Curry Guide… Saffron


Saffron is a highly prized spice used for seasoning and flavouring, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern food. The delicate stigmas (or threads) are plucked from the saffron crocus and dried before use. Due to this intensive process to harvest just a few stigmas and the fact that it grows in only a few countries around the world, the cost of saffron is very high. So high, in fact, that the question “what spice is more expensive than gold?” has become a staple of nearly everyone who has leaned against a bar with a beer.

Oh, how we all love to exclaim: “saffron!” very loudly as if we have found the secret to the universe. It’s a ritual that’s made all the more fun because it’s not actually true (gold costs more than £32,000 per kg as compared to about £2,500 per kg of saffron)*

Saffron users are also going to need quite a bit of storage space to match its “weight in gold”. With a standard gold bar, as used by the bullion traders and banks, weighing 12.4kg you’re going to need a whopping 24,800 of these 0.5g packs that are sold by Tesco supermarket (at £2.50 each that would set you back £62,000)*.


But you’re certainly not going to need anything like that to spice up your food. Just a couple of strands is enough to add a beautiful flavour and aroma to your pilau rices, biryanis and kormas. The best way to use saffron is to put a couple of strands in a small amount of warm water or milk and press gently with the back of a spoon. This will release all the wonders of the spice, which can then be added to your dish.

The high cost of saffron means it is unlikely to be used in many restaurants. They will instead use the cheaper safflower, turmeric or colouring agents to try to mimic the properties of saffron.

Saffron is also know as zaffron or kesar (Hindi) and the largest producer of it is Iran, followed by Greece (where it was first cultivated), Morocco and Kashmir. Saffron has also been used for medicinal purposes and as a dye for clothes, its stigmas creating a colour which would have conferred status on the wearer due to its high cost.

* At 10 January 2019.

Photos: Pexels and Tesco. 





Cinnamon and a kick

As many curry fundis know, whisky is a great drink to share with your favourite food due to the spicy notes in the drink. Cinnamon lovers will be pleased to discover Fireball, a Canadian liqueur made with whisky and a heavy, heavy dose of the spice. At 33% abv it certainly has a kick too. I suggest trying it with a fragrant biryani.

IPA saves India

English beer never used to travel well, especially on the long journey to India in the 17th century. The men of the East India Company were getting restless. And very drunk on arrack, the local moonshine. Then along came George Hodgson, who started exporting specially created Indian Pale Ale (IPA) from his Bow Brewery. The traders liked him because he gave them 18 months credit and unlike the dark Porter beer that was popular in England at the time, his IPA didn’t suffer from journey round the tip of Africa; in fact the rolling motion of the ships actually improved it. The men were no longer restless and could get on with making money and eating curry now they had a decent beer to wash it down.

Such is the entertaining tale of beer expert and author Peter Haydon, who is one of the presenters at the National Maritime Museum’s Curry and a Pint evenings (next one is 25 Nov, then 2 Dec at £25, Bookings).

Haydon is a consultant to the Meantime Brewery and visitors get to taste the local brewery’s IPA as they enjoy a biryani in the Mogul restaurant in Greenwich town centre at the end of the event.

The super knowledgable historian Rozina Visram starts the evenings by giving a run down on the nation’s favourite dish in the museum. You might be able to get curry powder down the Co-op these days but way back when, Visram explains, this was the preserve of chemists, who promoted its mixtures as cures for all sorts of ailments, each one claiming its own blend was the best. Which, of course, makes perfect sense to anyone who’s chewed on a clove to help a toothache or gargled turmeric to help with a cough.

The evenings are part of a series of events to celebrate the opening of the new Traders gallery at the museum.