Be Merry / Cooking With the World's Most Expensive Spice

Saffron is produced from a plant that blooms only once a year, ensuring a high price for the precious threads - and a thriving trade in counterfeit spices.

The rich fragrance of a dish seasoned with saffron is difficult to describe. It is a powerful smell, in my eyes even spiritual, that is remismell, in my eyes even spiritual, that is reminiscent of desert soil. Not for nothing was saffron an ingredient in the ketoret besamim, the ceremonial incense used at the Temple; its noble aroma bestows an atmosphere of sanctity.

Saffron originates in the Kashmir region of northern India, and derives its name from the Arabic word za’faran, denoting the color yellow. Today it is relatively hard to get your hands on the subtly flavored and scented saffron from Kashmir, but Israelis are in luck: an importer by the name of Benny Nardi brings in the precious goods and will even deliver the order to your home. He can be reached through his website:

Limor Laniado Tiroche
Limor Laniado Tiroche

Saffron does grow in many other countries. In fact, some people claim that the best variety in the world − with a powerful fragrance and a deep red color − grows in Spain, particularly in the La Mancha region.

Because of the difficulty involved in producing it, saffron is considered the most expensive spice. It is produced from the stigma ‏(female sexual organ‏) of the Crocus sativus plant, which flowers only once a year. Each flower has only three stigmata, and they are harvested manually.

How to spot fake saffron

Because of the perennially high price of saffron, counterfeits are sold in the markets. Fake saffron is produced from corn threads that are colored with a dye extracted from the safflower, which is similar in color to saffron. Identifying fake saffron is not an easy task, but it is certainly doable. Generally speaking, fake saffron will be sold in bulk, its price will be relatively low, and it will be slightly thicker than the real thing. Real saffron will almost always be sold in a small transparent box of 1 gram, tightly sealed with a wax seal or gold thread.

In addition, you must make sure that the saffron threads have the appearance of slender and separate units. The best way to find out if you are dealing with fake saffron is to smell the aroma that it gives off after being heated in a dry frying pan. If the smell is unpleasant, bland, or not clearly recognizable it is fake. You can’t fake the smell of good fresh saffron.

In order to get the most out of its flavor, it is best to dry the saffron before adding it to the dish. The best way to do this is to dry roast the saffron for 1 minute in a frying pan and then crush it with a mortar and pestle, or chop it with a knife. Then you add it to the hot dish, or dilute it in warm water before adding it to the dish. In Persian cuisine, which uses saffron in many dishes, it is customary to grind the saffron with sugar, to get the bitterness out.

Saffron is classically used in rice dishes, from Spanish paella, through risotto melanza, to Persian rice dishes. Saffron also stars in Moroccan cuisine, where it seasons chicken or lamb stews, a pastille filled with chicken, almonds, and dried fruit, and cooked chicken patties.

A place of honor is also reserved for saffron in fish soups: French bouillabaisse and Spanish sopa de pescado. The myth has it that only two people in the world know how to make Italian strega liqueur. It is made from about 70 plants and spices, the dominant one being saffron, which gives it a special color.

Saffron is sensitive to light and humidity, so it should be stored in a dark and dry place, and can be used for up to six months from the time of purchase. Saffron is available at all spice shops and health food stores for between NIS 25-40 per gram.

Chicken patties with celery and saffron

Ingredients (‏ 8servings):
500 grams ground chicken ‏(thighs or breast‏(
1 egg
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1 onion
Bunch of parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon hot paprika
For the sauce:
4 leeks ‏(only the white part‏), sliced into half-circles
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, sliced
2 medium celeriac roots, peeled, cut in half and then sliced widthwise into 1/2-centimeter thick wedges
The branches of the celeriac without the leaves, chopped
1/2 hot green pepper sliced into rings
Spices for crushing:
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon hot paprika
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
10 saffron threads
2 cups boiling water

Combine all the ingredients for the patties in a bowl. Shape into nice round balls. Arrange the patties in a single layer on a lightly oiled cutting board, cover and chill in the fridge for an hour.

Pour olive oil into a wide pot that is oven safe. Fry the leeks in it for 10 minutes. Add garlic, celeriac wedges and branches, and hot green pepper. Stir-fry for 5 minutes. Dry roast the spices in a frying pan for a minute until they give off an aroma. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and crush into a coarse powder. Add the spices to the pot and fry for 3 minutes. Add water, bring to a boil, and add the patties to the pot. Cover and cook for 30 minutes over a medium fire without stirring.

Heat the oven to 150 degrees Celsius.

Lift the pot cover, gently stir, put the cover back and stick the pot in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve with white rice, couscous, or mashed potatoes.