Specifically, it comes from the flower’s stigmas and styles – that is, the strands that extend from the centre of the flower and receive pollen.
Its unique, floral, almost grassy flavour comes from the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal, and high quantities of special carotenoid pigments give saffron its unique ability to transform the colour of food or even, for many Eurasian cultures, textiles.
These cultures have treasured saffron above almost any spice, partly because harvesting saffron is such an arduous process. Each flower yields only three styles, and it takes a thousand styles to make just one ounce of the herb.
Alexander the Great is said to have used saffron tea as a battlefield restorative. In the 14th century it was thought to be a treatment for the Black Death, and it was so valuable that a 14-week war was fought between European nobles over a stolen shipment.
Thus, you had better sharpen your sword and build some stockades if you want to cook with saffron. Just kidding. You can buy saffron at most herb markets and specialty ingredient stores, but it might cost around SGD10 per ounce.
Here’s why it’s worth it.
Saffron can make your food taste and smell great
The rich, floral aromas of saffron can transform the entire palette of a dish. Saffron is most commonly used in Mediterranean, Indian and Persian cooking, but try experimenting with saffron in seafood, salads and even desserts. Here is an excellent saffron recipe guide from BBC Good Food.
We say “experiment with saffron” as if it isn’t the world’s most expensive spice. Fortunately, a little bit goes a long way, and there are even artificial saffron flavourings available if you want to run a few test recipes without wasting your precious threads.
Saffron can make your food look great
Again, a little saffron goes a long way in both taste and colour. The pigments will permeate the whole of a dish, especially if the colour is already neutral, turning white rice and coconut-milk based curries a rich yellow-gold.
But don’t forget the crocus flowers themselves, which are edible but also make for a striking garnish.
Saffron can transform your garden
Yes, you can grow saffron crocus yourself, and it will be a strident addition to your garden even if only for aesthetics. The crocus bulbs can be purchased online or at a local nursery. Bear in mind that while the flower is not difficult to grow, gathering enough of the precious stigmas to store up in your spice rack will require a bit of patience.
Don’t get faked
As the saying goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably ain’t, and budget saffron is almost always substandard or fake. Look for a trumpet-shaped strand with rich red colour that fades into a lighter orange at the tips. Too uniform in shape, and it’s probably just dyed corn silk. No orange tip, and it’s probably dyed corn silk (here is a handy guide to spotting fakes).