A Mellow Yellow Fever
In his memoirs; the Tuzk-e-Jahangiri, Mughal Emperor Jahangir expresses his desire to visit Pampore, Kashmir, to see the land where the fields turn amethyst in the Autumn, when the saffron crocus sativus is ready for harvesting. It is from this flower that delicate hands nimbly extract three crimson-hued stigmas, also known as “Red Gold”; the most dear spice in the world. A spice which was once known to be worth its weight in gold.
Once the croci are hand-picked, the garnet-coloured stigmas are separated from the yellow stamens. It is an intricate job done by women, with approximately 4,000 croci yielding a mere 1 oz of saffron filaments. Half a kilo of saffron comes from 70-250 000 croci.
Zafferano, kesar, krokos, azafrán, zaafran are all words for saffron. Today saffron can be bought for $9/g. It is produced in Iran, Spain, Italy, Kashmir, Turkey and Greece. I find saffron to be particularly fascinating as it is one of the very rare spices which appeals to our three senses; sight- with its vermilion juice; smell- a musky, smoky aroma; and taste- the pungency elevating the base of any dish without being cloying.
In the case of saffron, a light-handed approach is good, which is not only easy on the pocket but also because you don’t want your dish to be garish or any of the flavours to be masked. Rather, they should be intensified and deepened.
A mellow yellow approach is best.
Rowley Leigh, one of my favourite chefs, says, “Saffron is merely one of the pigments in a complex aromatic picture.” When I think of saffron I imagine a flaky, oily fish poached in saffron-infused coconut milk; a slice of warm toast with butter, washed down with a glass of milk, dyed yellow with a drop of saffron and honey; or Pierre Hermé‘s saffron-scented peach and apricot macarons. Just a few drops of saffron’s golden water and it sends an intense current of flavour through any drink or dish.
Now that I have extolled the virtues of saffron, I must come to a rather sad story about my childhood; Ami, my mother, did not and does not like saffron. She thinks it tastes like metallic medicine and “…eclipses the flavour of a perfectly perfumed dish”. I was not brought up on saffron-fragranced polows at home. I only came to know and love saffron in my father’s ancestral home in Lahore.
My paternal grandmother, known affectionately by everyone as Mader; mother in Dari, adored saffron. She liked the way saffron, or zaafran, in Dari and Urdu, extended the flavour of her dishes with its honey-like notes.
A mother- and daughter-in-law disagreeing on the inclusion of a spice?
A grave matter. Relationships can be destroyed over such an issue in our part of the world. But Ami and Mader, like true adults, looked beyond this. They were family, after all.
Besides, Mader used zaafran primarily for a dish known as Sholeh Zard, for Nazri; a religious vow of offerings of charity food to the needy. How could my mother dispute that? In our home this was done during the month of Ramadan. Mader, a chic and modern lady for her time with no religious predilictions (no correlation between chicness and her lack of interest in religion, just stating things as they were), distributed a dish called Sholeh Zard to the needy during Ramadan.
Sholeh Zard is a creamy rice pudding infused with saffron, rose water, cardamom and cinnamon. Almonds are added to it for textural crunch and pistachios for adornment. Saffron, sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, butter, rice, almonds, pistachios, all the very good things in life, in one dish. Yes, it takes cholesterol highs to a new level, but who can refuse such deliciousness? As the saffron water is added to the rice, I love watching the colour bleed slowly into it, a transformation from white to gold.
Lastly, before you purchase saffron, please remember that there are lots of saffron impostors out there- beware of saffron powder, always buy saffron strands and pulverise them yourself. Those of you who have been to markets in exotic destinations may have come across orange-hued or brick-red saffron counterfeits – they contain turmeric, shredded marigolds, or the addition of molasses. There is a fantastic company in San Francisco called Vanilla, Saffron Imports, who sell saffron and have a website for instructions on what to look for when purchasing saffron. They also sell it there for approximately $9/gr.
A few cooking notes:
- This is a milk-free rice pudding.
- Half a cup of rice may seem too little, but since this is a rich pudding, all you need is a few spoons per person. If you would like more, just double the recipe.
- The rice will look mushy after it has been simmered for the first 30 minutes, a bit like this:
- I prefer less sugar in my puddings, so I have used only 1/2 cup. Feel free to use 1 whole cup.
- I have added whole saffron strands to the pulverised mix solely for visual effect.
- I find rose water to be very strong, but feel free to use a few more tablespoons if you like. Even though this pudding is traditionally made with rosewater, if you can’t source it, no worries, the dish has a lot of aroma because of the presence of cardamom, cinnamon and the saffron.
- The rice must always be cooked on the lowest heat possible, otherwise it could burn very easily; keep stirring gently and continuously.
- The pudding will be firm and almost tacky when done, some people like to place it in muffin tins and then bake for 30 minutes on 350F/180C.
It’s lovely to have a husband who has a sweet tooth.
Pampore, Kashmir saffron fields photo credit: Waseem Andrabi
Preparation time: 15 minutes + 1 hour for rice to soak
Active Time: 1 ½ hour
*½ cup Basmati rice
*1 + ½ tsp saffron strands
*4 cups cold water
*½ cup sugar
*1 cup hot water
*4 tbsp unsalted butter
*¼ cup rose water
*3 cardamom pods; seeds extracted, pods discarded
*1 cinnamon stick
*¼ cup slivered almonds
*handful slivered pistachios for adornment
*cinnamon powder for adornment
*A heavy-bottomed pan, minimum 8 in diameter
*Wash the Basmati in cold water 6 times till the milky water begins to run clear and soak for 1 hour;
*In the meanwhile, take 1 tsp of the saffron threads and crush with a pestle & mortar or back of a spoon in a small bowl;
*To this mixture, add ½ tsp of whole threads and 1 tbsp of warm water. Set aside;
*Add the Basmati to a pot with 4 cups of cold water on the lowest heat;
*Let the Basmati simmer for 30 minutes till you see it has cooked and moistened and the water has almost evaporated;
*To the moistened rice, add sugar mixed in hot water, rose water, butter, a cinnamon stick, almonds, cardamom seeds and the saffron infused liquid and stir gently;
*Cover and let cook for another 20 minutes;
*You will have to stir it occasionally, but gently, to ensure the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pot;
*Uncover the lid and cook for another 20 minutes;
*Remove and discard the cinnamon stick and ladle pudding into 4 individual cups;
*Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight; and
*Serve with a sprinkling of powdered cinnamon and slivers of pistachios.