Family traditions are often created over the holidays. This year, we're thinking of spicing up our first Christmas in the new apartment. As we plan this year's Christmas menu, it's looking more and more like a multicultural feast made up not only of Western holiday staples but also some of our Asian favorites, like this spicy Basmati Saffron Pilaf and an East-meets-West pumpkin laksa soup I've been experimenting on (watch this space!). It appears a holiday tradition is in the making in our household, and it is one that embraces diversity as a delicious opportunity.
Saffron, I've been reminded time and again, is the most expensive spice in the world. It's such a luxury that we don't consume it often but when we are lucky enough to have some on hand, which happened recently when a friend gifted us a precious bunch from her trip to Iran, this pilaf is the first thing I make. It's a rice dish I like to cook for a gathering of people, the auspicious golden hue and unique flavor imparted by saffron something best shared and enjoyed together.
What makes saffron so expensive, even more so than gold and truffles, is the intensive manual labor required for its production. According to the Herbs & Spices reference, it takes about 80,000 crocus flowers to make just 1 lb of the spice! Native to the Mediterranean and Western Asia, saffron was used by ancient civilizations as a dye and for flavoring. Today, prized saffron comes from Iran and Spain, and dried whole threads are preferable to the ground stuff (which is often cut with other spices) for quality and authenticity.
The color of saffron is a deep red, the smell musky, and the taste often described as warm and earthy. Combined with cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, and bay leaf, this aromatic saffron pilaf is reminiscent of the biryani we enjoyed so much in the Indian-Muslim mamak stalls in Malaysia.
I've kept this unfailing recipe by cookbook author Raghayan Iyer for years since finding it on the Fine Cooking website and even adapted it for cooking with the rice cooker. Its complex flavors conceal the real simplicity of its preparation. This is one of those recipes that yields to the essence of the ingredients and a side dish that demands centre-stage attention. We adore it with Spicy Tomato and Beetroot Rendang.
Basmati Saffron Pilaf Video:
As the year comes to an end and we reflect on an interesting year of ups and downs, I am simply thankful for the food on the table, the company around the table, and the food growers and cooks who make it all possible. May we continue to nourish each other. Have a warm (and spicy) holiday!
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Basmati Saffron Pilaf
An aromatic rice dish that comes together easily on the stove top or in the rice cooker with whole spices like cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaf, and saffron threads. Adapted from here. Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish with Spicy Tomato and Beetroot Rendang.
1 cup uncooked white basmati rice
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
6 cardamom pods
2 cinnamon sticks
2 dried bay leaves
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons sea salt
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1 large handful fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
Wash basmati rice until the water is clear, about 2 to 3 rinses. Then soak the rice in water at room temperature for 30 minutes to soften the kernels. Drain.
In a pan (use a pot if cooking on a stovetop instead of a rice cooker), heat up the oil over medium-high heat. Add cumin seeds, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, and dried bay leaves. Lightly fry until the aromas are released, about 30 seconds, and be careful not to burn the spices. Add the onion and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the drained rice and toss gently to mix with the onion and spices.
OPTION 1: Cooking with Rice Cooker
Pour the rice mixture into a rice cooker. Add 1 1/2 cups water, salt, and saffron. Stir once or twice to incorporate the ingredients. Cover and turn on the rice cooker. When it's done cooking, without removing the cover, let the rice rest for 5 to 10 minutes undisturbed.
OPTION 2: Cooking on Stovetop
Add 1 1/2 cups water, salt, and saffron. Stir once or twice to incorporate the ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. After about 5 minutes, when much of the water has evaporated, stir the rice. Then cover the pot, turn down the heat to the lowest possible setting, and cook for another 10 minutes. Without removing the cover, turn off the heat, and let the rice stand for another 10 minutes undisturbed.
Remove the cover and add the mint leaves. Fluff the rice with a fork and to mix in the mint leaves. Remove the cinnamon sticks and bay leaves. Serve warm.