First and foremost I’d like to start by saying Ramadan Kareem to one and all of you. Hope you all have a successful and pious Ramadan. It is the time of the year when food is prepared with much exuberance and love and eaten with equal gusto. People prepare dishes that are passed down since generations. Missing out on even a single ingredient in such a dish can make a difference. One such ingredient is kesar (saffron). Saffron finds use in several Ramadan recipes be it sweet or savoury. You may think what difference a little pinch of saffron may make to your dish but don’t underestimate this beautiful ingredient. The smell, colour and flavour it adds to your dish are the kind that you are sure to miss when it’s not added to your dish.

Since time immemorial saffron has occupied a special place in the culture and tradition of people. This exotic herb is famous for its medicinal, coloring and flavoring properties. Valued all over the world, especially by culinary and medical experts, saffron has a number of uses. This exotic herb finds mention in several ancient texts. It is mentioned in classical western writings and also in the Bible. It is specially mentioned in Bhavprakash Nighantu, an Ayurvedic text. The Arabs, who introduced the cultivation of the plant into Spain as an article of commerce, bequeathed to us its modern title of Zaffer or saffron, but the Greeks and Romans called it Krokos and Karokam respectively.

Saffron is a native of Southern Europe. The La Macha belt of Spain is the largest producer of saffron in the world and contributes 80-90% of the world saffron production. Being there during the saffron harvest season is a treat to all the senses. In India the cultivation of saffron is confined to Pampore and Kistwar areas of Jammu and Kashmir, extending to nearly 4000 acres. Kashmiri saffron is valued all over the world for its fine quality and a large part of the saffron produced in Kashmir is exported. Saffron is one of the world’s oldest and expensive spices and it is so for a reason. An estimated one pound of saffron consists of about 225,000 to 500,000 dried stigmas and requires the picking by hand of 75,000 flowers. That gives an idea of the human labor involved in harvesting saffron and hence the precious nature of the spice.

Saffron is very popular as a spice in all international cuisines. It is an indispensable ingredient in most Mughlai dishes and erstwhile Mughlai chefs used this herb liberally in the rich concoctions they prepared for the royal table. Saffron gives a beautiful tinge and a special aroma to a dish. It is used in sweets as well as in curries. In India, to serve dishes decorated with saffron is regarded as a mark of honor to the guest and has become the norm rather than the exception. On account of its coloring and aromatic properties, saffron is used mostly as a food additive in culinary, bakery and confectionery preparation. It is used in several exotic dishes, particularly in Spanish rice specialties and French fish preparations. It is also used for coloring butter, cheese, pudding and pastry. People in Europe and India use it to season various foods be it sweet or savory.

Saffron finds many uses in Ayurveda, Unani, Chinese and Tibetan medicine. It is popularly known as a stimulant, warm and dry in action, helping in urinary, digestive and uterine troubles. In Ayurveda, saffron is used to cure chronic diseases such as asthma and arthritis. It is also useful in treating cold and cough. Ayurvedic medicines containing saffron are used to treat acne and several skin diseases. A paste of the spice can be used as a dressing for bruises and superficial sores. Ancient texts on Ayurveda have information about the herb’s use as an aphrodisiac. It is largely used as an indigenous medicine across India. Saffron enjoys great reputation as a drug which strengthens the functioning of the stomach and promotes its action. It is beneficial in the treatment of several digestive disorders. It is used in medicines that reduce inflammation. A combination of saffron and ghee is used to treat diabetes. Saffron also merits usage as a strengthening agent for the heart and as a cooling agent for the brain. It has been found beneficial in the treatment of urinary problems. Traditionally saffron is believed to promote fairness of the complexion. The advertisements for fairness creams on television never fail to mention kesar as one of its components. It is an age-old belief that pregnant women give birth to ‘fair’ babies, if they consume saffron.  However, saffron may induce abortion; hence pregnant women should not take it in large doses.

Since saffron is very expensive, unscrupulous dealers often adulterate it. So one has to be very careful while buying saffron and should never buy it from roadside hawkers. In order to understand commercial saffron, it is important to know the make-up of the saffron plant. Commercial saffron comes from the bright red stigmas of the Crocus Sativus. The stigmas are the female part of the flower. In a good year each saffron crocus plant might produce several flowers. Each flower contains three stigmas which are only part of the saffron crocus that when dried (cured) properly, become commercial saffron. Each red stigma is like a little capsule that encloses the complex chemicals that make up the saffron’s aroma, flavor and yellow dye. In order to release these chemicals the threads are to be steeped. Though powdered saffron is more efficient, there is increased scope for adulteration. Sometimes the male parts of the saffron flower (the stamens) are added to increase weight. Sometimes ground yellow stamens are sold as powdered saffron. Legitimate powdered saffron is red-orange and is made by grinding saffron stigmas.

Since over-use of saffron in cooking may lead to a bitter taste, one has to be careful. According to experts, for every tablespoon of saffron that you need to use, add three tablespoons of water. Use a spoon and make sure that the saffron threads get properly soaked; take care not to crush the threads. Then add the mixture to a glass containing about 30-50 ml of lukewarm water and mix thoroughly. Leave the saffron in the glass for a minimum of 2 hours. Prepare your recipe as usual and add the contents of the glass along with the saffron threads when required.

Saffron is rightly called the magical herb. It has varied uses ranging from culinary to medicinal and beauty and has been highly valued by man since ancient times. Tell me how you make use of this precious spice. I’m sure you all agree that a tiny pinch of saffron is all you need to make that big difference in your dish.

Try out these recipes that are made magical with kesar…

Murgh Zafrani do Pyaza


Kesari Indrayani

Kaju Pista Badam Kesar Burfi

Till I write again.

Sanjeev Kapoor


The bounty of biryanis

Biryanis are visual delights: a beautiful array of long-grained rice, tender meat, pungent spices, flavourful nuts and most often, orange strands of exotic saffron. But wait, Veg Biryani is one strong contender for attention too! Our favourites at home are Mushroom Biryani and Kathal Biryani, the latter being cooked for parties too.
Originally, biryanis were counted as a north Indian dish (the Mughals based in northern India are the key innovators of this superb preparation) but this fragrant food soon found favour with the Nawabs of Hyderabad and Lucknow. Now, of course, it is a dish prevalent all over the country. And then with a yogurt salad, biryani is undoubtedly lazeez and complete meal, be it non veg or veg biryani.
A good biryani will typically be prepared by a method called ‘dum dena’ : dum literally means breath and the process involves placing the semi cooked ingredients in a pot or deg, sealing the utensil with flour dough and applying very slow charcoal fire from top, by placing some live charcoal on the lid and some below. The magic of dum is the excellent aroma, flavour and texture which results from slow cooking.
Steps for a perfect biryani
A good biryani from scratch needs:
Aromatic water: Aromatic water to cook the rice so use nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cloves, green and black cardamoms, fennel seeds, bay leaves, peppercorns and salt. Always cook the rice till three fourths done.
Food for the layers: This could be vegetables, chicken, or mutton.
Garnish layer: This layer needs crisp deep fried onions and fresh mint and coriander.
Saffron in milk: This is an important part in which some saffron is dissolved in milk.
Kewra water: This aromatic flavouring gives many biryanis its characteristic rich flavour.
Final layering: The top and bottom layers are always rice. Arrange a layer of rice. Add the food layer, garnish layer, dissolved saffron and kewra water. You can repeat this. After the topmost rice layer has been added, finish it off with a garnish layer.
Sealing the handi: Most chefs prefer to use atta.
Cooking: Preheat oven. And place the biryani pot. The time of cooking will depend on the amount you are preparing. At the time of service, break the seal or remove the aluminum foil. Or if you are using the slow cooking method on direct heat, place the sealed vessel on a tawa.
Veg biryanis come in many avatars so why stop at a couple? Kaikari Biryani, Chholay Biryani, Khumb Hara Pyaaz Biryani…

Gourmet Indian Food – creativity at its best!

Creativity should manifest itself in the making of a recipe. Sometimes the mundane form of food becomes as boring as yesterday’s boiled rice and the craving for tastier food looms as large as a rich Choco Jamun. That’s the key for betterment – the vision for the good and once achieved it’s the best feeling one could have.

Even in the world of food, learning is a continuous process. As the tastes change, so does the demand for different cuisines. As a new presentation requires some work, (sometimes a lot of it for a tangible breakthrough!) it is up to the researcher to enjoy the process and get the side benefits. It has been a constant endeavour to present recipes that are thrillers for the gourmet. A favourite is Kadai Prawns with Roasted Pepper Jam. It would interest some of you to know that it takes just a wee bit of ingenuity to refresh an often tried recipe.

Gulab jamuns stuffed with nuts and saffron are passé. Put in a tiny ball of gulkand. In this, Gulab-E-Gulkand the core, is not only a tasty surprise but it also leaves a ‘feel-good’ flavour. Another different note in preparing Mirchi ka Salan. Put in a bit of eggplant in this preparation and be ready to narrate the recipe! Another interesting dish is Paneer Piste ka Salan.

Basically, it is a slack inflow of ideas that needs to be changed. Ideas for creative cooking or ‘fresh’ recipes are overflowing from books, magazines and TV shows. Even the Internet has a plethora of food sites. Once the source of information has been identified and accepted, it is going to take a deliberate action from the ‘cook’s’ side to try out the different fare.

Well, some at least make the effort to recreate recipes from the book! There are some sorts who just can’t get themselves to make or try out new recipes. For them to get on with the power of creativity and innovation in the kitchen would be really a far fetched thing. But if the motivation and incentive is great enough, there can be attempts to try out new recipes. How?

Stimulate creative ideas: Plan ahead so that creative ideas can literally simmer in your mind. Spending five minutes thinking about food in the morning will go a long way towards getting dinner on the table in the evening.

Spice-up foods with creative side dishes: Add some extra excitement to mealtimes by enhancing the foods served on the side. A crisp tossed salad will brighten up a plain Biryani dinner or a big bowl of scrambled eggs heightens the interest in normal fare.

Use speedy and flavourful cooking techniques: For maximum flavour, add seasoning to foods or marinate them before cooking. Roasting, grilling and broiling are healthful, convenient ways to cook, which also enhance flavour.

The option of creating is within each one of us. If the desire to share and give is all dominating then creativity finds a home in everything you do.