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And Now for a Pinch of Saffron

With a legacy thousands of years old, the world's most expensive spice makes its home at the Caspian Bistro.

A dish of saffron threads surrounded by the saffron crocuses.
Saffron isn't the only part of Caspian Bistro's menu, but the Azhakh brothers certainly know how to use it. Photo by Xtendo / Pixabay.

Looking over the Caspian Bistro menu overwhelms the senses with enticing options. While every choice provides an authentic Persian experience, one that encapsulates the cuisine is the Khoresh-e Gheimeh and its strong saffron hues. This delectable stew is made by combining choice tenderloin, tomato puree, yellow split peas, onions, dried Persian limes, potatoes, and last but certainly not least, saffron.

Despite adding just a dash to recipes, saffron's hay-like aroma and a bitter yet floral taste has been used to color and flavor many Mediterranean and Asian dishes, particularly rice and fish; English, Scandinavian, and Balkan breads; and of course, Persian cuisine.

A saffron spice harvester holds a basketful of saffron crocuses.
Saffron's sometimes exorbitant price comes from the painstaking hours that are needed to handpick and hand-process every crocus flower to create even a gram of spice. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
An Ancient—and Expensive—Spice

Saffron has been used in Persian dishes for centuries, and its history dates back even further to at least the seventh-century BC, including noted roles in dyes, perfumes, medicines for dozens of conditions, and perhaps, most glamorously, as a bath ingredient for Cleopatra and Alexander the Great.

Due to the painstaking work it takes to harvest the flowers, saffron also holds the title as the world's most expensive spice—as Business Insider explains, think more than $10,000 for one kilogram of spice, or 2.2 pounds, which in turn can require 150,000 crocus flowers that all have to be handpicked and hand-dissected as soon as they begin to bloom.

Still, as time has proven, people have decided again and again that all the effort that goes into the crimson spice is more than worth it.

Believed native to the Mediterranean area, Asia Minor, and Iran, the saffron crocus has long been cultivated in Persian communities and is supposed to have been introduced into northern China by the Mongol invasion. Similar to its historical production areas, in modern times, saffron is harvested chiefly in Iran, which has at least 90% to 93% of the world's market. It is also grown in Spain, France, Italy (on the lower spurs of the Apennines Range), and parts of India. (If you're wondering about North America, Peace & Plenty Farm in California is the largest producer on the continent at only 4.4 pounds per year.)

Saffron is only made out of the red stigma (female anatomy parts) of the saffron crocus, and their stem-like appearance is why they are called saffron threads. The whole stigma has a red trumpet shape on one end and a graduated red to yellow tapered tip on the either, but not all saffron spice producers use the entire length. Indeed, the Iranian classification system is based on this fact: Sargol uses only the red part, making it the most concentrated and most esteemed product, and pushal includes some yellow tips. Both tend to give their dishes a warm, golden color. The last class grade, konge, uses only the yellow parts to emphasize aroma over coloring, but because of this, the flavor is weaker.

A photo of Gheimeh served with saffron rice and yogurt.
Caspian Bistro dishes such as the Khoresh-e Gheimeh show off how saffron ties all the savory flavors together. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Taste the Difference

At Caspian Bistro, the Azhakh brothers know how to choose the best saffron from the most reliable suppliers for their dishes. That's why their Zereshk Polo, Caspian Chicken, and as we mentioned before, their Khoresh-e Gheimeh are so tantalizing.

Let's examine the last dish more closely. The word "gheimeh" is originally derived from how the meat is cut into small cubes for this dish and paired with the yellow split peas, or “dir paz.” The split peas, fried onions, tomato paste, Limoo Amani—dried lime—and butter are sauteed before the cubed meat, and broth is added for texture. The potatoes are prepared next by cutting into thin wedges, seasoning with saffron, and frying until golden brown. The stew is served side-by-side with the saffron potatoes, combining flavors for a mouth-watering experience.

Saffron is not in every dish at Caspian Bistro. After all, one spice does not make a cuisine, and Caspian Bistro is anything but one dimensional. However, if you want to experience this aspect of Persian cooking, you can't go wrong with any of the options here. So pull up a chair, order a cup of their signature house blend tea, and let the saffron spice resonate with you as you savor your meal.



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