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Saffron (Kesar or Safran) is derived from the flowers the Saffron Crocus. The plant bears only up to 4 flowers in a growing season which is why Saffron is perhaps one of the more expensive spices (by weight) on the market. Each flower only has 3 crimson stigmas, each the distal end of an ovary (the female portion of the flower). The stigmas are painstakingly harvested, dried and are used as a seasoning and coloring agent in the Middle East and South East Asia. Its golden yellow color and distinct flavor imparts depth to dishes from Paella to Biryani and Indian desserts Iranian saffron is said to the best and most potent quality. They also produce 90% of the world's saffron.
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The stamens and anthers, which are the male portion of the flower are odorless and tasteless and often yellow in color. Those are sometimes mixed into true saffron, or sold exclusively by themselves, to unsuspecting customers. In the US, McCormick Saffron is authentic and expensive (about $18 for 0.06 oz). Indian and middle-eastern grocery stores offer better prices on it. Always remember to look for a deep reddish orange color. If it is pale, but the pack down and move along to another store. It is unlikely that you will have a chance to inhale the aroma of saffron until you get home as containers are usually sealed tight to maintain the essential oils.
Saffron has a long history in traditional medicine. It is believed to have antocarcinogenic, antimutagenic, antioxidant and immunemodulating properties. Saffron laced teas have traditionally been used to help with seasonal depression during the long winter months. There is anecdotal evidence for all kinds of other benefits - it slows down macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. It is believed to relieve stomach aches - it was often mixed in milk for kids to prevent colic.
Another interesting benefit I've read about is that Saffron (specifically Crocin, derived from Saffron) helps promotes learning, memory retention, and recall capacity. Based on some early study results, some scientists believe that saffron might be useful in the treatment and management of age related mental impairment. I've not seen the data so I'm unlikely to believe it ;)
Whether you are a skeptic like me, or a believer, you will fall in love with the aroma and flavor of Saffron. Give it a try.