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Saffron is a royal spice. Over the centuries, people have used it for its tremendous beauty and health benefits. In ayurveda, saffron is considered tridoshic — balancing for all doshas. It helps in assimilation of nutrients, in tissue formation, and in flushing toxins out of the tissues of the body.
This exquisite and expensive spice has been a part of our rich culinary heritage.
Scientifically known as saffron, crocus is extracted from a beautiful flower Crocus sativus from the family Iridaceae. Saffron is basically the stigma of the flower and is used after drying the extracts. This process gives Kesar a rich colour, texture and aroma.
Why the name ‘Saffron'?
Widely saffron has been used as a seasoning and a natural colour for delicacies. It is believed that saffron gets its name from an Arabic word Zaffran/ Zarparan meaning golden stigma and blossoms only during autumn and is dormant during summer.
Known as Kesar in Hindi, Kumkuma Poo in Malayalam and Tamil, kumkuma in sanskrit , saffron has always been that magic ingredient since ages. Though not backed by science and no validation, in many parts of India pregnant women are encouraged to drink milk laced with the strands of saffron for a fair complexioned baby.
Saffron as a part of numerous pharmaceutical plants has a long history of medicinal use with over 2500 years.
The legendary Egyptian ruler Cleopatra is said to have indulged in saffron baths for their cosmetic and aphrodisiacal qualities. Egyptians also used the spice for embalming and in poultices. Minoan goddesses would dye their gowns with it.
Even according to the books of Ayurveda, it was believed that even a few strands were enough for a healthy body and mind. Right from accentuating the taste of sweets to adding a rich aroma and colour to exquisite delicacies like Biryanis, Curries, Kesar has been a quintessence of several culinary cultures.
The medicinal properties of saffron are numerous. It has beneficial effects on skin, digestive system, circulatory and excretory system, nervous system (uplifts mood) and fights depression; hence it is also known as a sunshine spice.
Today’s science has backed up medicinal claims in clinical trials showing the proven effectiveness of saffron in treating numerous conditions.
Part used – stigma/ stamen
Is saffron really good for the face?
Traditionally, saffron is used in treatments to lighten skin tone, reduce dark circles below the eyes, and tackle light pigments, in addition to combatting acne. It is also believed that the Crocin in Saffron acts as an activator for DNA excision repair enzymes.
Saffron can be a wonderful ingredient that your skin needs. Apart from therapeutic properties, saffron in beauty products is also known to be anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory, making it an ideal ingredient to treat acne-prone skin.
Prized powerful Spice
Saffron is also a very expensive spice but it has not deterred people from using it in various beauty products. The method for the cultivation of saffron contributes greatly to its high price.
Flowering of saffron happens in November and hence, collection of saffron stigmas begins with harvesting of flowers a few days after opening in the autumn. Then saffron stigmas are manually removed from flowers and this process does influence the quality and the price of saffron. Approximately, 150,000 to 220,000 flowers in quantity are required to produce 1Kg of saffron .Thus the overall process to obtain saffron raw materials contributes to the cost of saffron, the King of spices.
The cultivation of this expensive traditional spice is distributed from the Mediterranean region to Europe as well as to Asia. Iran has been the world’s principal producer and exporter of saffron since time immemorial.
Harvesting and drying processes are considered the strongest factors that affect saffron taste and ﬂavor.
Kashmir’s saffron is priced more as it is acclaimed for its higher potency of antioxidants like serotonin, crocetin, safranal and kaempferol than the imported varieties. Kashmir saffron is the only one in the world grown at an altitude of 1600 metres which differentiates it from other varieties due to its unique characteristics like longer and thicker stigma, natural deep-red colour, high aroma, bitter flavor and chemical-free processing.
Saffron grown in Kashmir has received the geographical indication (GI) tag, a major historic step in bringing the valley’s brand on the global map. Pampore, the hub of saffron in Kashmir, is expected to have a bumper crop of the spice.
It is believed that Iranians spread it across the subcontinent as their influence there grew from the 13th century onward, culminating in the Mughal Empire. Iran still produces 90% of the world’s saffron.
How to Choose the Best Saffron?
For having the top quality kesar strands that grow in Kashmir, pick the ones that are thin and have a lotus-like aroma. And Saffron with longer strands, that looks more like a creeper are of an average quality.
The U.S.Pharmacopoeia provides the following tests for saffron:
Goodness of saffron as tea
Kashmiri saffron-infused green tea called kahwa, or kehwa- This elixir is brewed slowly in a copper samovar with spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, served with a dash of honey and sometimes garnished with slivers of almond.
Apart from the regular kesar doodh (saffron in milk), the Kashmiri kahwa is a simple yet wonderful drink that can beautify you from inside by dealing with your ailments from within.
Other medicinal benefits of kesar
The beneficial effects of saffron, Crocus sativus L. stigma, are due to a number of ingredients contained within this spice, including safranal, crocetin and crocins.
The chemical constituents of saffron have been studied and reviewed for decades. Saffron comprises more than 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds, inclusive of 40-50 volatiles components with strong odour.
The novel spice is an excellent source of minerals such as copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, selenium, iron, zinc and magnesium. Additionally, it is also a rich source of vital vitamins including Vitamin-A, folic acid, niacin, riboflavin, Vitamin- C.
Abundant in potassium, saffron helps in cell repair and regeneration and is also anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal.
Saffron as perfume
A pleasantly odoriferous compound, safranal develops during the drying process probably by enzymatic or thermal dissociation of the bitter compound, picrocrocin.
Saffron as dye
In Dyes and coloured garments (principal pigment of saffron is α-crocin, a water-soluble carotenoid). Saffron has been used as a histological stain, i.e., as a dye for connective tissue.
Saffron in food
It performs the functions of a spice, adding its faint, delicate aroma, pleasing flavor, and magnificent yellow colour to enhance palatability.
How to use? - The best way to use saffron is to grind it into fine powder. One can get the most of saffrons properties if the stigma is sprinkled into hot or boiling water due to its delicate and fast release texture. Since heat releases the flavour essence and colour of saffron, it has to be steeped into hot or boiling water and direct heat has to be avoided. If the threads of saffron are directly exposed to direct heat, its properties might decrease.
A magical spice
Being the storehouse of many health benefits and enhancing the overall wellbeing of a person makes kesar a magical ingredient. Although saffron has found its way into more and more dishes of late, its original usage was more as a medicine and beauty aid with multiple benefits, when it comes to solving beauty woes.