Grown in the plains of the Kashmir valley, not far from Srinagar, is a flower more valuable than gold. Its scientific name is Crocus sativus but the world knows it simply as ‘saffron’ – each flower yielding just five strands of the
world’s most expensive spice.
The earliest use of saffron can be traced back more than 2,500 years, to when it was widely used in Persian cuisine and daily life. So, the next time you relish a saffron-garnished delicacy, as you enjoy delectable Dining Delights from Axis Bank,
think about this story of the golden spice.
The word ‘saffron’ has its origin in the Arabic word Az-za’fran, which means ‘something that takes on the color yellow’. The word was later adapted in various cultures, and is ‘safran’ in French and German,
‘safrani’ or ‘zafora’ in Greek, ‘kesar’ or ‘zafran’ in Hindi, ‘azafrán’ in Spanish, ‘za'afaran’ or ‘zaafaran’ in Farsi, and ‘zafran’ or ‘kisar’
British historian Andrew Dalby in his book Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices believes that the Persians probably introduced saffron to Kashmir in the 5th century BCE. Dalby also states that the earliest literary reference to saffron in Kashmir
is by a Chinese herbalist named Wan Zhen in the 3rd century CE. Zhen wrote that saffron was used as an offering to Buddha and also to dye the robes of monks, yellow or orange.
Kashmiri saffron also finds mention in the Sanskrit drama Ratnavali, dating to the 7th century CE, composed by King Harshavardhana of Kannauj (590-647 CE), where he refers to the saffron of the Kashmira country being the finest in color and scent.
Kashmiri scholar and historian Kalhana in his work on the political history of Kashmir, Rajatarangini, mentions that Kashmiri saffron was cultivated in 725 CE.
However, according to folklore, saffron was brought to Kashmir in the 12th or 13th century CE by two Sufi saints, Khawja Masood Wali and Sheikh Sharif-u-din Wali, who after being taken ill, were cured by a local tribal chieftain. To express their
gratitude, they gifted him a saffron crocus bulb, which was the beginning of saffron cultivation in the Valley. Even today, saffron cultivators offer prayers to the two saints at their tomb in the town of Pampore, 15 km from Srinagar, where most
of Kashmir’s saffron is grown.
The spice is harvested from the saffron crocus, each flower yielding only five strands. While the three stigmas (female part of the flower) yield the best saffron, the two stamens (male part) are also used, albeit of inferior quality. It takes thousands
of flowers to produce only a few grams of saffron, making it a very tedious and labour-intensive job. This is why saffron is worth its weight in gold – the Pampore variety is the most expensive, costing between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 2.5 lakh
While Iran accounts for 90 per cent of world’s saffron production, the Kashmiri variety boasts of much better quality. Not surprisingly, it is sold at twice the cost. Saffron is intrinsically connected to Kashmiri cuisine, from kahwah, to the
different pulaos, rogan josh (a lamb dish) and yakhni (light curry/broth), the spice is used to garnish various dishes in this region. Kashmiri poets such as Peerzada Ghulam Ahmad and Agha Shahid Ali used the imagery of the delicate spice to depict
the beauty of Kashmir.
Many believe the future of Kashmir’s saffron is uncertain, thanks to fakes and global warming endangering the crop.. This is especially sad because the golden spice is a reminder of the delicate beauty of Kashmir, it is also a reminder of how
central this region has been in our history.
The next time you savour some delicious cuisine in which saffron adds a touch of its splendid colour and taste, just take a step back to reminisce about its glorious history and enjoy a royal meal with Axis Bank’s delectable Dining Delights.
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