Some pricy Asian spices

The most expensive spice in the world, saffron comes from a species of crocus believed to be native to Asia Minor and Greece. Its history extends back at least to the tenth century BC. It has been known in most of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean since ancient times, used as a spice and a dye as well as for its medicinal benefits. It was prized by Phoenician traders and by the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, and it is mentioned in the Old Testament. Saffron has been cultivated in India for centuries, and India is one of the major producers today, along with Spain and Iran.

Saffron is the dried stigmas of the crocus flower, and it takes more than one hundred thousand flowers to produce one pound of saffron. Each flower has only three stigmas, and these are attached at the bottom of the flower with a pale thread that is called a style. Harvesting saffron is a demanding, painstaking process. The harvest is in the fall, and the flowers are picked early in the morning, to avoid the heat of the sun. Then the stigmas are removed by hand, traditionally by all the women, young and old, of the town. Still attached to the style, the stigmas are then dried, often still over charcoal or in the sun, the traditional methods.

Most grades of saffron will have some of the styles attached; very high-quality versions have had the styles removed. Because of the cost (the price of saffron can be close to half of that of gold by weight), both whole threads and ground saffron have been known to be adulterated—safflower stigmas, the most likely culprit, look somewhat similar but have none of the flavor of the real thing. Dried saffron stigmas are red or red-orange, and the styles are lighter; the deeper the color of the threads, the better. Ground saffron is also marketed, but it is preferable to buy the whole threads and pulverize them at home, both for their fresher flavor and because of the possibility of the preground version being adulterated. Saffron has a distinctive musky, woody fragrance and a pungent, bitter taste. The best Spanish saffron, or azafrán, comes from La Mancha, and some believe this is the best in the world, but saffron from Kashmir in India is also very good, as is some of the saffron from Iran.

Saffron’s color is water-soluble, and it adds a beautiful yellow tone as well as its flavor to a wide variety of dishes. Spain’s paella is one of the most notable of these, along with Italy’s risotto alla Milanese and France’s bouillabaisse, the traditional seafood stew; it also flavors zarzuela, the Spanish version of that classic. Fortunately, only a pinch is necessary for most recipes (and too much can add a bitter taste, so it should always be used sparingly). The threads are usually soaked in warm water or another liquid to soften them and bring out the color and then added, with the liquid, to the pot; ground saffron can be added directly to a dish as it cooks. In India, saffron seasons rice and chicken, as well as rich Moghul-style preparations, and it flavors sweet custards and yogurt drinks or desserts. In England, the spice was cultivated in Essex in the Middle Ages, and it is still used in Britain to make traditional saffron cakes. Chartreuse and some other liqueurs are flavored with saffron. It is also used in a traditional Persian stew called koresh and a rice dish called polow.