Secret ingredient: Saffron

01:49, Mar 14 2013
WORTH IT'S WEIGHT IN GOLD: Saffron is thought to be more expensive than gold.

Sixties singer Donovan was 'just mad about saffron' - but could you identify it in a spice line-up? Here's the inside word.


Saffron threads are the dried stigma (female parts) of the autumn crocus flower. There are only three stigma per flower, and these have to be picked by hand, which explains why this spice is said to be more expensive than gold. Apparently 500g of dry saffron requires 60,000-85,000 flowers, but fortunately a very small amount goes a long way, as the flavour, aroma and colour imparted are intense.

Quality saffron threads are a bright crimson/red, with no yellow streaks. Because of this unusual taste and the vibrant orange-yellow colouring it adds to foods, saffron is widely used in Arab, Central Asian, European, Indian, Iranian and Moroccan cuisines (the major supplier, globally, is Iran).


The taste defies description and there is no substitute for it. Musk and honey comes somewhere near, although that description doesn't do it justice. Suffice to say that it adds a complexity of flavour and aroma to dishes such as paella, Indian rice dishes, Moroccan couscous and tagines. When you cook with saffron, your kitchen is filled with sunshine.  
Any Mediterranean supply store or, better still, look on the internet for quality local product grown in Central Otago.
Turmeric gives a similar colour, but is completely different in every other respect. There really is no substitute for it.

Saffron is the must-have ingredient in this fish chowder, and is not negotiable as far as I'm concerned - even a small pinch of this gorgeous spice will give any dish that distinctive sunny colour, and elevate the flavour from the passable to the sublime.  Almost any fish can be used, but it is preferable to use a firm-fleshed variety.


If I have time I make my own fish stock - otherwise I use a tetra pack of supermarket stock.

400-500g fresh fish fillet
500g waxy potatoes (unpeeled weight)
3 Tbsp oil
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 large stick celery, diced
1 yellow or red capsicum, seeded and diced
large pinch (about ¾ tsp, loosely packed) saffron threads, crushed
2 Tbsp flour
2 1/2 cups unsalted fish stock
1 cup coconut cream
1 1/2 tsp salt or to taste and freshly ground black pepper
finely chopped fresh coriander for garnish
2 tsp sumac powder for garnish

2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and sauté the garlic, onion, celery and capsicum over a low heat with the crushed saffron threads until the onion softens. Stir in the prepared potato and sprinkle the flour over, stirring, and cook for 2-3 minutes.

3. Stir in the fish stock. Simmer, covered, until the potato is cooked, about 15 minutes.

4. Stir in the coconut cream, the salt and the pepper. When almost at simmer point, stir in the prepared fish fillets and allow the soup to come back to a simmer point.

Ladle into heated soup bowls. Garnish with the coriander and the sumac and serve.

Ladle into heated soup bowls. Garnish with the coriander and the sumac and serve. Hot crusty ciabatta rolls make a perfect accompaniment. Serves 4-6.

Rowan Bishop is a member of the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers and the author of four cookbooks. She was the owner/operator of a specialty catering service in Dunedin for 10 years and has been a foodwriter/columnist for almost 30 years. Rowan Bishop's With Relish; Fine Chutneys, Pickles & More will be released early next year, and she is currently working on a sixth cookbook.