A Primer on Saffron


Zaafran is the first thing I see – the first thing that lets me know where I am – the Deira Spice Souk in the heart of old Dubai.

Dubai Spice Souk

We’ve gone in the evening, about 6pm. We couldn’t meet the morning opening a 10am. We are after all on holiday. As the souks are closed for ‘siesta’ between 1 and 4 pm, we save our adventures for dusk.

Tip 1: Try to visit the souks in the evening – the vibe is different. Note that the souks are closed between 1 and 4 pm, and on Friday mornings.

I’m surprised to see it so vibrant – lights twinkling, bodies moving, spice and incense scenting. They all blend in a purposeful way, letting me know that this late night market isn’t a one-off.

I smell it – a strong, almost-cold metallic scent that can be over-powering. It is the smell of saffron. We – my younger sister, T and I arrive at the spice souks  before I know it. She’s been here before so its no surprise when a short wander from the yellow glints of metal in the Gold souk, we are embraced by the warm fragrance of incense and spice.

I want so desperately to buy saffron threads at the first store we go into but I know it’s too ‘early’ – we’d only just arrived in the market – we haven’t done any comparisons and that’s not the best way to begin – a bloody good thing too, as I find out later.

We leave the saffron store on the fringe of the souk for its heart. In the next store, we find all sorts of things, including saffron. Three sorts.

Tip 2: Don’t be tempted to buy spices (especially saffron which is sold by the gram) at the first stall you see. Compare in a few stores and then make a choice. It might cost you a few minutes but it is likely to save you some cash. 

Herbs and spices from Dubai spice souks
L to R: more expensive to least expensive. Note the lighter coloured streaks in the threads in the centre and on the right

Saffron here is sold by grade – the more darker the threads, the better quality and consequently more expensive. In the first store, I was offered 20 Dirhams for the highest grade compared with 8 Dirhams for the same sort in the next store – the exact same.

I see loose saffron, saffron flowers – threads tied up in a short, bushy bouquet, and delightful saffron tea. All from Iran. On the creeks, lining the souks in Deira and Bur Dubai, dhows ply Persian routes, laden with goods.

Herbs and spices from Dubai spice souks

Did you know: Iran produces 90% of the world’s saffron.

I made up my mind that I would not leave Dubai without saffron and here I am, getting a lesson on the world’s most expensive spice. Yes, most expensive – more expensive than gold, apparently.

I am taken in with the warmth of Filli’s saffron tea, that’s what’s brought me here. I can taste its peculiar flavour, see its colours coat long grains of basmati rice in the Biryani we order from the Hilton’s kitchens at past midnight on more than one occassion.

Oh, the beauty of true saffron.

Did you know that the flavour of colour and flavour of true saffron are best developed when crushed and steeped in liquid – water, milk etc? And that it takes about 15 minutes to fully develop?

Dubai Spice Souks

I buy a few grams and I leave happy, smiling and intent on enjoying it.

Dubai Spice Souks

And he’s happy too.

At home…I store my saffron in my drawer, away from strong light and smells, in the hope that it’ll last a while. At home, I’m so excited that I add more than a pinch to my first cup of tea. Needless to say…I couldn’t drink it. And quite frankly, it almost turned me off this delight that I’d hunted for. But that comes later.

So my top recipes for saffron?

Want to read more about Saffron? Here are a few great resources

  • I love how The Cooking Inn talks about saffron from comparisons of different types to cooking utensils that affect the taste to other aspects
  • Getting the most from a pinch of saffron, Fine Cooking

Are you a saffron fan? What’s your favourite way to use it?[wpurp-searchable-recipe]A Primer on Saffron – – – [/wpurp-searchable-recipe]

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