Oct 14, 2016 CANADA (SUN) A journey through India: border to border, bhoga to prasadam.
The part of the Crocus flower that produces saffron is the stigma, which is normally the female reproductive member of a flower. But in the case of Crocus, we have a sterile flower that doesn't produce any seeds, so the primary function of the stigma is the super-excellent saffron its produces. The Vedas say that every plant can be used as either a food or a medicine, and the saffron stigma is both foodstuff and medicinal.
Because it doesn't produce seeds, the Crocus reproduces instead by its corms, or bulbs, which were transported from place to place in ancient times, allowing Crocus to be cultivated worldwide.
The harvesting and use of saffron was recorded by the Sumerians 5,000 years ago, and it was used throughout the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia regions. Today, the finest saffron in the world comes from Spain, Iran and Kashmir. Spain and Iran produce more than 80% of the 300 tons harvested worldwide each year. While less is produced there, the Kashmiri saffron has a unique quality that's highly desirable.
When buying saffron, there are a number of things to look out for. Cheating by saffron sellers in the marketplace is as old as the hills. All sorts of adulterated saffron or saffron look-alikes appear in modern groceries. Sometimes the stuff passed off as saffron is actually dyed fibers from grass, safflower or calendula flowers. Turmeric is often mixed in with powdered saffron as an extender.
While saffron has a long shelf life, it does have its limits, and some of what appears packaged on store shelves his little flavor or aroma left in it. In other cases, the weight of the saffron has been increased by soaking the stigma in fatty oils or glycerol. This gives the saffron a sweet taste that an uninformed buyer may even take as a sign of quality.
To avoid cheating products, it's best to buy whole saffron threads, not powders, which are most easily adulterated. Ask the grocer to break open a container and let you check the aroma for quality and freshness if you're buying from a new source.
As shown in the picture above, there are three red stigma, or carpel flowers, called saffron. There are another three yellow carpel flowers called safranin, or patti in Kashmiri. After the flowers are harvested and allowed to sit for two or three days, the red and yellow strands are removed from the flowers and dried in the sun. The saffron is then separated from the yellow fibers, and the red saffron is sorted into three groups, by quality: mongra, turla and lachha. Mongra is the red part trimmed from the white stem, turla is the white stem itself, and lacha is the whole stem along with red carpel, dried intact.
Mongra is the finest quality saffron. The patti, or yellow strands, are sometimes treated to give them a saffron color so they can be sold by cheating merchants. In India, it's easy to acquire the finest mongra saffron if you're willing to pay the steep price. Unfortunately, India has banned the export of its highest grade saffron, so the non-Indian world must choose from the best of the rest. Spanish saffron is the most mellow in flavor and aroma, while the Greek and Iranian saffrons are stronger and better quality.
Italy produces its own specialty saffron, the finest of which is Aquila (zafferano dell'Aquila), a saffron that was introduced into Italy by a Dominican monk. It's produced on just eight hectares in the Navelli Valley of Italy's Abruzzo region, near L'Aquila. The best Kashmiri saffron, if you can get it, is grown in the fields of Pampore, near Srinagar, where it's been cultivated for at least 2,000 years.
While most cooks won't have the time or funds to be a saffron connoisseur, it's nice to be able to acquire the finest spices when cooking for Lord Krsna. We can at least do our best to judge the quality of packaged saffron, looking for threads that are the brightest red, with thread tips that are a slightly lighter orange-red in color. A natural variation in color is a good indicator that the saffron hasn't been dyed.
Because saffron is a spice rather than a main ingredient, recipes don't generally feature saffron as the key ingredient, except in the case of beverages. In fact, many cooks will use saffron in almost any dish if it's available, just to add the color and aroma. The taste works quite universally, and adding saffron elevates a plain dish to an opulent one in one simple step.
One of the traditional Vedic dishes that prominently features saffron is typically offered on Janmastami. This sweet fritter is said to be a favorite of Nanda Maharaja's. It's prepared by making a sweet pulp from saffron and grated coconut, which is mixed with a little rice flour to bind it. The coconut fibers should be carefully sieved to get only the softest pulp. Sometimes a little banana is added, or wheat flour. The mixture is rolled into small balls, and fried in ghee. Nanda Maharaja is said to have danced joyfully while eating these sweets, no doubt at the great celebrations following Sri Krsna's Appearance.
Another ancient Vedic preparation featuring saffron is the nectarian delight known as Shrikhand. Shrikhand is mentioned in the Supa-sastra, a famous tome on foodstuffs written by the poet Mangarasa in 1594 A.D. And well before this manuscript, shrikhand was mentioned in Kannada writings as early as 1025 A.D. In the Lokopakara of Chavundaraya, the dish was referred to as shikarini.
The traditional way of preparing shrikhand is to bundle fresh rich yoghurt up in cloth, letting the liquids drip from it overnight. In the morning, a lovely thick yoghurt cheese is ready to be sweetened and spiced with saffron. Nuts, cardamom and rosewater are often beaten into the mixture, and sometimes fresh berries. Here is a modern version of shrikhand that's made very quickly, and is super-rich:
Mango – 1 ripe
Sugar – ¼ to 1/3 cup
Cream Cheese – 8 oz
Sour Cream – 1/2 cup
Saffron (Kesar) – a pinch
Milk – 1 Tbsp
Cardamom powder – 1/8 tsp
Pistachios – 2 Tblsp, chopped
Let the cream cheese come to room temperature. Warm the milk and soak the saffron in it, then set aside. Wash, peel and de-seed the mango. Put the fruit into a food processor, adding the sugar, and give it a few pulses. Next add the cream cheese, cut in chunks, along with the sour cream, saffron milk and cardamom. Puree until well blended. Add ¾ of the chopped pistachios and blend for another moment, then turn the shrikhand into a dish, garnish with the remaining nuts and a few strands of milk-soaked saffron, and offer well chilled.
On the more savoury side, saffron is an excellent ingredient to use in soup and stew bases. The color, aroma and depth of flavor can make the simplest combinations of dal, rice and vegetables a rich feast. One of our all-time favorite saffron dishes is the following, Saffron Shakarkand (not to be confused with Shrikhand).
1 large Fennel bulb
¼ lb. Butter
¼ lb. Paneer
2 qt. Vegetable Bullion
a good pinch of Saffron
a few tsp. hot Milk
2 medium Sweet Potatoes (orange)
12 Brussel Sprouts
3 cups pre-cooked Chana dal (Chickpeas)
3 cups Rajma (Kidney Beans)
3 tsp. roasted ground Cumin
½ tsp. Paprika
1 tsp Jaggery
a bunch of fresh Parsley
½ cup Peanuts, chopped fine
1 Lemon, juiced
Mince the fennel bulb and fry it in the butter until translucent. Peel the sweet potatoes, and steam them along with the brussel sprouts until ¾ cooked. Save the steaming water and set aside. In a large pot add the vegetable bullion, sautéed fennel, steamed vegetables, chana dal and rajma, along with the cumin, paprika and jaggery. Soak the saffron in ½ the hot milk, then add to the pot. Use as much saffron as you can, adding extra paprika if you go light on the saffron, and vice versa (decrease paprika if you're using a lot of saffron). Add enough liquid from the steaming water as needed to cover all the vegetables.
Soak another pinch of saffron in the remaining milk, then in a separate bowl, toss this with the chenna cubes, mixing gently to get the color evenly distributed throughout.
Let the sabji cook on low heat for two hours, so the flavors thoroughly mix. If you're using canned kidney beans or chickpeas, include the juice in the pot, as the starch is a nice thickener.
During the last 30 minutes of cooking, add the paneer to the pot, fully submerged in the liquids. When ready, garnish with the peanuts, parsley and lemon juice, and offer alongside a fluffy pile of saffron rice.