In walked a man with curly locks and a long beard. His presence is Biblical only to be betrayed by his uber posh English accent. His name is Behroush Sharifi but just call him ‘The Saffron King’. Royalty of the highest mystical order, 5 minutes of conversation with him made me realize that no other name could suffice to describe him. He is a spice merchant and when he walks in to the kitchens of illustrious restaurants throughout the U.S., it is only he who can command the immediate attention of a busy chef, a chef who surrenders to both Behroush’s wisdom and fine product with the attentiveness of a curious child.
Speaking to The Saffron King, the conversation took us through choppy waters, across continents, fighting spice wars and time warping us to the era of the Bible. Behroush’s collection of spice never fails to amaze even the most ‘resourced ‘chef. Manna, the spice that saved the Israelites in the Old Testament is sold in tiny clusters and his Iranian fennel and cardamom boasts of a fragrance so intense that special packaging is required to keep their scents separate from everything else.
His knowledge of spice marries together the paradigm of food and that of Persian poetry.
Growing up in the U.K. and the latter part of his childhood spent in the South interwove with his Iranian roots. He saw endless possibilities of how spices could be incorporated in food and beverage whether one was making something exotic or a simple mashed potato. However, his Iranian knowledge of herbs, spices and dried fruits also made him aware of just how listless a lot of these ingredients looked whether it was at a supermarket or specialty store. And the Saffron King was born. He defied the odds and imported ingredients from Iran at a time of political instability and U.S. trade sanctions. This was just a snap shot of what this King was determined to take on.
He imports many spices, but the one that is nearest and dearest to his heart is Iranian Saffron. These seductive garnet strands have stood the test of time and at $3,000 per kilo,“like a handful of valuable things -gold, money, prostitution and real estate, this commodity has maintained it’s status” says Sharifi. Many cultures use saffron in their food. Italians use it in Risotto Milanese, the French use it in Bouillabaisse and the Spanish use it in more dishes than not. According to Sharifi, this is part of a rich “cultural dialogue” and demonstrates how Persian footprints merged with local cultures all over the world to create new culinary experiences.
Whilst saffron seems expensive at first blush, it actually isn’t and just a few strands go a long way on a big dish. The key is to extract as much taste, color and aroma by grinding it in a pestle and mortar with a pinch of sugar to make a uniform fine powder. As he very richly articulated, “when this mixture is combined with a couple of tablespoons of boiling water, the infusion will draw out the full majesty of the spice with maximum taste”. This was a surprise to me on a personal level, as I have always just tossed a few strands in to a simmering dish and assumed a weak hue of orange is what these threads deliver to a dish.
Today, I made a simple chicken, chorizo and shrimp paella. When an ingredient is that intense and beautiful, it begs for very little else. This one pot dish has sweetness from the peppers and a sultry smoky touch of saffron; flavors which delicately coat the rice, shrimp, chicken and fish. Taking the suggestion of The Saffron King, I ground the saffron which in turn made my paella look sun-kissed.
4 strands of saffron, a pinch of sugar
1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth/ stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined (reserve the shells)
1lb chicken thigh, with skin
Chorizo, ¼ lb, sliced in to thin disks
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups long-grain rice
1/4 teaspoon paprika
2 fresh tomatoes, diced
1 large red pepper, roasted and skinned, sliced in to slivers
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 cup frozen green peas, thawed
Handful of cilantro
Combine the saffron and sugar and pound to a fine powder
1) Clean the shrimp and bring the shrimp shells and broth to a boil with the saffron. Remove from heat and let all ingredients steep
2) Sauté the onions, garlic and chorizo until the onions are translucent.
3) In a separate pan, cook the chicken – skin side down until it is golden brown and half cooked
4) Add to the pan with the chorizo. Add the diced tomatoes, season with salt, pepper and paprika and cook until soft.
5) Strain the stock
6) Toast the rice in the tomato and chorizo sauce. Add the stock, boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook covered
7) In a separate pan, briefly sauté the shrimp on high heat, cook half way through only. When rice is half cooked, throw the shrimp over the rice with the frozen peas and continue to cover whilst it simmers. Once rice is fluffy, remove from heat, sprinkle with cilantro
Serve with lemon wedges and a green salad dressed in olive oil and red wine vinegar
Pearls Of Wisdom
I add the shrimp half way through to avoid over cooking