Saffron is known across the world as one of the most luxurious (and expensive) spices, with its captivating flavor, medicinal properties, and bright red appearance.
It’s a spice that is deeply embedded in many cuisines - such as those of Iran, Morocco, and India. It tends to completely transform and elevate any dish it’s a part of – everything from teas, ice cream, pasta, to rice. It’s also famously used as a source of a rich yellow food dye.
In this article, we want to discuss how Saffron is used with Tea. We'll focus specifically on Kashmiri Saffron, which we use in our tea.
Join us as we delve into Saffron’s strenuous harvesting process, cultural significance, and health benefits. To top it all off, we have an easy Saffron-infused Masala Chai recipe waiting for you at the end!
What is Saffron and Why is it So Valuable?
Let’s first begin with saffron itself. Saffron comes from the stigma (a reproductive part) of the ‘Crocus sativus’ flower. These are red-colored threads originating from the center of the purple-petaled flower – each of these threads (usually only about 1-3 per flower) are carefully handpicked and dried. As you’d probably imagine, it requires a lot of blossomed flowers to pick even a weighable amount of saffron. According to WebMD, it can take around 75,000 flowers to produce a single pound of saffron.
This labor-intensive cultivation process is exactly what drives its price – it requires the selection and harvesting of each thread by hand (so as to not damage them), and then the drying of each individual thread (ensuring they don’t clump because of the plant’s natural moisture). Saffron is also cultivated largely by farmers carrying generations of expertise and experience behind them.
As a result, the price of ‘real’ saffron can range anywhere from $7 to $20 per gram, oftentimes making it pricier than gold.
When and Where is Saffron Harvested?
So where exactly do we source this extraordinary spice from? The largest producer of saffron, responsible for around 90% of the world’s supply, is Iran. The next largest producers are India, Afghanistan and Spain, followed by Morocco, France, Spain, and UAE.
The intervals of time during which we can harvest saffron are very limited – across the world, its harvested during the last few months of the year (anywhere from September to early December). Some places also harvest it in February. To narrow the window of time further, the flowers themselves also are only viable for picking for a few days (depending on the region, it can vary from 2 to 14 days). In addition to this, farmers can only harvest before sunrise, since exposure to the sun can damage the saffron threads once they’re picked.
Saffron harvesting is also done primarily by women, partly due to the fact that the harvesting requires farmers to be bent over, picking thread for more than 15 hours a day. This physical demand is genetically better met by women.
In this article, we’ll focus on the Indian Saffron we use in our signature Saffron Masala Chai blend – Kashmiri Saffron. This is Saffron that originates primarily from Pampore, the ‘Saffron Capital’ of Kashmir, and is harvested between October and November. Kashmiri Saffron is among the most expensive in the world, and is known for its bright color due to the high presence of the compound ‘crocin’ in it (8.72%), compared to Iranian saffron (6.82%).
Saffron and its Role in Kashmiri Cuisine
Saffron is believed to have been introduced to Kashmir around 1st Century BCE. It’s therefore no surprise that the spice has become an inextricable part of Kashmiri cuisine! Not just that – Kashmir's Saffron lends itself to multiple commercial uses, based on the portion of the flower’s stigma that’s been cut (the red or yellow parts of the stigma, essentially). Kashmiri Saffron can be found in cosmetic creams, cloth dyes, fragrances, and food coloring.
When it comes to the culinary culture of Kashmir, a specific saffron-based elixir comes to mind: Kahwa. This is a tasty drink made by boiling green tea leaves with saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, soaked almonds, and a few other Indian spices (depending on a person's taste). To elevate the drink’s floral base, dried roses petals are sometimes infused in the water as well. Kahwa serves as a healing, stress-relieving, and warming drink during the harsh winters of Kashmir, and has become a widely celebrated drink across India.
Saffron is also often used in Kashmiri desserts and dishes, especially the lavish kinds often seen at weddings. One such example is Rista, a mutton-meatball curry that is infused with saffron. Rista forms an essential part of the Kashmiri Wazwaan, which is a formal dinner consisting of more than 30 non-veg Kashmiri dishes, often seen at large gatherings and during celebrations.
The delicate spice, over time, has become an emblem of Kashmiri identity, not just due to the livelihood its harvesting brings to thousands in Kashmir. It's versatility and culinary uniqueness have led to it being ingrained in the cultural fabric of the region!
The Many Health Benefits of Saffron Tea
Saffron also possesses a myriad of health benefits, whether its consumed as in tea, on its own, or in a dish. This is largely owed to some of the main compounds in saffron, such as Safranal and Crocin. These benefits include:
- Mood Enhancing: Promotes serotonin and dopamine production, which can lower stress, depression, and anxiety.
- Sleep Enhancing: For the similar reasons mentioned above, saffron has been observed to aid sleep quality, especially in insomniacs.
- Antioxidant Rich: Fights oxidative stress and is anti-aging.
- Immunity boosting: Studies have shown that it can increase immunity and help fight off certain illnesses.
- Relief from Menstrual Pain: Saffron has been observed to lower the intensity of cramp-pain before periods, along with offsetting nausea.
- General health: Saffron is linked to promoting heart and liver health.
- Controls Blood Sugar Level: It can control high blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity.
- A Possible Treatment for Alzheimer’s: Saffron has been found to treat mild to moderate Alzheimer’s.
- Digestive Aid: Saffron can help improve digestion and can be used for colic pain.
How do you make Saffron Tea?
As chai experts, we have to leave you with a recipe through which you can enjoy the luxurious tastes of both Masala Chai and Saffron. Follow the recipe below to make your own saffron-inspired tea! We've added dried rose petals to the mix, but you can try it out with saffron alone, too!
Saffron-Rose Masala Chai Recipe
Prep time: 2 minutes. Brew time: 10-12 minutes
Serving Size: 1 Person
- 1 cup water
- 2/3 cup milk (we suggest full-fat, dairy for the best experience!)
- 1 tbsp loose black tea leaves or ChaiBag’s Saffron Masala Chai blend
- 1 tbsp sugar (optional)
- 1-2 pinches of Kashmiri Saffron strands (or whichever is available!)
- 5-6 dried rose petals (store-bought or homemade)
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 Stick of Cinnamon (or 1 tsp of ground cinnamon)
- 1/4 tsp Ground Cloves
- 1/4 tsp Green Cardamom Powder
- Add the cup of water, spices, and sugar, to a stove-top vessel.
- Turn the heat to medium, and bring the mixture to a boil.
- Add the loose tea black tea leaves and brew the tea and spices for 4-5 minutes.
Optional: You can condense the first two steps by using ChaiBag’s Saffron Masala Chai blend, which comes with saffron, rose, and 5 other spices. Simply steep a tea bag, or a tablespoon of loose leaf tea, and boil for 5 minutes! Then follow the steps below.
- Turn the heat to low and add milk. Gradually increase the heat, and occasionally stir the mixture as it turns a golden-brown. This can take about 5-6 minutes. You should see a frothy, earthy-brown layer begin to form on top.
- Once the Saffron-Rose Chai is browned to your liking (the darker the drink, the stronger the brew), take it off the heat.
- Pour the contents of the vessel over a strainer into a mug.