Kesari is derived from “Kesar” which is the Hindi word for saffron. This reddish colored stigma of the flower, Crocus Sativa, is considered to be the world’s most expensive spice. What exactly makes kesar steeper in cost compared to it’s counterparts in the spice rack? Hand reaped during the autumn season, the stigma is ponderously separated to produce what is valued both as a spice and as a natural dye. Research shows that reapers would have to go through more than 60,000 flowers to amass just one pound of the precious saffron. The Crocus flower blooms for just a few days every year and the “saffron farmers” have to pick these precious flowers quickly. The work is tedious and the stigma has to be separated and dried before molds set-in.
Back in the days, kesar was not exactly affordable for everybody. Hence, kesari powder was developed. This is the leftover snippets and bits after harvesting pure saffron. In powder form, kesari is sometimes mixed with turmeric so it does convey color and have it’s own distinct aroma when used for cooking. For those who were not able to spare the price of pure kesar, kesari powder came in as the next best thing.
A substantial number of both Indian and Pakistani dishes are made with kesar. Some of which are the Kesari Bhat or Saffron rice; Rava kesari, a south indian sweet prepared with semolina and ghee (indian clarified butter); Kesar kheer or Saffron pudding; and Kesari murgh or Saffron chicken.
Though commonly used as a cooking spice, kesar is also sometimes found as an herb used in Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda (sanskrit term meaning “science of life”) is known to be a form of alternative medicine in the western world. It is, however, a system of traditional medicine native to the indian subcontinent. It is through this system that kesar is believed to have healing and beneficial uses. Kesar, along with other ingredients such as amla (gooseberry), is often found in herbal products and believed to have wound-healing and antioxidant properties.
In the past, Kesar was also used to color textiles such as the distinctive mantles and robes worn by the Hindu monks. Given the priced value of kesar, the dye was commonly used in tinting fabrics belonging to those who carry religious or hierarchical importance.
Other uses for kesar has also been developed. One of which is as a main ingredient in incense production. Combined with sandalwood, the Kesar chandan incense was said to bring a cooling and earthy fragrance to anyone’s home.