While trying to use all of my fresh sweet corn that my friends in Iowa sent to me, I was inspired to incorporate it into biryani, a traditional Indian rice dish that is enhanced with the essence of several spices, layered with vegetables and cooked in a closed pot to bring the flavors together. I envisioned this recipe to have kernels of corn mixed in the vegetables and spices as they placed between layers of spiced rice, and then topped with small pieces of corn on the cob to complement the primary ingredient in this recipe, corn.

The main crops in Iowa are corn and soybeans. In keeping with the Iowa fresh from the farm theme, I decided to add a few soybeans to the biryani vegetables. They are full of protein and bring a firm texture to the dish as well as the vibrant green color! Perhaps I should call this recipe Iowa Biryani… This recipe is dedicated to my friends and partners in Manning, Iowa who inspired this recipe.

Sweet Corn Biryani

Sweet Corn Biryani ready to serve

The first step in preparing Sweet Corn Biryani is to cook the rice with a few whole spices so it becomes fragrant with the aroma. While the rice cooks, an array of fresh vegetables, including onion, carrots, cauliflower, corn, garlic and ginger are cooked until tender.

Instead of mixing the vegetables and rice together, they are layered in true Indian style in a large dish to form the biryani. Between the layers, warm milk that has been infused with the flavor and color of saffron is drizzled so it is evenly dispersed throughout the biryani.

After the assembly is complete, the lid if placed on the pot and the Sweet Corn Biryani is steamed for a few minutes to allow the flavors to blend and the ingredients to cook fully.

Sweet Corn Biryani

Sweet Corn Biryani

To serve Sweet Corn Biryani, place a generous scoop of it on each plate, along with a piece of corn, and serve with plain yogurt on the side. It can also be served with Onion Raita.

During my visit to Dubai’s famous spice souk last year I discovered that saffron is not only sold in its natural state as threads but also as liquid saffron extract. I purchased a bottle because I found it interesting and thought it would be a different, easy way to add saffron flavor without going to the work of heating a bit of milk and soaking the threads. The vendor in the shop told me it was very popular with the locals and tourists alike.


Saffron extract is available in a bottle for quick and easy use.

Saffron extract is available in a bottle for quick and easy use.


Saffron extract is, as the name implies, a concentrated liquid containing saffron flavor or essence. The paper that came in my bottle of extract calls it “red gold”. Its purpose, in the kitchen, is to provide a standardize measure of saffron across recipes in contrast to a pinch which varies wildly. Since it is already in liquid form, it does not need to be soaked in a warm liquid for 10 to 20 minutes to release its flavor; the liquid is ready to be used. It also has a longer shelf life than dried saffron threads. The best reason to use saffron extract is that it is quick and easy to use – just pour a few drops into your dish during the step in which you would normally add the saffron.


When I started researching saffron extract, I could not find any information on it except that people use it as an appetite suppressant for weight loss or as a nutritional supplement. Hmm. That is not my intent. I looked all over the Internet for biryani recipes, chicken recipes, any recipe that used it. I couldn’t find a single one. A year later as I search again, I have only seen one or two recipes and a minimal amount of guidance as to how to use saffron extract. Perhaps they are available but only in Arabic.


Using the extract is really easy. At first I was a little nervous that I would pour way too much into my rice but, since the top has a tiny hole, just a mini-drop comes out at a time. My rule of thumb is about 10 of these drops to a cup of cooked rice. You are supposed to add it to liquid before stirring it into the rice but I added it directly to the rice after I had mixed it into the hot oil and spices. It mixed very evenly with my rice. Even if it hadn’t mixed evenly, any variation in color would enhance the look. A photo of my cumin rice with the extract is below.


Indian cumin rice dish made with saffron extract.

Indian cumin rice dish made with saffron extract.


I can only hope that my tiny 18ml bottle lasts until I can get to Dubai again. In the meantime, I plan on using
it in as many of my recipes as I can.


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Two years ago I compared saffron grown in the top three saffron producing countries in the world to try to answer the question Is Saffron from Kashmir the Most Exotic?.  With May’s recipe of the month, Chicken and Saffron Curry, I want to explore how saffron is used in Indian cooking.


Saffron, harvested from the flower of the saffron crocus, is very special since it is the most expensive spice per ounce on the planet. To give you perspective on how rare this is, each crocus plant may have 4 flowers and each flower has 3 stigmas. That means 12 tiny threads per plant! Fortunately a tiny bit of saffron goes a long way. One needs just a pinch to flavor a bowl of rice or a dessert.


Saffron in Indian cooking is primarily used for its delicate honey and grassy aroma that it brings to food. It is also used for its concentrated yellow-orange color that it brings to food and as a dye for fabric.


Saffron, a key ingredient in Indian cooking, brings an exquisite aroma to food.

Saffron, a key ingredient in Indian cooking, brings an exquisite aroma to food.


Most often saffron is most often found in sweets or desserts, like Payasam. The threads add a subtle flavor and give it the distinctive color. The delicate flavor is a perfect match to a sophisticated dessert. Since this dish is milk based, it is very easy to see the threads floating in the liquid. Other desserts include some Kesari, halwa and paalada pradhaman recipes.


Saffron is found in many biryani recipes whether made with lamb, chicken or seafood. I use it in my Dum Pukt Chicken Biryani and Langoustine Biryani recipes. The recipe for biryani is very complicated and involves alternating layers of seasoned rice, meat and caramelized onions. Since biryani is so complicated, it is usually made for important dinners for guests or special events. Saffron, as part of this dish, implies that the meal is special.


Beyond these recipes, it is found in many rice dishes as well as some seafood dishes. I use it in Pondicherry Pouillabaise and Prawn Balchao. It occasionally appears in other chicken recipes like my Chicken and Saffron Curry. My Creamy Carrot Soup also takes advantage of the subtle flavor of saffron.


I have a few tips to using saffron to its best advantage:


  • Stirring the saffron to a few tablespoons of warm milk (preferred) or water and letting it sit for about 20 minutes before adding it to the pot will bring out the maximum amount of flavor and color so you do not have to use as much as you would if you added it directly to the pot.
  • Crushing the saffron threads between your fingers just before adding them to the warm milk will bring out more flavor.
  • Don’t include saffron in recipes that are very heavily spiced or hot, as the flavor will be masked by the other flavors. Save your saffron for a dish that is worthy.
  • Pretend saffron is rationed. Some people think that more is better and add it to a recipe by the handful. When I was in Dubai, a merchant told me that this is how many Saudi women add saffron this way. In my mind, this is not necessary and wastes the saffron. It just makes the color more intense but does not enhance the flavor.
  • Store your saffron in an airtight container in a dark, cool place to keep it fresh. Use it promptly as the flavor deteriorates over time.
  • If you don’t have saffron, turmeric can be used to give a golden color to a recipe.


Try my Chicken and Saffron Curry recipe to discover the magic of chicken with saffron.



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Last week I wrote that saffron is one of the most important spices in Indian cuisine. To give credibility to my statement, I am sharing my recipe for Chicken and Saffron Curry. In this recipe, I marinate chicken pieces in a delightful spice and yogurt mixture before it is cooked then it is added to a rich, creamy curry that has been infused with saffron threads. It is easy to make and great with rice and a simple green vegetable. It is a heavenly dish that family will love; your guests will request the recipe. For those who do not enjoy hot, spicy
food, this is a recipe for you!


Chicken and Saffron Curry has a rich creamy curry sauce with a hint of saffron.

Chicken and Saffron Curry


I hope you enjoy my Chicken and Saffron Curry recipe!


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Pondicherry (a city in Tamil Nadu, India) cuisine is a fascinating blend of Indian spices and French techniques. I encountered it when I visited the area earlier this year. Since the food was absolutely delicious and unique I decided that featuring a recipe based on Pondicherry cuisine would be a wise decision for my recipe of the month. So, the recipe for August is my version of Pouillabaisse the Pondicherry version of Bouillabaisse.


Pondicherry cuisine makes Pouillabaisse a delicious Indian fusion recipe.

Pondicherry cuisine makes Pouillabaisse a delicious Indian fusion recipe.


My recipe is a combination of the traditional Bouillabaisse from Marsailles, France and one from Pondicherry. I found the two interestingly similar and different at the same time. In the French version, one creates a rich broth and then adds the seafood before serving. In the Pondicherry version the seasonings and seafood are cooked first before water is added to make the broth. The French version has very few vegetables in the final product whereas many vegetables are added with the seafood. In both cases, they are very delicately and richly seasoned for a delicious meal.


I hope you enjoy my recipe for Pondicherry Pouillabaisse.


How did Pondicherry cuisine come about?

You might ask how Pondicherry cuisine became fused with French techniques. Since Pondicherry had been conquered by many different nations in its long and colorful history, it is not surprising that some of the dominating cultures remained after the colonists left. Since France ruled for off and on for centuries until Pondicherry became part of India in 1954, it had the opportunity to become deeply engrained.


Unfortunately this cuisine is not very well known outside of this city as it has been passed down through generations of local Pondicherry families and restaurants.


What makes Pondicherry cuisine unique?

The most distinctive feature is in the sauce. They are prepared in a French way over low heat with herbs as well as Indian spices often using cream. The flavors are well matched and refined in contrast to a traditional curry. Pondicherry cuisine also employs cooking techniques that are not often used in Indian cooking like baking and grilling.


Other features include the frequent use of fresh seafood in the recipes due to its location right on the Bay of Bengal. Not only is seafood used but it is used in combination, such as shrimp and fish, to give unique tastes in each bite. Potatoes are found not only in various dishes but are served alone as French fries and mashed potatoes.


If you enjoy my recipe for Pouillabaisse, I strongly recommend you purchase The Pondicherry Kitchen by Lourdes Tirouvanziam-Louis in which she documented traditional Pondicherry recipes from her family and others.

Don’t forget to try my Pondicherry Pouillabaisse recipe!

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On the second day of our adventure, we visited the spice souk in the old section of Dubai. The most impressive thing that struck me about this part of town was its cleanliness. No trash of any kind could be seen on the ground. No crumbling sidewalks. (Don’t get me started on this because I can rant for hours. You may find hints of my feelings in some of my posts from 2011.) The area is perfectly safe too.


As we entered the market, I was amazed that it was organized by content. One aisle featured stores that only sold cooking pots and utensils; another was dedicated to spices. I expected to see open stalls or booths but found actual shops with glass fronts and open doors. We found shop after shop with huge bags of spices. From whole spices like cardamoms, anise, peppercorns of many colors and cinnamon sticks of varying lengths to ground spices including, cumin, turmeric, chiles and paprika, they had everything one would need to create a perfectly seasoned dish.


One of many spice shops in Dubai's spice souk.

One of many spice shops in Dubai’s spice souk.



One of my most interesting finds was the saffron flowers. They are actually bundles, about an inch in diameter, of saffron threads. It was very easy to see the different parts of saffron, from the yellow thread to the red stigma. Each vendor offered several quality grades from the least expensive (contains some yellow parts) to the best which had virtually no yellow parts at all. One of the shopkeepers, Jamal, not only sold saffron in small quantities but in huge boxes. When I asked him who buys saffron in such large quantities, he replied that Indians use just a pinch of saffron in each dish and Saudis throw a handful into the same amount of food! Since the spice was so fresh, I could smell its aroma without having to bring it to my nose. Ahh! Of course we had to buy some (okay, just about 6 grams).


Large balls of saffron.

Large balls of saffron.


This trip was educational for me as well. After snapping away with my camera, I asked the shopkeeper the names of the items I didn’t know. The first one was dried lemon and its cousin the black dried lemon. These lemons are staples in Emirati cooking. Since I had seen a few recipes at home that called for them and didn’t really know what dried lemons were or where to find them, I was thrilled to see both varieties! I didn’t buy any since I wasn’t sure if I could take them home; now I wish I had.



Dried black and yellow lemons in the spice souk.

Dried black and yellow lemons in the spice souk.


I also discovered saffron pistachios. Light yellow in color they are roasted with saffron and turmeric. I tasted just one nut in the store and it was quite tasty! I purchased 400 grams that were sealed in a bag for me to take home. I can’t wait to start working on my version of this recipe.


Cinnamon sticks come in many sizes and thicknesses. I thought they only came in pieces about 4 inches long. I found huge bags of them in one of the shops. Some were thin, others thicker, and some were up to a foot long. I purchased one of the super-sized sticks to see how the flavor compares to those from Kerala.


Our hotel, the Sheraton Jumeirah Beach Resort, offered fresh Arabic coffee and delicious dates that melt in your mouth to all guests in the lobby. Since it was free I helped myself often. The coffee is a light roast ground with cardamom pods. I think it is best suited for the afternoon since it is light. In one of the shops at the souk I purchased two pounds of this delicious coffee to take home.


What a fun day. I can’t wait to get to India (Goa and Kerala) to see the plantations where spices are grown.

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Recently I visited Spain for a weeklong trip with my family and purchased several grams of saffron at the local farmers market because I use it so often and the price is much lower than in the U.S. I purchased a few grams of Kashmiri saffron last year while in India and thought it was heavenly. Also, I remembered that I had seen Iranian saffron in Madrid just a few years earlier so I searched through all of the duty free shops and gift stores during my travels. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any. I searched for quite a while to find Iranian saffron after I returned and finally was able to get it sent to me. Since saffron is a critical ingredient for heavenly Indian cooking, I thought I would compare the flavor, color and aromas of the largest saffron producing countries to see which is best.


Saffron, harvested from the flower of the saffron crocus, is considered to be very precious since per ounce on the planet. To give you perspective on how rare this is, each crocus plant may have 4 flowers and each flower has 3 stigmas. That is 12 tiny threads per plant! To give some perspective, nearly 500 stigmas or threads make one gram and “it takes a football field-size plot of saffron crocuses to produce just 1 pound of saffron threads.” 1 A lot of work goes into harvesting each one by hand and drying these threads just so we can enjoy the flavor and bright color they provide.


Discovered around 3,000 years ago, this spice originated from central Asia or Crete and was first grown in Greece. This prized spice then traveled to Syria, Iraq, Iran, China and Kashmir. The history is very interwoven and complex so I will not make a guess as to which group of people used it before anyone else. During this time saffron was used for medicinal and magical purposes as well as for its color as a dye, aroma and flavor. Now saffron is grown around the world but most of it is grown near the Mediterranean, in a band around the equator.


Top Saffron Producers


Top saffron producing regions are Kashmir in northern India, Spain and Iran. In the table below I compare the physical attributes of their saffron:

Origin Description Color Flavor Aroma
Kashmir Even though it is difficult to acquire, it is reported to e the best saffron in the world. very dark red subtle but pervasive, rich aroma aromatic
Spain The most readily available saffron in the U.S. medium red mild less aromatic
Iran Grows over 90% of the world’s supply. dark red intense, full body very aromatic


Other saffron producers:

Other Middle East countries       Greece

Morocco                                    Crete

Italy                                         California

Sardinia                                    Pennsylvania



Saffron Color

Before buying any saffron, look closely at the threads. When picked from the crocus the saffron stigma is located on top of a style which is connected to the flower. The saffron with the best color and flavor contains just the red stigma; this is also extremely expensive. To prepare this crème de la crème saffron, the grower must cut every stigma from every style thus reducing the number of saffron threads per gram.  The packaging will refer to this as saffron coupé (cut). To make it more affordable, the styles are not cut from the stigmas thus one can see some yellow threads in the saffron. The saffron is then graded based on the length of the style. The longer it is, the less expensive it is because it has a higher concentration of styles making it less red in color. The three attributes that contribute to saffron quality are color, taste and aroma.


Saffron threads from Kashmir, Spain and Iran (left to right).

Saffron threads from Kashmir, Spain and Iran (left to right).


Ground saffron is often sold in grocery stores. I would not recommend using it since the flavor is lost very quickly after it is ground. When you need to grind it, simply rub a few threads between your thumb and fingers to break them into tiny pieces. In addition, it may be “supplemented” with a bit of turmeric or paprika to reduce the price.

One tip on using saffron: Remember that a small bit gives a lot of flavor to your dish.


1       Elizabeth Gunnison, Most Expensive Spice:
http://www.gourmet.com/food/gourmetlive/2012/041112/expensive/most-expensive-spice-saffron (April 11, 2012).

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