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Britain's Secret Saffron Story

Yasmin Khan knows saffron. Her favourite spice inspired a trip across her mother's native Iran to document a food culture. But she's never considered its British story, until now.

Saffron is one of the world's most evocative spices, shrouded in myth and mystery and conjuring up images from the ancient Silk Road. Often seen as 'expensive', 'complicated' or perhaps for a special occasion, for British food writer Yasmin Khan, the spice was a store cupboard stable. Because of her mother's Iranian heritage, as a child she ate it almost every day.

Later, Yasmin's love affair with saffron inspired her to travel across Iran, documenting the country's rich culinary heritage in her book 'The Saffron Tales'. On her journey she learnt that the saffron crocus was cultivated in Iran by the 10th century BC and today has multiple uses in perfuming a variety of Iranian dishes. But she also made another discovery, that saffron has a unique and mysterious British history, that brings this magical spice, much closer to home.

In this programme, writer Pat Willard, chef Charlie Hodson, botanist Dr Sally Francis and community grower Ally McKinlay help to unfold an almost forgotten British saffron story, one that captivates and entrances everyone that comes into contact with it.

Presented by Yasmin Khan
Produced by Clare Salisbury.

Available now

30 minutes

Yasmin Khan's Lime and Saffron Chicken Kebabs

Yasmin Khan's Lime and Saffron Chicken Kebabs

Lime and saffron chicken kebabs (Jujeh kabob)

At least half a dozen different kabobi restaurants crowd into every neighbourhood in Iran, and on offer at every one is a version of Jujeh kabob – it’s a dish that people all over the country find irresistible. My home-cooked version features succulent, tender chicken cooked in the oven, rather than barbecued on skewers, so you can make it all year round, finishing the chicken under a hot grill to crisp up the skin.

The most important thing here is to marinate the meat for as long as you can, to allow the finger-licking flavours of citrus and saffron to really soak into the chicken. Serve with a pile of warm Persian flatbread or some Persian rice.

¼ tsp saffron strands A pinch of sugar

2 tbsp freshly boiled water

8 chicken thighs and drumsticks,

on the bone

¼ tsp turmeric

1 medium onion, finely grated 400g natural yoghurt

Juice of 2 limes

3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

2 tsp sea salt

1 tsp black pepper 15g butter, melted Sumac, for dusting

For the yoghurt sauce:

200g Greek yoghurt

½ garlic clove, crushed

1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

½ tsp dried mint

Sea salt and black pepper


To serve:

4 tomatoes, halved

A plate of mixed fresh herbs, such as basil, mint, chives, tarragon and spring onion


Make a saffron liquid by grinding the saffron strands with a pinch of sugar using a pestle and mortar and then adding the boiled water. Leave to steep for 5 minutes.

With a knife, slash each chicken thigh and drumstick a few times, cutting diagonally, almost to the bone. Mix the saffron liquid, turmeric, onion, yoghurt, lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Add the chicken and mix well to coat with the marinade. Cover with cling film and marinate in the fridge for 3–6 hours, stirring every few hours to make sure every piece of meat is well coated.

Pre-heat the oven to 190°C/Gas 5. In a roasting tin, spread out the chicken pieces skin-side up and cook for around 45 minutes or until the meat is cooked through and the juices run clear. Turn the chicken every 10 minutes so it cooks evenly on both sides.

Meanwhile, heat the grill to high. Grill the tomatoes for about 5–6 minutes, turning frequently, until they are cooked through. Wrap in foil to keep warm until your chicken is ready.

Whisk all the ingredients for the yoghurt sauce together and season with some salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Move the chicken pieces to a grill rack, skin side up, and pour the melted butter over them. Place under the grill for a final few minutes until the chicken skin is crispy and slightly blackened. Transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle liberally with sumac. Leave to rest for a few minutes before serving with the tomatoes, yoghurt sauce and fresh herbs on the side.

Extract taken from Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan (Bloomsbury) out now

Photography © Matt Russell

Persian Rice

Persian Rice

Persian rice (Chelow)

This is the master recipe for one of Iran’s classic dishes: perfectly steamed, elongated grains of rice with a buttery saffron crust. The rice is first soaked, then parboiled, then steamed very slowly. (For many Iranians, the best part of this dish is the crisp crust that forms at the bottom of the pan during cooking – the ‘tahdig’.) To finish, the contents of the pan are carefully turned out, producing an elegant golden rice cake.

There is no specific water- to-rice ratio here, so you can cook any amount of rice by following this method. Just be sure to use a heavy-based, non-stick pan with a snug- fitting lid and have a clean tea towel  or some kitchen paper to hand, for lining the lid.

To make this recipe dairy- free, simply replace the butter with a tablespoon more of sunflower oil.

 

350g white basmati rice Sea salt

A pinch of saffron strands A pinch of sugar

2 tbsp freshly boiled water

15g butter

1½ tbsp sunflower oil

 

Rinse the rice in several changes of cold water until the water runs clear, then leave to soak in a large bowl of water for 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt. (Don’t worry about the large amount of salt here, the rice has a very short time to absorb the water and the final result won’t be too salty.) Add the rice and cook for 4–5 minutes over a medium heat. Taste to test; the rice should be soft on the outside but still hard and firm in the middle. Drain, then rinse with tepid water to stop it cooking any further and set aside.

Make a saffron liquid by using a pestle and mortar to grind the saffron strands with a pinch of sugar and then adding the boiled water. Leave to steep.

To make a plain tahdig for this amount of rice, you need a 20cm non-stick saucepan with a snug-fitting lid. Melt half of the butter with the sunflower oil over a medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the saffron liquid and season with a pinch of salt. When the oil is hot, sprinkle a thin layer of rice over the bottom and firmly press it down to line the base of the pan. Using a large spoon, gently layer the rest of the rice on top, building it up into a pyramid shape so that it does not stick to the sides.

Using the handle of a wooden spoon, make four holes in the rice, almost but not quite down to the bottom of  the pan. Dot the rest of  the butter   into these holes. Spoon over the remaining saffron liquid and then place a clean tea towel or four layers of kitchen paper on top of the saucepan and put the lid on tightly. Tuck in the edges of the tea towel, or trim the edges of the kitchen paper to fit, so they won’t catch light.

Cook the rice over a medium heat for 5 minutes and then turn the heat down to very low and cook for 15 minutes.

When the rice has cooked for its allotted time, take it off the heat and leave it to stand for a few minutes.

Fill the sink with a few centimetres of cold water and place the saucepan, with the lid still tightly on it, in the water. The rush of steam this produces will loosen the crust at the bottom of the pan. Take the saucepan out of the water and place a large plate over the top. Quickly and deftly turn the rice out onto the plate.

If all goes to plan, you should have a beautiful cake-shaped mound of rice with a crispy top. If not, don’t worry, practice makes perfect. If your crust comes out soft, turn the heat up a little at the start of the cooking next time. If the crust is slightly burnt, reduce the heat at the initial stage of cooking.

You can also use additional ingredients to add texture and extra crispness to the crust. Below are some of my favourites.

 

Flatbread tahdig

Using a disc of unleavened flatbread will give you the crunchiest tahdig; this is the version I always use for a special occasion. Start by parboiling the rice and making the saffron liquid. Cut some Persian flatbread or a tortilla to the size of the base of your saucepan. After you have heated the butter, oil and saffron in your pan, season with a little salt and then place the flat disc of bread on the bottom of the pot. Gently layer the parboiled rice onto the bread using a large spoon, then finish the rice as usual.

 

Potato tahdig

Crispy fried potatoes make everything taste better, and Persian rice is no exception. Start by parboiling the rice and making the saffron liquid. After you have heated the butter, oil and saffron in your saucepan, season with a little salt and then place thin slices of peeled potato at the bottom of your pan. Gently layer the parboiled rice on top, then finish the rice as usual.

 

Yoghurt tahdig

Using yoghurt stops the tahdig from sticking to the bottom of the pan and produces a slightly moister crust. Start by parboiling the rice and making the saffron liquid. Take  5 tablespoons of  parboiled rice and mix it with   3 tablespoons of natural yoghurt. After you have heated the butter, oil and saffron, season with a little salt and spread the yoghurt and rice mixture across the base of your pan. Layer the remaining rice into the pan, then finish the rice as usual.

Extract taken from Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan (Bloomsbury) out now

Photography © Matt Russell

More?

Yasmin Khan is author of The Saffron TalesAlly McKinlay is founder of Croydon Saffron CentralPat Willard is author of Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World's Most Seductive Spice
Dr Sally Francis owns Norfolk Saffron
Charlie Hodson is Executive Head Chef of the Fur & Feather in Norfolk
Elaine Ead and her family run the Chough Bakery in Padstow, Cornwall

Credits

Role Contributor
Presenter Yasmin Khan
Interviewed Guest Pat Willard
Interviewed Guest Charlie Hodson
Interviewed Guest Sally Francis
Interviewed Guest Ally McKinlay
Producer Clare Salisbury

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