Saffron - the world’s most expensive spice | Sunday Observer
Saffron and turmeric – the brilliant yellow spices

Saffron - the world’s most expensive spice

16 August, 2020


Saffron is a spice made from the stigmas of the flowers of the plant, crocussativus. It is also known as the saffron crocus or autumn crocus. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and has been so for centuries. It is used to season and colour food and for medicinal purposes. Today, the major growers of saffron are Iran, Spain, India, Morocco, Greece, France and Italy.

Saffron is bitter in taste and has a smell like the smell of hay. This smell is caused by two chemicals known as procrocin and safranal. It is yellow–orange in colour and looks like short, feathery threads. This spice gives a rich, golden colour to food and this is because it has a dye called crocin. Saffron also has 0.5 to 1 percent essential oil.

It is widely used in Asian and Mediterranean cooking particularly in rice and fish dishes. In England, Scandinavia and the Balkans saffron is used in bread. Saffron is also used in bouillabaisse soup.

To make saffron three parts are handpicked from each and every flower. They are then spread on trays and dried over charcoal fires to make the spice. Approximately, 75,000 flowers are needed to make a pound of (0.45 kilogram) saffron.

Corms are the bulb like stems of the crocus plant which grow underground. These are dug up and then planted again. Cultivation is done through corms, which are its bulb-like stems that grow under the soil. The Crocus sativus plant likes dry, warm weather, but it can survive in light snow too.

The cultivation and use of saffron goes back to several centuries and it is believed to have been first cultivated in Iran. But there is also a belief that it originated from south western Greece. In the ancient world Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were among those who used saffron for cooking, cosmetic purposes and as medicine.

Queen Cleopatra is said to have used it in her bath. In India, bhikkhus used saffron or the dye crocin in it to dye their robes yellow and after the death of the Buddha they declared saffron to be the colour of their robes.

It is thought that the Mongol invaders introduced saffron to China but early written records state that saffron was in use in China even before the Mongol invasion.

Health benefits of saffron include the boosting or improvement of the immune system, treatment of seasonal ailments such as colds and flu. Saffron is also helpful in the treatment of blood pressure and heart problems.

This spice is used to cure skin ailments and is also a popular ingredient in beauty treatment.

The word saffron has its roots in Arabic, Latin and French words.


Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a spice belonging to the ginger family, Zingiberaceae and is widely used in Asian cooking. Turmeric is grown in several Asian countries including India and Sri Lanka. In India, over 70,000 acres are cultivated annually. Due to its brilliant colour turmeric is also known as Indian saffron.

It is a rhizomatous, herbaceous perennial plant. Tumeric is called a rhizomatous plant because its roots grow underground and horizontally. It is a soft plant (as opposed to woody plants) and more like herb plants so the term herbaceous is given to it and perennial means that it grows all through the year.

The turmeric plant has long leaves and surrounding spikes. Small flowers form on the spikes. It is the turmeric root or rhizome that is harvested and used. These roots take about 10 months to grow before they can be harvested. It is boiled, cleaned and sun dried. Much of the turmeric is powdered and sold. However, it can be used in root form too.

Turmeric is one of the main ingredients used to make curry powder. It is used to make yellow rice and is also added to give flavour and colour to curries. It is also used to colour textiles (cloth). Turmeric is used as a substitute for the very expensive saffron.

Turmeric is also used in religious ceremonies. It is also used as a medicine and is very much in use in Ayurveda and Unani medicine. Stomach and skin ailments can be treated with turmeric.

The use of turmeric has a long history dating back to the Indian Vedic culture where it was used in cooking and religious ceremonies. Historical records show that the famed traveller Marco Polo had marvelled at the similarities between saffron and turmeric in 1280.

(Sources: Britanica Kiddie Encyclopedia)