1,001 Arabian Bites: From sweet to savoury, saffron is a valued spice
There are plenty of things worth more than their weight in gold, but none are subjected to that tired reference more often than saffron. It’s an obvious target: expensive, used historically to symbolise wealth and prone to cheap substitutes, as evidenced by the stains of turmeric and safflower on millions of everyday biryanis.
Saffron smells like warm hay, strong honey and a woman’s freshly hennaed hands. Cultivating and harvesting it is madly labour-intensive, because it’s a sterile plant and reproduction doesn’t occur naturally through pollination. When it’s time for the violet-petalled saffron crocus to blossom, the bare ground needs to be carefully monitored, as it sprouts overnight and without warning.
Each flower yields exactly three scarlet filaments that are hand-picked and dried before use. Iran’s annual saffron production accounts for more than 90 per cent of the global harvest.
In Gulf cooking, no flavours are more essential than saffron and cardamom, which are used to perfume everything from tea and coffee to milk and cakes, as well as the most iconic regional dessert, halwa.
Halwa, halva, halaweh – an umbrella term for “sweet” with a hundred variations – refers to several families of dense, sugary confections.
The most universally recognised is a crumbly, melt-in-the-mouth brick of sweetened sesame butter that can be found in every Middle Eastern grocery worldwide, but there are halwas made from carrots, pumpkins, nuts, seeds or legumes, too.
The Gulf variety is a jellied nougat of translucent amber studded with roasted nuts and made from flour (semolina or corn), fat (clarified butter or canola oil), sugar and a potent trifecta of spices, with saffron usually trumping the subtler presence of cardamom and nutmeg.
This type of halwa originated in Zanzibar and was introduced to the Peninsula by way of Oman. It was later embraced in Bahrain, where the halwa produced by the Showaiter dynasty is generally considered superior in the region and is a cherished import in the UAE.
I love using saffron in medicinal teas and as an aromatic in traditional Arabian coffee. But I like to eat it, too, especially in Moroccan tagines, in Swedish saffron-and-spice buns, and in the spicy golden mayonnaise known as rouille that completes the Provençal fish stew bouillabaisse. Saffron is the defining feature of the risotto alla Milanese that accompanies osso buco and it glorifies the crispy rice that caramelises at the bottom of the pan in paella Valenciana.
I don’t eat halwa because I find it overwhelming. The way I use saffron most is the way I know best, in lively layered rice dishes that never turn out the same way twice.
To spread the flavour and colour of saffron, it’s crucial to break up the threads with your fingers and steep them in hot water for 10 minutes. This, along with plenty of melted butter, gets drizzled on top while the rice is steaming. Fried shallots, toasted almonds, chopped dates, lemon zest and fresh coriander are at home here.
Saffron is brought into the world with love – it wouldn’t even exist without the care and attention of humans – and while it may be a lavish ingredient, it’s neither a shy nor a jealous one.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and lives in New Mexico
Updated: August 20, 2014 04:00 AM