How Saffron, The World’s Most Expensive Spice, Reached India
Image Credit: Pixabay

Saffron is a spice derived from the stigmas of the saffron crocus plant. The cultivation of saffron can be traced back to over 3000 years ago. Despite being native to Southwest Asia, it was first grown in Greece. 

A saffron harvest was first portrayed in the frescoes of Minoan Crete between the 8th century BC to the 3rd century AD. These frescoes show saffron flowers being picked by monkeys and young girls. One of these fresco sites can be found on the Greek island of Santorini. The use of saffron as a herbal remedy has been depicted in these frescoes, with one showing a Greek goddess supervising the plucking of flowers and the picking of stigmas, which would then be used in the production of a therapeutic drug.

Cleopatra is known to have used saffron for her baths because of its colour and cosmetic properties in Hellenistic Egypt. Egyptian healers used saffron to treat disorders of the digestive system. 

In Iraq, saffron-based pigments have been found in the prehistoric colouring used to paint beasts in cave art. Later, it was found that the Sumerians used saffron in magical potions. 

Saffron also has connections with Iran. It was cultivated in Derbena and Isfahan in the 10th century BC in ancient Persia. Saffron threads were woven into Persian carpets and shrouds used for funerals. The spice was also used by worshipers as a religious offering to deities, and as a perfume, medicine and dye. 

Besides Iran, saffron is grown in India, Spain, France and Italy. Experts believe that saffron first reached India along with Persian rulers who wanted to add it to their gardens. Another theory says that Persian saffron crocus corms were transplanted to Kashmiri soil after ancient Persia conquered Kashmir. Phoenician merchants began to market Kashmiri saffron via their trade routes in the 6th century BC. Once sold, Kashmiri saffron was used as a fabric dye and to treat melancholy.

Today, saffron sells for up to $16 per gram, making it the most expensive spice in the world. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Iran produces 85 percent of the world’s saffron. Saffron thrives in Iran due to the country’s hot and dry climate. 

Healers across the world have used saffron to treat every ailment, including heartache. It was also prescribed as treatment for the bubonic plague. Studies show that saffron is high in antioxidants and is hence a cure for inflammation and even depression. It adds a touch of opulence to dishes like pilaf and bouillabaisse. It’s fortunate that only traces of saffron need to be used in cooking, considering its hefty price tag.