Zafraan (Persian)/kesar (Hindi)/kong (Kashmiri) or saffron, is the most expensive spice in the world, worth more than its weight in gold. In India it has always been measured in tolas, a unit of measure used for weighing gold (approximately 12gm). Kashmiri saffron with its long and deep maroon strands and a delicate aroma is the most valued in the world.
If you were ever disappointed with your Kashmiri saffron, and wondered what the fuss was all about, it is likely that you received saffron that was blended with the less expensive Spanish or Iranian saffron. A few months back my Mom got hold of a little of the real stuff through a cousin working in Kishtwar (Kashmir). Despite having all her culinary secrets revealed here she gave the entire lot to me! Isn’t she the best?
Very little Kashmiri saffron is exported, most of it being consumed within India. It is an ideal flavouring for Indian desserts which are mostly milk based. Occasionally it is also used in savory preparations such as pulaos and biryanis.
In Kashmir, it is primarily used in desserts such as the Modur Polav, and Kheer. On special occasions it may also be used to flavour Kahva. During weddings it gets sprinkled on top of our much loved zamodod/dahi (yoghurt) served in earthen pots to guests at the banquet, and also on the larger pots of dahi that make up the goodies (including nuts, fruits, and giant balls of rock-sugar, called nabud in Kashmiri, and mishri in Hindi) that the new bride brings with her to her new home. Those of you who have had Shrikhand will know how special dahi becomes with the addition of saffron.
I do that sometimes with our daily bowl of dahi too. But when I want to satiate the sweet tooth without wanting to spend an hour making kheer then I make my zafraani sweet dahi, taking inspiration from Bengali mishti doi, which is a sweet I love. While mishti is flavoured with patali gur (date palm sugar) this version is flavoured with saffron. When using saffron remember that it is a delicate flavour; using regular gur or patali gur may mask this. I recommend regular white sugar here, or a sweetener that is not flavourful in itself.
Though it takes an hour to thicken the milk, it is really no work. I made it this morning. As I prepared my morning tea I also put about 4-5 cups of milk to boil in a saucepan. It simmered for the next hour as I went about other business.
Prep time: 5 min
Cooking time: 1:00 hr
4 C 3% milk (whole milk is much better!)
1 ½ T sugar (or to taste)
1 T yoghurt (natural dahi or Greek style)
Put the milk to boil in a sauce pan. Let it simmer for an hour; you don’t need to watch or stir at all (provided you are using a medium to heavy-bottom pan). After an hour or when the milk has reduced by a fourth, take it off the heat; it will have turned a pale creamy colour. Stir in the sugar and a few strands of saffron.
Let cool till it is comfortable to dip a finger in and keep it there (just as you check for mixing yeast for baking bread). Stir in a tablespoon of live culture yoghurt. Pour into individual serving dishes. Sprinkle a few strands of saffron over each dish, and leave to set in a draft free place.
In warm weather it takes about 3 hours to set; longer during colder weather unless kept warm. Once set, refrigerate at least a couple of hours before serving.
Tip: If the yoghurt hasn’t completely set in 3 hours, you can hasten the setting by putting the yoghurt containers in the microwave and heating at 20% power for a minute; it should set in the next 30 minutes!
More dahi desserts:
This is my entry to Nupur’s (One Hot Stove) finale of the A-Z of Indian Vegetables. I’m going to stretch the ‘vegetable’ bit to mean ‘of plant origin’. Zafraan is, of course, technically a herb. And the Kashmiri word for yoghurt is zamodod!