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It is a warm spring afternoon in Herat Province in western Afghanistan. The winter has been unusually short and Mohammad Salehi is concerned that the sun-loving crops may be affected.
Salehi examines every deep orange strand in the palm of his hand. He holds up a few, inhales the earthy scent, and then gently places each one back on the table once he’s satisfied with its weight, length, scent, and taste.
These saffron threads are the result of the joint work of Heray spice – a thriving young startup Salehi founded to bring Afghan saffron into the hands of restaurant chefs and home cooks in the United States. „We try to make saffron of the highest quality here,” says the 2021 Eater New Guard member. For Salehi, each strand of saffron connects his new life as an American entrepreneur with his memories of growing up in a farming family in Afghanistan – and represents a way to bring the two worlds together.
Salehi, a former US Army interpreter in Afghanistan, settled in Chicago in 2014 as part of a special resettlement program for Afghans who risked their lives in the American fight against extremism. The first few years were tough, with Salehi holding multiple jobs to support himself in a new country while sorely missing his home. He often remembered the lush farms his mother ran in the ancient city of Herat, the capital of the western Afghan province of the same name that borders Iran. „I wanted to do more and work on something that would help my people in Afghanistan – the farmers like my mother,” he tells Eater.
The answer came to him in the few tiny bottles of the native, earthy gold spice that he brought back to America. „My family has been growing saffron since 2002 when the US and the UN supported it after the fall of the Taliban,” he says, referring to one of the many programs that were introduced in Afghanistan to discourage farmers from growing opium. that the Taliban had forced them to do. While growing wheat and chickpeas before the United Nations program, Salehi’s family found saffron production profitable and quickly switched to the new crop.
Years later, as Salehi started his life in the United States, family-grown saffron became his calling and contribution to the cultural melting pot that had embraced him. “This business is not only a connection to Afghanistan, but also [a way] Introduce quality saffron to the United States, ”he says.
Good saffron is dark yellow to orange color and deep aroma. It is a delicate spice, but its distinct taste and body are used to add fragrance and color to Central and South Asian cuisines; it is also used in medical practices. Each strand is a stigma of the purple saffron flower, and each flower only produces three. It is widely known as the most expensive spice in the world. For Salehi to achieve its vision, the saffron must be of high quality – and profitable enough for farmers to grow.
The company name is a historical variant of „Herat”, the Persian city from which the spice comes. Heray Spice employs 28 families who grow saffron as part of a cooperative. „As part of the cooperation, we offer them training courses and workshops on new production and harvesting techniques as well as tools and resources for maintaining quality,” explains Salehi. „Since the saffron is harvested by hand, we attach great importance to hygiene due to its high sensitivity.” The farmers of Heray harvest saffron in the traditional way, without the use of machines that are more commonly used in the west in saffron production. While this ensures that the strands stay intact and long, it also increases the risk of contamination if not properly processed and packaged. „Every batch of saffron we import into the US has to pass a microbiological laboratory test to ensure that only the healthiest products are brought into the country,” he says. Hygiene concerns were heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Salehi responded by imposing stricter protocols on its farmers and workers.
But what defines Heray Spice Art and makes it lucrative for farmers is the payoff: significantly more than the market prices. The company also donates a percentage of its profits to support two local schools in Herat province to give back to the children of the farming community. “No other institution, not even the government, has supported us like Heray Spice,” 45-year-old Nasir Ahmad, a farmer from the Pashtun district of Zarghun, told Eater. “They offer training, resources, and even buy the end product at a higher market price. Saffron cultivation requires a lot of energy and manual labor. The better the resources we have, the better the products will be, ”he explains. Salehi estimates Heray Spice pays 30 to 50 percent more than the local market.
Growing saffron is more difficult than normal grain, explains Ahmad. “The cultivation of saffron flowers requires intensive love work. Much of the process, from planting the bulbs to harvesting and picking the saffron threads, has to be done by skilled hands to ensure the best quality products, ”he says. „This is how our fathers and grandfathers grew it, and this is how we grow it now.” Salehi speculates that the preservation of traditional farming practices could be the reason why saffron is in Afghanistan ranked among the best in the world in recent years.
Farmers like Ahmad are under constant pressure from the Taliban to switch to growing opium, a drug trade that finances the insurgent group’s terrorist activities. However, Heray Spice offers co-op members financial stability and rewards to help them withstand the insurgent forces. “We are always threatened [from insurgents], but we can’t stop and we have to keep moving forward, ”says Salehi. „People depend on us, farmers depend on us – we cannot let them down.”
Salehi still has to build its customer base in the USA Despite developing an ethical, high quality product, Salehi quickly learned that saffron was not as popular in America as it was in Afghanistan. As a long-standing, albeit cautious, saffron consumer, I know how rare and unique the spice is for the western palate. I often carry small vials of one gram of saffron as a gift to friends from all over the world, and my offerings are usually received with awe and amazement as few people outside of this region have had the opportunity to cook with Afghan saffron.
But Salehi wouldn’t let that put her off. “I didn’t know as much then as I do now,” he admits. „Direct sales to [Americans] meant we had to educate the audience first. We didn’t have such resources. We didn’t even have a car, ”he recalls.
The US culinary industry is huge and diverse, Salehi noted. “We got right into the heart of this industry – their chefs. They were familiar with the spice and had a demand for it. So we targeted upscale restaurants and denounced them, ”he says.
Milwaukee chef Adam Pawlak swears by the power of Salehi’s spice. “You can smell the deep scent through the packaging,” he tells Eater. “It is not edited and cut [into finer pieces] but it has long and thick threads that make a good saffron. ”Pawlak remembers testing the product when Salehi brought it to him five years ago by placing it in hot water (a common way to add many Asian spices) testing). „As soon as I did the first test with other saffron products, the color of the water was a lot deeper yellow and the smell and taste were second to none,” he says. Since then he has only used Heray saffron. “I mainly use it for making saffron stock or cream, but also for nice, rich pasta sauces. The color and taste of the saffron are paramount and easily the star of the dish, ”he says.
Heray Spice soon found a committed clientele among the chefs and restaurants in Chicago and Wisconsin and was able to expand production. „I think it’s amazing the way they harvest and maintain their product while taking care of the agriculture,” says Pawlak. „Bringing such a unique and special product to customers all over the world and also being able to help schools in Afghanistan is a big plus for me.”
Unfortunately, since COVID-19 turned around Heray Spice also had to go back in the restaurant business. “The pandemic hit us hard as many restaurants were closed or closed. We had to cut production for this year and reduce our capacity from 35 to 28 families, ”says Salehi.
But he never gave up and turned challenges into new opportunities. He opened the product to home cooks and sold it directly on the Heray Spice website. „We are also aware of the risks of being a one-product company with a niche offering,” he says. “We are considering expanding our range to include caraway from Badakhshan, another quality spice from northern Afghanistan.” Salehi is also planning to sell Afghanistan Dear green teawhich he expects to be extremely popular with the Asian diaspora in America.
Despite the expansion plans, Salehi hopes to remain true to its commitment to a quality product and fair and ethical returns for the farmers who produce them. „We want to create similar cooperation models for the new items as well, as this gives us more control over the end product and can ensure fair payment for the farmers,” he says.
Despite the pandemic and the challenges posed by the uprisings in Afghanistan, Salehi is committed to making it work. „Ultimately, I have three simple goals – to help cooks, to help farmers, and to help children.”
Ruchi Kumar is an Indian journalist currently working in Afghanistan and India. Fazl Ahmad is a photographer and graphic designer from Herat, Afghanistan.