Traditional Chinese medicine values saffron as a pain killer

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Labeled 'mellow yellow' in song, this precious herb boasts the color of the sun and has rich traditions in cuisine, art and medicine. Mike Peters reports.

Fans of exotically flavored saffron may call it a spice to die for, but centuries ago on the ancient Silk Road, such a statement was literally true. Traders risked great hardships to attain the fragrant spice worth more than its weight in gold, and highwaymen of the time had few scruples about killing a few men to get a few saddlebags of the floral treasure. A single Crocus sativus plant bears no more than four flowers, each with three vivid crimson stigmas from which saffron is derived. Click to learn Ulcerative Colitis in TCM.

"Clearly there is something magical about the Crocus sativus flower," writes medical blogger Sayer Ji on Green Med Info. "If its striking beauty does not immediately cast a spell on its beholder, often it simply takes experiencing the spice to fall into full enchantment with it. While saffron is exceptionally expensive, because it takes approximately 150 flowers to yield just 1,000 mg (0.035 oz) of dry saffron threads, and costs approximately $1,000 a pound, it does not take much to have an effect. Its uniqueness is also illustrated by the fact that it shuns mechanization, requiring of its would-be possessors that it be painstakingly harvested by hand, as no doubt has been done for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years.

Today the most expensive grades still come from Iran and surrounding areas that were once part of Persia, such as Afghanistan, and demand for the real thing has kept it moving along centuries-old routes, usually without benefit of camels.

"Lower quality saffron will give you that prized color-that dark yellow ochre color," says Laura Kelley, author of the Silk Road Gourmet, "but it won't give you the aroma or the flavor." She notes that well before the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty, "people were going all over the region, traveling and trading. The saffron story really is a Buddhist story: It probably came across to China via the Kashmir region. There is documentation of that traffic in Persia as old as the 16th century BCE, and in China there are distinct references from the herbalist Wan Zhen from about 300 BCE." Given the skew of time between such records, she adds, it's likely that there were multiple introductions of the spice into China. Click to learn Proctitis in TCM.

Pleasant as saffron can be on the palate, it's far more than a foodstuff, says art dealer Hassan Rezaei, a friendly expat who has been selling Persian rugs in Beijing for about eight years.

Rezaei is quick to offer any guest some hot Persian tea-a mixture of saffron and black tea, but he's most eager to show saffron at work on his wall, in a magnificent Esfahan rug with sapphire-colored medallions that leap from a background of silken gold. The colors, he says with a big grin, come from natural dyes made from carefully gathered plants: saffron for the blaze of gold, and indigo for the rich blue.

Cookbook author Kelley is a career biologist whose lifelong fascination with food began in the kitchen of her Italian-American family. Her scientific training opened up entire worlds of non-culinary aspects of Silk Road foods, and her website at is a treasure trove of history, medicine, art and intriguing nuggets of lore as well as recipes.

"Traditional Chinese medicine values saffron as a pain killer and for treating cramps, asthma, bruises and stomach ailments, as well as for lowering blood pressure," she notes. "Recent clinical studies in the West show it might ease some depressive symptoms. More than a decade ago, people found that turmeric had these tremendous anti-inflammatory qualities, and that spurred both laboratory and clinical focus on all kinds of traditional medicine, especially Ayurveda and TCM." Click to learn Duodenitis in TCM.

Sayer Ji concurs, observing that while recent mainstream coverage on the Dr. Oz show highlighted saffron for potential weight-loss promoting properties, because it can suppress appetite, "saffron has far more to offer than that. It may, in fact, hold promise for serious neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease."

In California, where locals can wax as poetic about food as any Iranian, a small Santa Cruz company slowly infuses saffron and other spices known for their health qualities into a tonic-a cordial syrup marketed as Silk Road Genuine Original Elixir, an all-natural marinade or a topping for ice cream and other sweets.

Saffron's complex chemistry includes more than 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds.

It is saffron's aroma, of course, that makes poets sing and food lovers sigh.

In restaurants like Sharzhad in Esfahan or Persepolis in Beijing, Iranian chefs convert their treasured saffron into jewel-like morsels of yellow rice, fragrant teas and glowing golden desserts. In the US, a group of entrepreneurial military veterans have started Rumi Spice, an online shop that supports independent saffron growers in war-torn Afghanistan. In Calgary, Canada, the Silk Road Spice Merchant has similarly embraced the spirit of the ancient traders with a website rich with information and quality spices for sale since 2008.

"Fresh saffron has a distinctive earthy smell and flavor and imparts a bright orange color to food," say co-owners Kelci Hind and Colin Leach on the website, warning that imitations like safflower petals look similar but are far cheaper and almost tasteless. "Saffron is a characteristic ingredient for a number of traditional dishes like bouillabaisse and paella, as well as many risottos. Try adding a few threads to basmati rice with Indian dishes and turn your rice a beautiful golden color. Click to learn Chronic Pancreatitis in TCM.

"When adding saffron to a dish," they advise, "add it to a bit of liquid first to draw out the color, or grind to a powder if no liquid is being used. Adding saffron early in the cooking process gives more color; adding late gives more flavor."

Article source: Chinadaily

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