Close to 45,000 flowers contribute to making just a kilogramme of saffron, making it the world’s most expensive spice Image Credit: Consulate General of India Dubai

Khushboo si aa rahi hai kahin zafran ki, khirki khuli shayad koi unke makaan ki!

(The mildly intoxicating whiff of saffron is in the air. It seems a window in the beloved’s house has opened.)

These lines, read some time back, seem particularly apt at the moment. Kesar (saffron) from Kashmir has finally been granted the geographical indicator (GI), and one hopes that this will encourage our compatriots to take pride in this unique product of a province that has been called Paradise on Earth. Let the world share the sublime aroma, flavour, enchanting hue and rejoice.

Hopefully, this recognition will encourage consumers to take some trouble to distinguish between real and fake saffron. Many suffer from the misconception that Spanish saffron is the ‘best in the world’, and our own produce is inferior to it. This canard has originated because of large-scale adulteration in saffron from Kashmir. The GI tag should go a long way towards restoration of this exotic ingredient to its rightful place of pride. Kesar, saffron or zafran, call it by any name, is the most expensive spice by weight in the world. Almost 45,000 flowers contribute their aromatic and flavourful stamens to make up this measure. The most premium quality commands a price of up to Rs500,000 (about Dh25,000) per kg!

The indiscriminate use of saffron, however, has bred familiarity that makes us underestimate its virtues. We encounter the ingredient in ras malai, jalebi, and even kesariya paneer tikka. Few can distinguish between good quality saffron and the adulterated stuff. Many think that saffron is overrated because what they have been exposed to is substandard produce.

Romantic images are far removed from the back-breaking task of saffron farming. It is restricted to a small number of families, who dwell in adjacent villages. The joint family system survives somehow against all odds and political turbulence to sustain the trade. The harvest season is short. The flowers grow very close to the ground and have to be picked squatting or in a kneeling position. The saffron strands, known as zarda and lachcha, have to be then separated manually from the flower. When a short documentary shoot took me to Pampore, near Srinagar, a couple of years back, I was amazed to see how specialised intricate tasks like sorting, grading, drying and packing are done in confined spaces with all family members chipping in cheerfully. During another such trip in Kishtwar, we encountered the local saffron. The host generously gifted us a small casket of the best quality — we are not being ungrateful, but it was no match to its Pampore cousin.

Land of violet blooms

Not far from Srinagar lies the township of Pampore — the name derived from original Sanskrit Padmapura — City of Lotuses. Emperor Jehangir chronicled in his diary how overpowering was the fragrance of the violet-petalled blossoms in autumn when the ‘crop’ covered like a carpet hundreds of acres of flatlands. The lover of good life also thought that the height of ecstasy could be experienced on a full moon night in Pampore in autumn, when countless blossoms bloomed stretching as far as one could see. Legend has it that zafran was brought to the Valley some time in circa 5th century after the birth of Christ by two itinerant Sufi saints from Persia. As folklore has it, the saints had been both cured of a painful chronic ailment by a local physician, who was gifted by the grateful patients with a bulb of the rare flower with miraculous properties. The transmission from Iran is quite plausible as Kashmir is referred to in some early texts as Iran Sagir (smaller Iran). Its cuisine and crafts, language and manners carry a deep Persian imprint.

Kashmiri Pandit tradition, however, narrates another story. Great physician Vagbhatt is once said to have cured a serpent demigod disguised in the human form of a painful eye disease. It is from this celestial patient that he received this precious gift. It appears that practitioners of ayurveda in India were familiar with this ingredient and its medicinal properties as it is described in some detail in Bhavaprakasa Nighantu — traditional Indian materia medica dating back to the 4th century.

Strands of good health

Time-tested properties of saffron are believed to be restorative, rejuvenating and by implication aphrodisiac. It is an essential ingredient in ayurvedic preparations like chyawanprash. Saffron is used to enrich and garnish both vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes in the subcontinent. It is impossible to imagine a biryani that is cooked without it. A few strands are often carefully sprinkled to make the diner believe that he is being treated with exotic ingredients.

Masala chai may have just a hint of its essence but the kahwa in Kashmir that is poured in a light golden stream from a samovar relies on saffron to create magic during cold winter mornings. Kesar adorns the rich bread sheer maal that is prized in Lucknow and Hyderabad. It enriches the thickened milk garnished with almond flakes. Frozen desserts like kulfi and desserts like kheer and phirni seem incomplete without kesariya garnish.

In Benaras, we were once treated to a delectable kesar bati, a confection conjured out of saffron-laced clotted cream.

In Bengal, saffron adds a touch of subtle elegance to prawns cooked in coconut cream and a zafrani fish curry that seems to have been influenced by Mughal culinary practices. In Maharashtra, kesar is an essential ingredient along with green cardamom seeds in the delectable shrikhand.

And while it may be absent in East Asian and South East Asian cuisines, saffron is used in delicacies in the Middle East and Europe. In Italy, risotto is subtly flavoured with saffron and in Spain, it makes paella and many other sea food delicacies more tempting.

Beyond cuisine

It is not only in the realm of cuisine that saffron is valued. Kesariya Banna, the chivalrous young warrior dressed in saffron-coloured attire, is extolled in Rajasthani folk songs that resonate in the vast desert far removed from the Vale. One of the celebrated bhajans (devotional songs) by Hindu mystic poet Mira Bai uses the metaphor of saffron to praise virtues like love and compassion. Kesar, called kumkum in Sanskrit, is traditionally used in almost all forms of Hindu ritual worship. The auspicious tikka put on the forehead was to be prepared with saffron mixed with a substance to bring out the bright colour. Like chandan (sandal), kesar, too, was an indispensable part of shringar — formal make-up.

Perfumers have used it for generations in seductive perfumes with tobacconists in Kannauj, the city famous for Indian ittar (perfume), having used it for centuries to create intriguing perfumes. And internationally, Guerlain in France calls one of its upmarket perfumes Shalimar, doffing its proverbial hat to saffron from Kashmir. ●

— The writer is a noted Indian academic, food critic and historian and the author of several bestsellers. This article was first published in The Tribune India on August 9, 2020