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by Bob Samborski

"Here, please, Sir. You must try this!" I popped the crunchy pepper-dusted cashew into my mouth as the friendly Iranian shopkeeper smiled, nodding his approval. It burned just about all the way down. "Nice," I wheezed, on the verge of choking, "But I’m looking for saffron."

This was definitely the right place. Saffron was everywhere. It was impossible to avoid it. In the labyrinthine spice souk (or market) in the heart of old Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, saffron is king.

As any recent visitor to Dubai knows firsthand, the pace of construction is staggering. High rises sprout from nearly everywhere, the attending cranes revealing an almost manic rush to modernity. There’s really not a lot of "old" Dubai left, as the nomadic nature of the culture until the past half century did not lend itself to much permanence.

One fortunate exception is the old souk area of town, near the Dubai Museum complex and the amusingly misnamed Dubai Creek, which seems every bit a river. One in a series of "specialty" markets (including jewelry and clothing), the Dubai spice souk assaults the senses. Mounds of colorful spices and nuts, peppers and pods, rice, beans and lentils appear in a wild mosaic of colors, shapes and textures. The pungent blast of the collection cannot be ignored. Urgent back-and-forth chatter in a variety of languages fuels the energy of the place. And everywhere is saffron, more than you have ever seen in one place.

Saffron is the dried threads (stigmata) of the crocus flower. Considering a crocus has only three stigmas, each of which has to be harvested by hand – it is mind boggling to see a kilo of saffron, much less a whole shop full of kilo jars of the stuff. Over a half-million stigmas are required to make a kilo of saffron, according to the neighboring saffron purveyor, also Iranian. In fact, most of the merchants in Dubai’s spice souk are from Iran; many Iranian ports are within a two-day dhow ride across the Persian Gulf. These traditional cargo boats are a familiar sight, double parked in the creek across the busy street from the souks.

As any foodie worth their salt knows, saffron is one of the most highly prized spices in the world and an absolute necessity for favorites like risotto, paella, sauces, and even puddings. It’s also expensive, so prohibitively so that culinary saffron experiments are an extravagance few can regularly afford. A recent check at my neighborhood supermarket in Colorado revealed a price of $15.56 for just under two grams of Spanish saffron. That extrapolates to almost $260 an ounce!

Gleefully parting with 75 Emirates Dirhams (about $20), I pocketed 25 grams of Iranian saffron, more than enough for several years of exotic creations, plus some great gifts for my foodie friends.

The gold market was a short stroll away, but I had already found my treasure.


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