Before Ibrahim Kasif opened Stanbuli he worked in the kitchen at Sydney’s Bistro Moncur. On the menu was a French fish soup, and it was Kasif’s job to make the saffron rouille (a type of aioli), which was stirred through it. “Every time I needed saffron the head chef would hand it to me with two hands, like it was a piece of gold,” he says.
Saffron is one of the world’s most luxurious ingredients. Per gram there are few things more expensive: it’s up there with white truffles, rare metals and Beluga caviar. But what’s so appealing about this spice?
“It's got the most amazing fragrance,” says Kasif. “It makes me weak at the knees.” When used properly, he says, it can either act as the main flavour, or enhance the other flavours in the dish. Currently, saffron is used in two dishes on the menu at Stanbuli. The first is a traditional rice pudding found all over Turkey. “In the rice pudding, saffron is the main flavour,” Kasif says. “It's what defines that particular version of rice pudding.”
The other is a dish of fried cauliflower and charred onions. “We make a sauce out of saffron, coriander, peppercorns, a lot of onions, garlic, a Turkish pepper paste, vinegar and oil,” he says. “We fry off the cauliflower, muddle it in this sauce and serve it with charred onions. It's really decadent.”
Despite Kasif’s fondness for the ingredient, he says he uses it sparingly. Other chefs rarely use it at all. “I've been a chef for over 10 years and I could count on one hand the amount of times I’ve seen it used in my working life,” he says.
That’s mostly down to the price. Iranian saffron (Iran being one of the spice’s biggest exporters) can come in at anywhere between $3 and $15 per gram. If you want to use Australian-grown saffron you can expect to pay $80 to $100 per gram (although you generally need less of the local product because it’s fresher, and so carries flavour better). The high price isn’t because the spice is necessarily rare or hard to grow. It’s because harvesting it is so labour-intensive.
Litza Kikidopoulos is one of Australia’s few saffron farmers. Like all saffron farmers she picks every crimson thread by hand. “There's no other way to do it,” she says. There’s no machine delicate and intelligent enough to pick each flower and extract its threads. It’s time-consuming. Each flower bears only three threads, so between 50 and 60 flowers need to be hand-harvested to yield just one tablespoon of saffron spice.
The other reason it’s not widely used, Kikidopoulos says, is because people don’t know how to make the most of its earthy, floral aroma. “I've seen cooking shows on television where chefs were making a flash sauce and claiming the saffron flavour had gone throughout it. That's garbage,” she says. “You have to let it soak to extract all the flavour.”
“It's a mystical ingredient that's misunderstood by a lot of people,” Kikidopoulos adds. She is quick to admit it’s hard to sell but that doesn’t bother her. She’s not in it for the money – only for the flavour.
Where to try saffron in your city:
This article is presented in partnership with Red Rock Deli. Its Special Reserve Creamy Saffron and Sage flavour is available now.