It is believed that saffron was brought to Kashmir by the Persian rulers around 500 B.C. The conquerors planted saffron corms into the soil here after taking over of the land. However, local folklore refutes this theory and according to traditional Kashmiri legends, Zafran reached the region during 11th & 12th centuries A.D through two Sufi saints viz. Khawaja Masood Wali (RA) and Sheikh Sharief-u-Din Wali (RA), who on falling sick requested a cure for their illness from a local tribal chieftain. They repaid to the chieftain’s kindness later by giving him a Zafran bulb. And to this charming story, which is heartily accepted through out Kashmir, is attributed the origin of Zafran. These two Sufi mystics’ shrines in the saffron town of Pampore, are every year offered Zafran by the saffron community as a thanksgiving.
Zafran, an expensive herb of great medicinal value, is an integral part of the rich cultural heritage of Kashmir. It is, undoubtedly, a crop which is worth its weight in gold. That’s why it is also named as ‘red gold’. It is believed that about 150,000 fresh flowers yield only 1 kg of pure Zafran which sells at approximately 1-2 lakh per kilogram. It contains only the red stigmas (each flower gives 3 stigmas) which attribute to the herb’s legendary favour, aroma, and coloring qualities. The lower and cheaper grade of saffron is produced by mixing the red stigmas with the yellow styles and these are also quite good for usage.
Grown in the fields called zafr’an-zaar, Zafran begins in early July and the flowers bloom by the end of October till early November. People from the villages of Pampore (the heartland of Zafran), Khrew, and Shar villages in the month of October make the fields bewitching.
The delicate Zafran blossoms open their petals only in the morning and usually are plucked on the 3rd day of flowering. While one group collects the flowers, the other separates the precious stigmas from the blossoms which are later tied in small bunches as per grading and then sun dried. After drying, these stigmas shrink to one-fifth of their actual size and their color also deepens. The base of the dried stigmas are then snipped off, leaving only the purest red Kashmiri traditional Zafran in neat bunches. The experience of seeing the Zafran in full bloom on a moonlit night is believed to be totally magical.
Kashmiri Zafran (Kesar) is among the most sought-after spices in the world. The best way to know if the saffron you are using is genuine is to taste it. It should never be sweet, but it should smell like sweet hay. In Kashmir, Zafran is traditionally used as a prized ingredient that is mixed with yogurt and offered to new brides and grooms on their first visit home. It is also used in Wazwan which is the traditional lavish feast of Kashmir.
The spice is also a culinary star used by Kashmiris for stews, broths and with fruit sherbets, as well as in milk to break the fast in holy month of Ramdhan. However, every one’s favorite remains the Zafran Kahwa, saffron infused traditional green tea of Kashmir.
Cultivated in Kashmir at an altitude of over 1600 meters, Zafran is tightly woven into the local economy, with more than twenty thousand families engaged in the related trade, mostly in Pampore and its adjoining villages. Zafran, grown in moist soil rich in humus, has many health benefits. Safranal, a volatile oil extracted from it has show effect on cancer cells and it also works as an anticonvulsant as well as antidepressant. A carotenoid called alfa-crocin also has a similar impact. It is also full of minerals such as potassium, manganese, iron, calcium, selenium, copper, zinc, and magnesium and is rich in vitamin A and C, folic acid, niacin and riboflavin.
Over many centuries, Kashmiri Zafran has maintained a mystic aura around it which is a combination of its unique flavor and the sheer beauty of settings. However, of late, it has been facing a lot of challenges. Its production has dwindled due to climate change and with the arrival of inferior & adulterated grades from outside.
Come, let’s preserve this legacy and save the precious crop of saintly origin for our posterity.
Manzoor Akash is a teacher, and a regular contributor.