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Diwali 2022: How to cook with saffron

‘Kesar’ is the flavour and colour of festivities— and you need to get it right. Here’s how to find the real deal

Saffron from Aagur.

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It’s Diwali season, the time when festive dishes are often enriched with saffron. Demand tends to soar for this limited produce, opening the door to inferior or adulterated versions of kesar. How can one find the real deal and make the most of it?

The number one determining factor of good saffron is the look and colour, explains Aaditya Kitroo, who runs the Kashmir-based food brand Aagur. In good saffron, each strand is long and it starts leaving colour gradually when boiled or steeped in hot water. If it releases colour immediately, know that synthetic colour has been added, says Kitroo.

The second factor is price. Often, people are lured by attractive rates and discounts, say maximum retail price (MRP) 180 for 1g—but that’s a sure indicator of spurious or synthetic produce. Unadulterated, good quality Kashmiri saffron costs anywhere from MRP 300-500 a gram, while the Iranian variety retails at MRP 200-350 a gram.

The third aspect is the brand. “For top-notch saffron, buy from a reputed brand,” says Avneesh Chhabra, director, USMS Saffron Company Inc. He sources the spice from Iran, Afghanistan and Kashmir, retailing it as Baby Brand Saffron. It’s similar to buying gold from a trusted family jeweller or brand to minimise the chances of an inferior product.

The best and most expensive saffron comes from Kashmir. “Quality is a function of colouring strength, flavour and aroma. Aroma comes from the compound safranal, colouring strength is derived from the compound crocin and flavouring depends on the compound picrococin. In the world of saffron, that from Kashmir has the highest concentration of all three,” explains Kitroo.

It’s not just the quality that influences the price of Kashmiri saffron, but supply too; production is extremely limited. So relatively cheaper saffron is imported from Iran and Afghanistan in large quantities. “In the wholesale market, within the premium category, Kashmiri saffron is 60% more expensive than its Iranian counterpart,” points out Kitroo. In the B2B space, imported versions dominate, with a close to 95% share.

Saffron is the stigma of the autumn crocus flower. Each has three stigmas and it takes about 100-150 flowers to produce one gram of saffron. Kitroo has leased a few saffron farms near Pampore in Kashmir and as autumn transitions to winter, he prepares for the annual harvest. “They will be ready for harvest in a few days. The saffron flowers, thousands of them, will be in full bloom and the fields will turn completely purple,” he said earlier this week. 

To extract maximum flavour, colour and aroma, Kitroo’s advice is to break the strands into little pieces, add them to a hot medium and cook for at least 20-30 minutes. Store in an airtight container in a cool spot or in the fridge. It will stay well for a year.

SAFFRON RICE
BY AADITYA KITROO
Serves 3-4

Ingredients

One and a half cups basmati rice
2-3 saffron strands
3 tbsp ghee or oil
1 tsp black shahi jeera (black cumin seeds)
2-3 cardamoms
1 bay leaf
1.5 inch cinnamon stick broken into three-four pieces
2-3 cloves
1 thin strand of mace
4 cups of water
A pinch of turmeric powder
Pakistani rock salt for taste
Coriander and mint leaves to garnish

Method

Rinse the basmati rice three-four times in water. Place it in a large container and add enough water to cover and soak for 20-30 minutes. Drain and set aside. Crush the saffron strands into a fine or semi-fine powder with your fingers or in a mortar-pestle.

Heat ghee or oil in a deep pan or pot. Keep heat to a low and add all the spices. Fry for a few seconds until they crackle, but take care to not burn them. Now, add the rice. On low to medium-low heat, stir well for one-two minutes, so that the ghee coats the rice grains. Add the crushed saffron and a pinch of turmeric powder for some colour. Stir gently and mix well.

Pour in three cups of water. The water should cover the rice by an inch, add some more if needed. Sprinkle Pakistani rock salt and taste. The water should be slightly salty. Bring the water to a gentle simmer on low heat. Cover the pan tightly and let the rice cook until the grains separate and absorb all the water..

Lift the lid and check the saffron rice a couple of times while it cooks, but do not stir. If it looks like the water is evaporating too quickly, and add more water, one tablespoon at a time. Be careful not to overcook the rice. Once it’s done, remove the pot from the heat and fluff the yellow rice with a fork. Garnish with coriander or mint leaves and serve with a simple dal.

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