Order tandoori chicken in an Indian restaurant anywhere in the world, and you will find it colored a bright orange. Ask the chef, “Why orange?” and he will probably say that it is tradition – it has always been prepared so.
To understand why tandoori chicken is orange you must go back more than a thousand years, to the days when the great Arab alchemists labored to convert base metals into gold. They discarded one formula after another until they found a magical substance that colored anything it touched gold. They called it zafaran; the English modified the name only slightly, to saffron.
Saffron comes from crocus bulbs that flower two weeks in a year, each violet blossom enclosing three orange stigmas. Delicately plucked by hand and dried, a stigma becomes an inch long strand of saffron. A million strands weigh only a little over four pounds, making saffron the most expensive spice known.
Arab alchemists also developed theories of dietetics, using scientific principles to develop healing sauces. Saffron was the most important ingredient in their repertoire, believed to possess miraculous powers. It had brought them the closest they ever got to creating gold; surely, they reasoned, it had therapeutic properties as well. Saffron became essential to Arab cuisine and the most highly regarded dishes were those with a golden hue. All shades of yellow were thought auspicious: cookbooks recommended using turmeric or safflower if saffron was too expensive.
Medieval Europeans adopted many Arab theories, including those on alchemy, dietetics and cooking. Saffron grew well in temperate western climates and became the most popular spice for cooking. All chefs learned the technique of endoring, basting meats with saffron and egg yolks to give them a golden glow.
India’s Muslim rulers developed a taste for Arab and Persian cuisine, including their fondness for saffron. The seventeenth century emperor Jahangir personally inspected saffron fields in Kashmir. Saffron became the hallmark of royal kitchens, symbolizing richness and sophistication. Indian restaurants still carry on that tradition, striving to obtain the color of saffron even if they have to resort to food colouring when the spice itself is too expensive to use. And they will never, ever, serve tandoori chicken that is not the right shade of orange.
Although saffron is expensive, a little bit goes a long way, especially if your saffron is of good quality. The traditional, and still the best, way to use saffron in cooking is by soaking it in some warm milk to draw out it's colour, aroma and flavour. Keep your saffron in a sealed bag in the freezer and it will remain fresh for a very long time.
Saffron Rosewater Ice Cream With Pistachios
1 can (354ml) evaporated milk
1 cup whipping cream
1/4 tsp saffron threads
1/4 cup + 3 tbsp sugar, divided
3 large egg yolks
3 tbsp rosewater
2 tbsp unsalted, unroasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
Combine evaporated milk, whipping cream, saffron and 1/4 cup sugar in heavy saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low and keep warm, stirring occasionally. Don't worry if a skin starts forming over milk, it will be integrated into the ice cream later.
Meanwhile, half fill a large saucepan with water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Combine egg yolks, remaining 3 tbsp sugar and the rosewater in a rounded bowl big enough to fit over the saucepan without touching the water.
Beat with a whisk until thickened, increased in volume and lightened in colour, about 4 min. Remove from heat and continue beating for 1 more min until smooth.
One by one, add 2 ladles of the warm saffron milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture, whisking gently after each addition to bring it up to temperature.
Pour the egg yolk mixture into the saucepan containing remainder of the warm saffron milk, whisking gently to incorporate. Increase heat to medium low and continue whisking for about 5-7 min until milk thickens slightly. Remove from heat and stir in the chopped pistachios.
Cool ice cream mixture at room temperature for 30 minutes. Transfer to a rounded bowl, cover tightly and freeze overnight.
Remove from freezer, uncover and rest at room temperature for 1 hour or until ice cream is starting to thaw and soften. Break up ice cream into smaller pieces with a knife. Using a hand blender, blend ice cream until it is smooth and no lumps remain. It is OK to have the pistachios remain chunky.
Cover and freeze again for another 2 hours or longer.
Alternatively you can churn ice cream in an ice cream maker, following manufacturer's directions.
Scoop into serving bowls and serve.